I realized yesterday that her slide toward her life’s end did not start just recently. She has been slowly coming to this place for several years after two broken hips, a broken shoulder and arm, diabetes, the natural decline of the body, and the ravages of dementia. It was really not that long ago that she was still driving, still able to move about, still mentally acute, but we have seen it worsen over a period of several years until now when we are in that place of wondering when her body will expel its final breath and her soul will be set free.
While I have visited I have not been steadily with her during this entire period. On my visits I have not had much opportunity to just sit with her until yesterday, when I took the time to do that, sometimes in silence, sometimes in brief exchanges, but throughout it connected with her in spirit and in the fullness of my being. It can be difficult to talk with someone who is nearing death because there is always so much of import that should be said and always uncertainty about what can be said or what will be understood.
She has been seeing my oldest brother, Loras, a lot lately. He was born with spina bifada and died at two and a half years old, before any of the rest of us were born. She said, “He’s come to me a lot.”
While looking at his picture on the wall yesterday she asked if he was still alive and I told her no. She said he was alive when that picture was taken and I told her yes, he was. Then she asked me, “Are they all gone?” I asked who and she answered “the immediate family.”
I have always been honest with my mother, so I said, “Yes, they are. All of your brothers and sisters, your mother, all of your friends. You’ve outlived them all.”
She interjected with, “I’m pretty tough for an old lady.”
I replied with a bit of a smile, “Yes, you are.” She is one of the strongest people I have ever known. “You’ve survived a lot over the years.”
She repeated, “They’re all gone?”
I said something along the lines of, “They’re gone from here. To a different place. They’re all alive there and waiting for you. That’s probably why you’ve been seeing Loras, because he wants you to come and be with him again. They’re all waiting. They’ve been waiting a long time.” I imagine my siblings have said things to let her know it’s okay to go, but I needed to do it, too. It was important for me to know that I was able to say that to her. I thought I sensed an understanding of what I was saying, but I could not tell with certainty.
We sat in silence for a bit after that. I think she may have been thinking more about Loras and more about the others who have preceded her. Suddenly she looked at me and said, “You are my son.”
I almost started crying because two weeks ago she thought I was one of her brothers. But she said this with certainty and I knew that she knew it to be true. I said, “Yes, I am, and proudly. You are my mother, and you are still the best mother in the world.” She looked at me as if she didn’t believe it–she has always doubted herself.
“Do you think so?” she asked. “I don’t know about that.”
I responded. “You did the best job you could and you did it with love, and that’s what counts. And we all turned out okay.”
“Yes, you did,” she said. “You kids are perfect.”
I laughed. “No, we’re not. But we’re okay. You did a good job of raising us. We’ve all succeeded in our own ways, and we’re all doing okay.” I wanted her to know that we would be okay without her, so that she wouldn’t worry about having to stay for us. I’ve been thinking that she’s holding on for some reason and I thought maybe the reason was that she was too worried about us being okay.
Then she looked at my father’s picture and said something about him that I didn’t understand. He died when he was just 41 and she was in her mid-30’s. “He was a handsome man,” I said.
“He was, and he had a good personality. He treated me well.”
I know that they had fights on occasion and I remember her telling me when I was younger that he had a bad temper and that when he got mad he would shut down and not talk with her for days at a time. Apparently she had forgiven or forgotten that and was now remembering why she had fallen in love with him in the first place.
She looked up again and started talking to Loras. “Hi, Loras. Can you smile for me?” She then turned to me. “He smiles for me sometimes. He came down to earth to see me. Talk to him. Ask him to smile.”
I turned in the direction she was looking and repeated her words. “Hi, Loras. Can you smile for me?” I didn’t hear a response, but she told me that he moved his hand. I’m sure that he did.
By this time she was looking tired. I don’t know when she last got out of bed or stayed awake as long as this conversation kept going, but I didn’t want to wear her out, so I told her I was leaving. I kissed her on the forehead and told her, “I love you,” and meant it from the deepest part of my heart. In these days of winding down and preparing to depart she has definitely received love from a lot of places. I can’t imagine anything more important in the end than knowing you are loved.