Moments on the Way to a Funeral

Mom with older siblings and cousins

The phone call gave no clue of its importance in heralding the beginning of the end — only in hindsight did her one remark seem so significant: “You are going to bring that boy by in his Easter suit, aren’t you?”

“It’s not Easter, it’s Halloween, Mom, and of course we’ll come by.” I replied.

Within a week she had a second stroke and only then did we learn there had been a first. Mom’s sentences were now garbled, if she spoke at all.

Glances were passed among family members while standing in a ‘U’ around her hospital bed — the ground had been removed from under our feet — our faces were plastered as if we were all in one of those round whirling drums in an amusement park gone wrong, on the kind of spinning ride that suctions your body to the wall as the floor drops.

Mom would look back at us sometimes, at one of the many assortments of siblings, offspring, friends that stood there around her bed for those five weeks, the same bewildered, plastered looks on everyone’s face, including hers.

No one could quite believe the current state. This woman, this force of nature, down? Surely…she’ll get better?

I wondered if Mom’s mind was garbled or just her speech, if she’d ever stand up again, if hospital beds were the norm now — questions, stretching on to an unforeseeable point.

Mom’s new preacher arrived for lunch on one of those days of our standing around in a ‘U.’

The lunch tray was brought in by the nurse, Mom was plumped and arranged. The new preacher asked if we would all like to hold hands and say a blessing over Mom’s typical hospital fare.

Suddenly, clear as a bell, Mom retorted from where she was propped up in bed, “Would your prayers improve this food?”

A week later, Mom was ensconced in a lovely, old hospice with butter-yellow walls, creaky-wood floors, high ceilings, rooms with bay windows looking over soft piney woods. Her future was more clear to us all, now.

Another week. The phone rang, it was close to midnight — it was Lisa, part of the family for decades, my beloved sister-in-law, a Jewish born-again Christian. She had left her church, “but took Jesus with me,” as she once said, a twinkle in her eyes.

“Your mother, she’s in a coma now, I’m here with her. This is it, she’s…..on her way. I’m going to stay here all night and sit vigil. She won’t be alone….. What? …… Honey, the nurse says it’s a semi-coma. Anyway, I’m here, let me be with her tonight, you come down in the morning.

“I’m going to do the Jewish Bathing Rites for the dying. I’ll wash your mother’s feet.”

I hang up the phone.

‘Okay…this is it. She’s on her way.’

The thought of the Jewish bathing rites as done by my decidedly artistic and freelance sister, the Jewish rites for the Episcopalian lady in a coma ….for the dying…. I began giggling while crying in some reckless, despairing way. It was all so strange and surreal and terrible. Mom was dying.

The phone rang again in the morning, early, early — barely dawn. My husband and I looked at each other. He picked up the phone.

He listened for a minute, then slowly handed me the receiver, “Umm, it’s your…mother…..?”

“Mom?”

“Where a-r-re you?” my mother said in a plaintive tone, quite unlike normal mom’s voice, but these weeks had been nothing like normal.

“What is taking you so long to get here? Hurry now, won’t you? Aren’t you late already? Why aren’t you here yet? …Lisa kept me up all night. She kept washing my feet.”

I laughed out loud with relief. “Good to hear your voice, Mom.”

“Well, no need to go on, you were just here yesterday,” she replied.

The week after that, the steady stream of visitors stepping their tunes across the creaking pine floors of the hospice had one nurse remark, “You know, this is really unusual, so many people coming to visit. By the time somebody’s in hospice, they’re often alone in there, but even in the middle of the night your mother has company (my brother came by after closing the restaurant most nights, often reading aloud to Mom’s now-still form).

“She must’ve been a special lady.”

I smiled and looked away. It’s never so simple… but it was true.

“She was. is.” I replied.

I returned to Mom’s room, suddenly overwhelmed at the thought of not ever seeing her again. “I love you so much, Mom,” I said with an impulsive hug, voicing the rarely-used phrase between us.

Again, as clear as a bell. “Oh, let’s not get maudlin, dear.”

Not for the first time, I steeled myself against her biting words. I instead thought of how many engaged, wonderful conversations we’ve had over the years, her smiling eyes, her encouraging words to a friend — the happier times — and I moved on.

On the 25th of November, 2002, my visit with Mom was brief. My three year-old son was with me, Mom’s hands and wrists were now cold, I was tired from work, young son was restless. An inspired thought brought forth nursery songs. All the classics: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star; Mary Had a Little Lamb. On and on.

My son and I sang. Mom might have been listening, I didn’t know.

Then, I remembered the song she had always told me was her favorite nursery song, the one her father sang to her when she was a very young girl. I began.

“Hush Little Baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s gonna’ buy you a mockingbird…”

…and Mom’s eyes opened. She looked straight into my eyes.

Time stopped. Just for a moment it hung in the air, a musical, dotted whole note. We met in the center.

I wanted to stay.

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