Writing is just a way to make sure I don’t forget things. Whether it’s a to-do list, a funny quote on a post-it note, a prayer, or a conversation–there are things I’ll forget if it’s not written down.
I’ve had an orange post-it note in my wallet for months with a few notes on it for when I finally felt ready to write this post you are reading now. I wrote it in pencil and overtime, the pencil markings have been softened from being smooshed under cash and receipts and other random things in my wallet. I’m afraid if I wait any longer the words will be erased and my memory will go with it. What’s worse is one day I’m afraid I will no longer hear Mom’s voice when I replay these conversations in my head.
When my mother called in mid-July to tell me they were driving to Mentone to help Pop get Mom to the hospital, my gut knew she would never return to her earthly home. My mom, dad, aunt, and uncle took turns spending time at the hospital as doctors went from pneumonia treatment to the realization of the return of her cancer. The discussions and decisions became about where she’d spend her last days. The goal was to move Mom to palliative care in Birmingham, but it was a matter of waiting on an available bed. The longer the wait the more we worried she’d even survive the transport.
One day in particular, no one was able to be at the hospital with my grandfather. My mom called and asked me to spend the day with him because she didn’t want him to be alone when Mom died and she didn’t know how much longer Mom had. I gladly said yes and made quick arrangements for the kids.
That day was a rushing flood of emotions. Mom did not know yet that she wasn’t just facing pneumonia. She didn’t know she wasn’t leaving the hospital. She didn’t know yet that very soon she’d meet her Savior face to face. Pop wanted a certain doctor to be the one to explain reality to Mom and he wanted my mom and uncle to be present, so we were waiting for the perfect circumstances to occur.
Mom was in and out of sleep but she was still able to have conversations. Because she didn’t know all the facts, we had to keep conversation light and be general in our answers when she asked questions. We had to reserve our serious conversations for the hallway behind the curtain.
At one point I was at the nurses station discussing when other family members would be at the hospital. The nursing staff wanted to be sure as many people as possible could be present when she passed. They wanted to honor Pop’s wishes in how and when Mom was told but I also sensed an urgency in speeding up the delivery of this news and it wrecked me. I cried on the nurse’s shoulder, I cried in Pop’s arms. I felt a weight of communicating hard things and making decisions that I wasn’t necessarily expecting that day. Pop and I made phone calls and by late afternoon family was back at the hospital, there was a shift change, and circumstances were as Pop wished.
We sat in the waiting room while the doctor told Mom the news of her declining health. Shortly after, I had a quiet moment in her room with just the two of us. The odd beauty in knowing someone is dying is the opportunity to have intentional conversations you wouldn’t have otherwise. Feeling like I could discuss reality, I debated on what to say, what to ask, what to bring up. I fought tears walking into her room. Every memory my brain has stored of her was replaying like a reflection scene in a movie. I was walking into a last with her. The one who always brought Saltines and Ginger Ale when I was sick. The one who made me potato soup whenever I requested. The one who just 14 months before stayed with me for over a week when doctors discovered my kidney disease and I hadn’t left the bed in two weeks and Brent was out of town for two months. The one who took me out on fancy lunch dates to P.F. Changs in high school. The one who gave us both the gift of horseback riding lessons in 6th grade. The one I rode to school with in Kindergarten through second grade and always gave me 50 cents for a coke from the teacher’s lounge after school. The one who was always concerned about my thyroid when I told her how tired I was. The one who called multiple times during flu season to see if the kids had their shot yet. The one who bought me a Roomba because she was concerned I didn’t have time to vacuum and be a full-time working mom. The one who always sent money at the end of the summer with a note that said, “I figured you need a little spending money for clothes.” The one who taught me to iron, even though I refuse to do it. The one who surprised me on the first day of my first year of teaching with pot roast and fresh vegetables for dinner and also did my laundry because she noticed the basket was overflowing. The one who always gave me her Clinique free gift. The hip grandmother who bought the Kavu bag I still wear, even though she thought it was really ugly (but the print reminded her of me, so what shall I think of that?). The one I named my third child after. The one who constantly showed utmost love and care for the kids, Brent, and me. I was about to not have her around anymore. I was about to speak to her and hear her voice for possibly the very last time. I felt such relief that she knew what was going on, but man did I feel the heaviness of what was about to occur.
I sat on her bed, kissed her forehead, held her hands softened by years of using Curel and Eucerin lotions, and I said, “How do you feel?”
