My son, daughter and I sat together on the couch for story time. My children were 9 and 7 respectively and could read for themselves, but preferred my reading because I always made the voices of the characters. Besides, what better way to end the day, than huddled together, with me in the middle so they both could have equal claim to me as I read? This was an evening tradition we had started when they were 4 and 2 and we had just relocated from Florida to Maine.
Since life with Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood always held such charm and evoked laughter from Josh and Hannah, it was often our go-to story to end just about any day. Owl was in the middle of dispersing yet again another nugget of misguided advice when the phone rang. Usually I wouldn't have interrupted our story time, but this time, the caller ID said it was my brother, calling from Georgia.
I knew the call was likely concerning my mother, who was in late stage terminal cancer of the blood. She had recently taken a turn for the worse and was on life support. "I want to be a part of the decision making, should we ever have to decide on a life or death issue concerning mom, particularly when it comes to something like pulling the plug. So please don't make a decision without my input," I'd made clear to my brother earlier. He agreed. "and of course, call me if she actually, you know, passes. I want to be the first sibling you call," I had continued.
Here's a thing I noted: the 4 or so seconds between the time the phone rings, the caller ID indicates it's THE call about your mother, who is either hanging by a thread or the thread has broken, and the time you pick up the receiver, is long. That moment is long and suspended, leaving Winnie the Pooh hanging onto a tree branch with Piglet in a stuttering tizzy on the grown below him. Those seconds stretch out in slow motion while your young children give you knowing stares that Grandma is either gone or on her way out. And you don't exhale.
I answered. Mom was on her way out. My brother and I entered a 3-way call with my mother's doctor who felt it might be best to let her go and he went on to speak of quality of life and what that means connected to tubes in a hospital, her great battle she fought, etc. etc. My brother agreed with the doctor, as did I. We fell silent for a moment. "Okay, then I'll leave you to have some moments to talk about it, " the doctor said before he hung up.
My brother and I continued briefly in silence until I had a moment of wavering, "Wait..." I said in nearly a whisper, "are we sure?"
"Yeah. I think so...Aren't we? " Here was my brother, 7 years my senior, who always had all the answers, seeking affirmation from me. When I think back on that, I believe that was the first time in our lives that we were on equal footing as our mother's children. Neither was more knowledgeable than the other where this was concerned. We were co-children whose age difference meant nothing more than we had occupied the same womb at different times, and we were deciding if this was the moment our mother would actually die. Never mind that her cancer was terminal and she was going to pass anyway; we were deciding the moment. Let me tell you, in case you haven't had that experience before, that is heavy, man!
Mom never would have agreed to be hooked up to a machine. We knew this. We assured each other that we were right. My brother would give them the word, Mom would be allowed to pass peacefully. "Tell her I love her? Okay? Even if she can't hear you?"
"Call me afterward."
The seconds before you pick up the phone when you know it's this kind of call are long, but the moments after, when you know at any time, your mother will be breathing her last breath, are 100 times longer. When you hang up the phone and pick up the book, settle back in with your children, and continue to read, you have a sense that you're speaking in a halted voice. When life continues in the Hundred Acre Wood as if it wasn't even interrupted, you ask yourself after Winnie is safely on the ground, if it THIS is the moment. Or when Piglet realizes all is well after all, like he always does.
The moments stretch out after you put the children to bed and long after they are sleeping. They extend late into the night, when you lie not sleeping, because how can you sleep when your mother is about to stop breathing? You turn in angst until sunrise with the phone next to your head, waiting for that call..."afterward."
I called, but couldn't reach my brother for some reason that morning. So, I called the hospital. They had decided to leave her on support through the night and had removed it in the morning. My mother didn't pass. She kept breathing on her own.
As a matter of fact, my mother lived for another year. On February 14th of that next year, she laughed and danced the foxtrot.
"Look at me! I'm okay, “she told my brother who had taken her out to dinner, "I can still do the foxtrot!"
I've often heard of last bursts of life in terminally ill patients just before they die. This was Mom's last burst. On March 10 of the same year (2003) my mother died. It was a day before my daughter's birthday.
On the next day, I took the kids out to dinner at a restaurant of my daughter's choosing. Sitting across from them, while we ate cake and ice cream for dessert, I recall the line from the day before, like an ear worm in my head; "My mother is dead." The harshness of that sentence juxtaposed against the backdrop of cheery birthday cards and candles, pink and purple cake frosting, balloons in bright primary colors, was surreal. My brain whirred in a monotone buzz while it tried to wrap itself around what it meant to be in a world without my mother existing, breathing, extending a warm hand, laughing, dancing.
All this time later, I still find myself trying to wrap my brain around it. Losing one's mother is one of those life events that changes a person in profound ways, whether you shared a close relationship with her or not. There's just something about it, that even as an adult, leaves you feeling a particular vulnerability.
Know what I mean?
Today's post is dedicated, with love, to my mother. May she be resting in peace or foxtrotting in joy, which ever strikes her fancy.