Eight months after my dad died, I was standing at my mom’s hospital bedside watching as she slept. Her chest rose and fell easily because of the constant flow of oxygen from her nasal cannula.
Her emphysema was not a surprise, given her 50 year, 3 pack a day smoking habit. There was nothing anyone could do for her now except make her comfortable as she waited to die.
Seemingly days before, I had returned to New York from my home in California to attend my dad’s memorial service. He had been the director of a small nursing home and one of his perks had been an apartment there. When he died, my mom had to move.
He’d been her caregiver for the last 3 years at the same time he had been the director of the home. When he passed, she had nothing but her clothing and her personal belongings.
No life insurance payout, no home, and no husband.
That added up to a lot of stress and her condition worsened day by day. Now she was receiving palliative care and spent her days saying goodbye.
My mom’s personal history
My mom’s life had been pretty hard. She’d been born and raised in a quiet farm community in the northern Catskill Mountains. The Great Depression and World War II had destroyed her father’s business. The family moved to a gritty industrial city where there was work at a munitions plant.
My grandmother died giving birth to my aunt and my mother had to drop out of nursing school to take over the care of her siblings. She worked as a Rosie in the munitions plant until the war was over. My mom and dad got married in 1952 and in short order had 4 children of their own.
This was the point when my mom’s mental illness began to manifest itself. She was bipolar and her moods swung wildly from sheer joy to bouts of suicidal depression.
My personal history
When I was a kid, my home was chaotic. My mother would have screaming fits of rage, interludes of euphoria and endless hours of depression where she spent days staring out the window telling everyone she was waiting to die.
I’d learned how to talk my mom off the ledge by the time I was 12. By the time I was 25 and had a family of my own, I couldn’t live my old life anymore. I joined the Navy. They sent me far away to California and this was only the second time I’d been back.
At the hospital
As I watched my mom sleeping, her eyelids fluttered and she woke up. She looked up at me and I saw consciousness return to her eyes. She tried to sit up and reach for her cigarettes and lighter.
“I wish I was dead already,” she whispered.
The hundreds of other times I’d heard her say this, I didn’t believe her. This time I did.
I pulled up a chair and we chatted for a couple of hours. I told her about my children’s lives and how I graduated with distinction from college. We talked about nothing and everything. Conversing in those soft voices always reserved for deathbeds.
Then we both stopped talking and realized there was nothing left to talk about. I stood up to leave and leaned over to give her a kiss.
She took my hand and whispered, “I’m sorry for everything.”
Her voice was barely audible. “I love you, and I’m very proud of my hippie son for doing so well in the world. Maybe soon I can come to California and see your kids.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was my dad who apologized for her actions when I was a kid; she never had. When my daughter was born, my mom had said to me, “Don’t bring that kid over here expecting me to watch her.” When I joined the Navy, all she said was, “Don’t drink while you’re in the military. You know how angry you get.”
But those days were dead and buried and didn’t need to be brought back to life.
So I just said, “I love you too, Mama. That would be great if you could come for a visit.”
She held my hand a little tighter and looked into my eyes. The curtain between the worlds was very thin right then and she smiled.
In her smile, I saw her own memories of a childhood lived in the country. Running through the summer meadows chasing butterflies, picking fresh blackberries for dessert, and lying in the grass, staring into the sky, conjuring shapes from the clouds.
I smiled down at the little girl inside the woman who lay dying on the rough sheets of the hospital bed and touched her cheek. Instantly, her gaze saw only the hospital room around her.
“I can’t go if you’re here. You have to go back to California.”
We held each other’s gaze a long time; at peace for the first time in a long time.
“Well,” I finally said, “They’re not going to hold that plane just for me.”
I squeezed her hand softly and kissed her on the forehead. “I love you, Mama,” I said again.
“I love you too, son.”
When I left, she lay staring at the ceiling, smiling in a way that eased the wrinkles from her face.
I didn’t start crying until I was safely in the darkened cabin of the mostly empty plane. I sat there sobbing, my shoulders heaving in the dark as tears washed away a lifetime of fear, grief, and sadness, leaving only the soft glow of love.
I fell asleep somewhere over Kansas and dreamed of a little girl running through summer meadows, face adorned with the juice of freshly picked blackberries, laughing as she chased butterflies.
And in my dreams, I smiled.