10.20.5.5.2010

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When I was about ten years old, an old man a few doors down died. I had seen pets die so I knew what death meant, but that was the first time a person I knew had died. I kept thinking about it and one night it dawned on me that everybody dies, including my mother. I was overcome with sadness and cried myself to sleep but the thought stayed with me forever. I tempered that sadness by telling myself it wouldn’t happen for a very long time. As I grew older and moved away, the fear became that I would not be there when she died. Still, surely that was a long way away.

On the night of April 29, 2010, I received a phone call from my sister asking if I could please come home; she said Mother wanted to see all her children one last time. It had been years since we were all in the same room, so I couldn’t say no. It had been a very long day, after many long days, but I told her I’d be there “tomorrow.” She said Mother wanted to talk to me and held the phone for her so she could talk. Her voice was so weak I could barely hear. She told me she loved me and was very proud of me. For whatever reason, ou mother rarely said, “I love you.” When I say rarely, I mean as in I can remember every time she said it. You may be thinking, “Oh, how sad.” I would ask that you reserve judgment until you read the rest of the story. What she did say a lot was, “Talk is cheap.” No two ways about it, she was saying goodbye. That fear I’d had all my life swept over me like a tsunami. I said, “Mother, I’ll be there tomorrow; please wait.” Like so many delicate conversations we’d had before, you had to fill in the gaps. “I’ll wait,” was her simple reply.

I don’t fall asleep behind the wheel because I don’t get behind the wheel when I’m sleepy. There was no way I could leave that night but I asked my wife to pack my clothes and went to bed. I woke up at four the next morning and not only had she packed my clothes, she had packed snacks for the trip. Another remarkable woman, but I’ll save that for another day. I swung by the client I had been working with, scribbled some notes that basically said, I’ve got to go see my mother; you’re on your own. I was below Atlanta before morning traffic. When I made it to Macon, GA, I felt it was late enough to call home again. I had little to say; “I’m in Macon. Please wait.” In a voice so weak it betrayed the conviction she tried to convey, she said, “I’ll wait.” We repeated that conversation when I got to the Florida line, to Ocala, to Tampa . . . and each time I was sure I wouldn’t make it in time. But finally I did.

I wasn’t prepared for the shock. I had been home a few months before and left thinking she’ll probably pull through again. Not this time. She was so weak all she could do was open her eyes and smile. It was obvious there was not going to be any “pulling through.” The nurse who came to check on her told us she had maybe a day or two left. I wasn’t happy about that, but at least I was there.

I fully expected she would not last the night but early Saturday morning, she woke up and before long we were all gathered around her bed. It’s weird, but we had a good time. Mother’s sense of humor was still there. She said, “Give me my clock.” I thought it was a bit strange; maybe she was delusional, maybe they were just words coming out at random. So I asked, “You want to know the time?!” Without skipping a beat, she said, “Why else would I ask for my clock?” I now own that clock and always chuckle when I look at the time.

Her wisdom was also still there. When we asked if she had any final words for each of us, she nailed it. Most of us got three or four words, but they were golden. Amazing how well and thoroughly she knew each of her children. Finally, she asked to go back to sleep. What an unbelievable gift. I thought I had talked to her for the last time but, out of nowhere, here were a few more moments. And it wasn’t over yet. Throughout Saturday, Sunday and Monday, grandchildren came and went and, for each one, she opened her eyes and gave them a smile which I’m sure made each one feel they were the special one. We thought she was asleep but apparently not because, for each one, we only had to mention their name and her eyes would open immediately and then she would smile.

By Sunday night, the nurses were telling us she only had a few more hours; not sure why they kept telling us that. They gave us a little booklet about what to expect when someone was dying. As each one returned, they seemed surprised that she was still alive but would still tell us she only had a few more hours to live. Two of my sons hadn’t seen their grandmother in quite a while; they decided to come see her even though time was running out. I told them that would be great, but to keep in mind they probably would not make it in time. They came anyway. In hindsight, I can only conclude that mother must have heard. She would open her eyes every hour or so and look at the clock. I wondered what she was doing.

Early Tuesday morning she called out and when I went in, she was trying to tell me something. My oldest sister, Fran, came in and tried to help. Do you want water? No. Do you want to sit up? No. With each question, she would look at us with a “where did I go wrong with these children?” expression. She pointed to a sheet of paper and tried to write. That didn’t work either. She kept saying “I… want…” and then would point to the hallway. After about an hour of this, Fran asked if she wanted her chair. She nodded her head up and down.

I have to tell you about this chair! It turns out this was a little secretarial chair that my sisters had been using to help move her from her bed to her recliner. This was insanity! Dumbfounded, I asked mother if she wanted to go sit in her recliner. I’ll never forget that look; she couldn’t talk, but the message came through loud and clear: “Duh!” Another thing you need to know about my mother: to say she was stubborn is like saying Warren Buffett has a lot of money. She wanted out of her bed and into her recliner, and it was going to happen. I have no idea how I agreed to become part of this scheme, but I did. Fragile as she was, we put her in that tiny chair, wheeled her out and put her in her recliner. When the nurse came in later that morning, she looked at our mother, put on an incredulous expression and asked, “How did you move her?” “Lady, you don’t want to know,” was all I could say. Once again, “She only has a few hours to live,” was the nurse’s diagnosis.

To say my sons move slowly is to say Donald Trump has a lot of money. For the financially illiterate, Buffett is worth about $40 billion; Trump about $2. It was almost noon before they were actually on the road. Each time I talked to them I was within earshot of mother, but I really did not think she could hear.

“Hurry, but don’t hurry.” Being a parent makes you say strange things. What exactly does that mean? Still, I said it. I also said that they should be prepared not to make it in time. I noticed Mother kept looking at the clock every hour or so, and I wondered if she knew my boys were coming and was waiting.

By Tuesday night, a male nurse said she only had an hour to live. I mentioned that she didn’t seem to be progressing as quickly as “the book” indicated. He kindly told me he’d been doing this for forty-four years. “She has less than an hour to go,” he repeated. The nurse’s shift came and went; Mother didn’t. It was after midnight so I called my boys and told them to pull over and rest; there was no way they were going to make it in time and I didn’t want them driving while sleepy. Once again, I was within earshot of mother. I did not believe she knew what was going on.

One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four. Still here; still looking at the clock. Early Wednesday morning, my boys called and told me they were back on the road. Once again, I told them to be prepared for not making it in time. Finally, they walked in and I touched mom’s leg to see if she could still respond. To my amazement, she opened her eyes, smiled that huge grin and tried to say hello. She waited! She then closed her eyes. We started retelling the stories of the prior week, laughing at Mom’s one-liners. You could see that she was listening and even smiled a time or two. Finally, she let go and started to do like “the book” said she would. At 10:20 A.M. on 5/5/2010, a nurse pronounced our mother dead. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen. She had put death itself on hold for her children’s sake. Compared to that, it’s true; talk is cheap.

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