The morning started with me picking up my father’s ashes. By the evening I am miles away standing and watching a storm brew over the ocean. The rain slowly, relentlessly drums on the window. My friend, Sandy, is tucked into the couch with her nose in a book. I had been at the table with my laptop, tapping away at some journal-entry-turned-stream-of-consciousness when I realized that I was typing in rhythm with the rain. I return to the table and think about this first day of our getaway. Sandy’s plans for a solo day trip for a wedding at the beach morphed into long-weekend treat for me to escape the grief of these eleven days since Dad’s death.
As I prepare for bed I notice my cell phone is lit up, indicating an unseen message sent at least an hour earlier. The text is from my sister: MOTHER HAS HAD A STROKE. ON THE WAY TO HOSPITAL. WILL LET YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON WHEN WE KNOW. My mind goes blank. I call her back and get the details and we try to determine whether I should leave immediately or wait to head out on the three-hour trip the next morning. There’s not enough information yet.
As I wait to hear back, I make a shallow attempt to pack some of my things. Sandy calls her husband and they decide I should take their car and worry about getting her back home later. Close to midnight the call comes. Mother will not make it. I am needed. Sandy hands me the keys to her car and says, “Please drive carefully.”
It’s a long drive, very late at night, and it turns violently stormy. Windshield wipers are on full force and seem to set the pace for the speed of both the car and the tumble of thoughts about losing both my parents almost back-to-back. My phone’s headset is my only connection to the real world that I am driving toward. I conference call in to my family and listen in on consultations with the medical personnel at the hospital. I chime in now and then with what I know first-hand of her end-of-life preferences.
“She specifically said she did not want any heroic measures.”
I take my foot off the accelerator and change lanes to pass by a serious road accident, red and blue lights flashing everywhere off the wet pavement. The irony of the moment is not lost on me.
It becomes more and more obvious that Mother is, in essence, gone. Only a breathing apparatus is keeping her alive.
“Don’t keep her going for me.” I try to be firm and unemotional. “It’s okay if you want to let her go right now. We had a really good visit last weekend. I don’t want her to have any suffering on my account.”
The doctor assures everyone that Mother feels no pain, is not in distress, and that it is no problem to wait.
“Don’t wait for me,” I repeat. I am outvoted.
A plan is developed where someone in the family will meet me at a Park and Ride lot about forty-five minutes from the hospital and they will drive me the rest of the way. I tumble out of the lonely little fishbowl of a car into the warmth of family to share this newest loss. At 3:00 a.m. we pull into a parking spot at the downtown hospital. It is cold and dark and damp. On my own I never would have been able to navigate these streets or find the off-hours entrance into the building, or the room where I needed to be. Her room.
When I step into the world of the Intensive Care Unit, it feels like I’ve dived into the deep end of a swimming pool. The loudness of the outside world halts abruptly. I am underwater, moving slowly. Sounds are muffled. The dim lights are almost like waves. The edges of the room are bathed in dark sepia tones. A soft light glows down between the Gothic machines on either side of the bed. The “ch-ch-ch” of the breathing machine catches my attention and my eyes follow along the labyrinth of tubes to the unwanted reveal of the face of the patient. Mother. But not Mother. She looks as if she is taking a nap, but uncomfortably. Her gray-brown bangs are pushed roughly back from her forehead. I reach out to put her hair in place properly, but it won’t stay. The thought crosses my mind that she must have been attached to other equipment for a while.
I take her hand in mine and say, “Mother, it’s Pam. I’m here… and I’m not wearing any socks.” There is soft laughter from those who know the running joke between us. I try to kiss her cheek but the side guards on the bed prevent me. Someone pulls them down. I stroke her face. I tell her I love her. I look at everyone. They have been waiting for me and, when I finish saying good-bye to her, it will be the end.
“This is so surreal.”
Everyone tears up and nods their heads. I know that Mother is not there. I know she left long ago. But I am not quite ready yet.
“We should sing grace.”
Mother’s tradition on holidays and at big family gatherings is for everyone to hold hands around the table and sing grace. My older brother always starts us off – “For health and strength and daily bread we praise Thy name, O Lord. Amen.” Simple and beautiful. We all gather around her bed. I take my mother’s left hand, my sister holds the right. My older brother looks at the unbroken circle of family and chokes on his grief. My younger brother looks at him, smiles and nods encouragement, “You can do it.” Soon the song softly fills the room. I look around the circle as well. They are my mother’s children, their spouses, their children, and their children’s children. We are all singing our good-bye. I hug each of their necks as they depart. It comes down to the four original kids and three spouses to close out the chapter.
When the staff come in to remove her breathing tube, I step out into the hallway. I watch as one of my tears splashes in slow motion on the tiled floor. Back in the room it is oh so quiet as the seven of us wait. And, just as we did just eleven days earlier with my dad, we watch as life ebbs away and leaves the mortal shell of my mother behind. 3:30 a.m.
I choose to return to the beach and finish the long weekend. I walk what feels like miles in the damp, cool sand. I stand ankle-deep in the waves. The wet breeze circles around me and I sway with the motion of it, the ebb and flow of life.