We lie in my mother’s bed as she strokes my forehead. Her touch is weak but full of love. She has been fighting breast cancer for over three years, and despite several brushes with remission and what looked, for a while, like a successful stem cell transplant, things have taken a turn for the worse. We talk about her childhood, her dreams and what she wishes she could have done. She would have traveled more. She wouldn’t have worried so much about her figure when now she’d gladly take back her slightly overweight, healthy body in exchange for this lop-sided embattled shell so bloated with metastasis. She says she still wishes for that miracle for which she journeyed to Lourdes and Fatima. She thinks the reason God has given her this cross to bear is so that her children will see how her faith helped her overcome the disease and we will return to the church.
That night we have a mass at our home. I set up the altar by the fireplace and try to be reverent as the twenty or so friends and mom’s fellow believers join us. They do not know that this will be the last time most of them will see my mother. Or maybe they do. If so, they don’t share their feelings except perhaps through those lingering hugs and the glassy-eyed smiles that try to be reassuring while trying not to show mortal fear.
We put a Christmas tree in mom’s room the next day, and decorate it with rosary beads from Portugal, France and Ireland along with the set I purchased for her at the Vatican on my honeymoon. There are beads given to her by the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Raleigh and some her priest had blessed by the Pope. Though it is missing several links and possibly an Our Father or two, I hang the set she treasured from her First Holy Communion in Brooklyn in 1951. Stars and angels adorn her tree and the little white lights make the room glow.
That afternoon the priest comes on his daily visit. Father Jonathan is with her only minutes when he comes downstairs and walks out to his car. He returns with a small black book. She will not take communion again, he says. He invites my father and me upstairs as he prepares to minister the “Prayers for the Dying.” My father abruptly walks out of the room. I hear loud thuds across the hall. I step out to see what is happening and glimpse him banging his head against the wall with tears streaming down his face. He has said so little throughout this saga. I’ve often thought him indifferent, but I can now clearly see his pain. The priest begins my mother’s last rites.
“Do you have to say it so loudly?” I whisper, “If she hears you she’ll give up!”
“I think it will give your mother the strength she needs to make her final journey,” he replies, with a softness and sincerity that calm me. I later find out that these were Father Johnathan’s first Last Rites. A man in his 60’s with several grown children, he only became a priest a few years ago after his own wife died.
My brother comes to town from Maryland with his wife. My sisters stay the night. We sit around mom’s bed as my brother plays guitar and we sing Christmas carols and songs from our childhoods. Irish lullabies and silly tunes we wrote as kids that always made our mother laugh. She doesn’t even smile, but we are sure she must hear and that her heart has to be glad. Our differences are set aside as we hold most dear our shared love for this woman who gave us life.
In the morning I call the hospice nurse. She wasn’t supposed to come until Monday, but I sense something isn’t right. Hospice told us to listen for “a death rattle” indicating the lungs are filling with fluid and the end is near. Mom is gurgling this Friday morning and I’m concerned. The nurse arrives and checks my mother’s vital signs. She agrees that mom is approaching the end, but in her estimation it will not be until the end of the day. I call mom’s best friend to give her the chance to say goodbye. I call a neighbor who repeatedly has asked, “If there is anything I can do…” to request her help watching my 18 month-old daughter and her cousin so that my sister and I can be with our mother.
We are listening to a c.d. by an Irish singer, Loreena McKennitt. The music is beautiful and haunting:
Cast your eyes to the ocean,
Cast your soul to the sea,
When the dark nights seem endless,
Please remember me.
The candle of St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases, burns by her bed. It is cold and dreary outside, but inside it’s warm and the lights of the tree make it almost festive. The oxygen machine that at first disturbed us is hardly discernible. My father sits next to me holding mom’s hand. They have been together more than 35 years and I know he cannot imagine his world without her, nor can he bear being so incapable of helping her. We each lean close and tell her it is o.k. to go. And then, almost instinctively, we all join hands and recite “The Lord’s Prayer.” My brother and I catch each others' eyes and grin as we both mess up somewhere between bread and trespassing. Surely mom heard that and was disappointed. Mom’s best friend segues into “Hail Mary”. As the prayer comes to a close with the words “Now and at the hour of our death,” my mother’s breath ceases as if choreographed, and a look of peace rests on her face.
Numbness. I can’t breath, as if the ghost of death is in the room and taking even a slight breath will fill my lungs with the darkness and choke me. In the stillness I can see the rain tapping against the window. Slow motion. Moments seem like hours and I don’t even notice the shrill flat line sound coming from the oxygen machine. Someone realizes and turns it off, jolting me from my daze. I want to have faith that this woman who is indelibly tied to my soul has not entirely disappeared in that single, simple gasp. She so peacefully surrendered her hopes and her dreams after such a courageous battle. Could that be proof that she finally saw her faith rewarded?
I walk out of the room and sit on the bed that was mine as a child. I look at the tiny pink roses on the wallpaper and imagine mom is downstairs baking her annual holiday gingerbread house. I call the funeral home and the hospice nurse. It is my voice telling them that mom has died, but I am not consciously speaking the words. I call my husband. He thought that I was exaggerating the night before when I told him that the end was near. He had been with us for Thanksgiving only two weeks earlier and mom was doing well. I imagine he thought I rushed home in a characteristically melodramatic frenzy only to find myself hanging out with the family and leaving him to fend for himself.
Shortly after I return home to California, I discover that I am pregnant. This was not planned. I am initially devastated to be confronting such a life-changing event without my mother to share it with and so soon after her death. Over the course of several weeks, I feel a sense of peace with the pregnancy, as if the timing was meant to be. When one life left me, another began within me. My mother would have wished such a blessing upon me. When I give birth to my son in September, my father sends me a lovely bouquet of flowers with a blue mylar “It’s a Boy” balloon attached. He has picked up where my mother left off and remembers every holiday now, though he rarely even signed his name to cards in the past. He was always the dad of “Love Mom and Dad” in her writing. I guess it is one of the ways he has found purpose in his otherwise grief-stricken trance. My 2 ½ year old daughter and I have regularly spoken of my mother and the things we miss about her. She asks me if she can have the balloon. I give it to her and she carries it around the house most of the day. Later, while the baby sleeps, we go outside to feel our toes in the grass. She brings the balloon and asks if she can let it go. I ask why and she says, “I want to send it up to heaven so grandma will know I have a baby brother.” We watch it float high above the trees and disappear into a cloud and in that moment I almost believe that my mother’s an angel holding a shiny blue balloon and smiling down on my family as we move on with our lives.