I did not want to know how she physically felt. Her pain and discomfort was obvious. I wanted to know how she felt in her soul–to be so close to seeing Jesus. I wanted to know what that must feel like.
“Relieved,” she said, “relieved to know why I’ve been feeling so bad.”
I looked away, completely choked for more words, with tears steadily falling down my cheeks. Then, still holding her hand, I said the only words I had in me,
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too. I always have” she said in her deep voice that she cleared mid-way.
Then she proceeded to reflect on the blessing of having a loving family. She talked about how everyone knew the Lord and everyone was raised in a Christian home, even those who married into the family. In that moment, she seemed to not only have relief but a peaceful realization that her influence over the younger generations in her family were nearing the end and she looked back with a thankful heart for what God had done in her and through her.
Then she said to me, “I want to see the kids.”
All three of my kids were too young to be in the ICU, but the nursing staff graciously allowed them to come see Mom the next day. They let Scott bring in his big trucks and Ruby showed up in all her spunk.
I brought them in to see Mom and she beamed a beautiful smile through her oxygen mask. Lily, Scott, and Ruby sat on her bed and the nurse brought popsicles for them to enjoy with Mom. I didn’t take a picture. I wish I had. I pray that image never leaves me–the oldest and the youngest generations enjoying the simplest of earthly pleasures, a cold popsicle on a hot summer day.
That was the last day Mom was with us mentally. She was successfully moved later that evening to a palliative care facility and was in a continuous state of sleep for nearly 72 hours.
We drove down the next day to visit her. At any moment she would take her last breath, so our moments were mixed with solemnness and sarcasm, because a good dose of laughter is necessary. I’m not sure my family knows how to grieve without an inappropriate comment here and there.
Mom was not expected to live through the night on Saturday, so we all individually said our final goodbyes with her in the room before we left for the night. She couldn’t respond and I wasn’t sure what all she’d be able to hear and comprehend, if anything. If she could hear me, I wanted to be sure I said what I was really thinking. I knelt down on the side of her bed and simply and tearfully said “Thank you” repeatedly. There were no other words. I was abundantly thankful for her life, wisdom, love, influence, care, prayers, and legacy. I knew she would be deeply missed but I also knew this was the course of life. Letting go, saying goodbye–it was all inevitable, and it was time.
As it turns out, she held on all night long. Of course she did, I thought, now we all have to do this difficult final goodbye thing again. Part of me got tickled and imagined she heard all of our heartfelt words on Saturday night and she enjoyed it so much, she wanted to hear how much we loved her on Sunday night too. So, we did it all over again. Final Goodbye Take 2. This time with scripture reading and singing. My dad and I read Psalm 23, 37, Philippians 4, and Revelations 4 and followed by singing “In the Garden”.
I left that Sunday night to drive home knowing that really was my final goodbye. She passed around 6:30 pm Monday night, July 30, 2018. Brent, the kids, and I had just finished up soccer try outs and we were eating dinner in the round corner booth at Zaxbys. My mom called and said that she took her last breath and Pop was able to be in the room with her. Pop was probably gazing at his beautiful bride when she left, then he peacefully stepped out into the hallway and said to my mom and the nurses, “I think she took her last breath.”
When my mom told me this news, I immediately had a flashback to 7th grade when Pop’s dad died. Granddaddy had been in a nursing home. Just like Mom, his last breath was expected at any moment. Mom and Pop had been with Granddaddy for a while at his bedside. As my memory serves, Mom and Pop left to go get dinner. My mom, aunt, and myself stayed with Granddaddy while they were gone. Granddaddy passed while we were with him. I was sitting on his bed, holding his hand. I will never forget the sorrow on Pop’s face when he returned to the nursing home. I’m not sure if he wished he hadn’t left or if reality was too much to bear. I’m guessing it was a mixture of both. The image of Pop’s sorrowful face was etched forever into my memory that day, and I was so thankful he didn’t miss Mom’s final breath.
Last words are awkward. You don’t know the right thing to say. You’re worried you’ll say the wrong thing. Simple phrases are all you can coherently say. These conversations are rare. Many times we don’t know it’s the last words we will exchange with another. But when we are fortunate enough to know, I think it’s a gift from God to let the Spirit lead you with those hard words so the moment can be seized. You’ll never regret saying the hard last words, but you will regret ignoring the Spirit’s nudges to speak them.
Redeem the time, because the days are evil.