Twenty five years ago today, I sat in my mother’s room at the hospice, holding her hand as the clock ticked down her final hours. This is a vigil that many will keep but this is my blog so this is my story.
Being the only child of a single parent defined my life and continues to do so even though I am now just an only child full stop. Perhaps this is why I write. Once I die, my mother’s stories and mine will both be completed. I feel the overwhelming responsibility of this although I feel honoured too.
Twenty five years ago. It seems longer somehow. My mother died from lung cancer, a disease we both knew she would get given her smoking. I don’t say this lightly. My mother smoked 3 to 4 packs of cigarettes a day for over thirty years. Think about that. Unfiltered cigarettes. They were bound to take their toll. I got upset with her about her smoking very rarely. If I remember correctly, only twice did I raise the issue. It doesn’t matter now and it didn’t matter then. Her smoking was a fact of life. We all have something we wish we could change, don’t we?
From her diagnosis to her death was a span of 6 months. She went for treatment to ease the symptoms but she was so frightened of the radiation, I had to go with her and stand immediately outside the door. She was very upset they wouldn’t let me in the room when she had her bronchoscopy. That day I became the adult. The doctor came out of the surgery room and sat down beside me on the bench in the corridor. He told me that he hadn’t been able to finish the test because it had been too traumatic for her, but that he’d seen how large the tumour was. He knew it was cancer, inoperable and that she had only about six months to live. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the wood grain of that bench. I couldn’t look up into the doctor’s eyes. I wondered how many relatives had received such news while sitting there. It was terrible knowledge to have before my mom had it herself.
The hospice was five months later, after one stay in a regular hospital ward and two stays in the hospital palliative care unit. Luckily at the time, I worked at that hospital. It was easier to have her there because I visited her before I went into work, I went over to see her at lunch. After work, I went to back to her hospital room and stayed until well after visiting hours were over. Many times she was sleeping for the majority of the time I was there. But there I sat. I sat and made lists of things to do like giving notice at her apartment, moving her belongings, making phone calls to her friends. I love the friends that visited her. Her elementary school friend, now they were both in their 60s, brought her mauve flowers (my mom’s favourite colour) and a mango. My mother had never eaten a mango, so her dear, dear friend sliced it up and fed it to her. It was such a comforting, loving gesture. I shall never forget it.
The hospice was a few miles away but relatively close to where I lived. It was as homey an atmosphere as they could make a small facility. There was a communal table where the residents ate dinner, with their guests if they had any. It was usually soup and my mom, not always being in the present (dementia set in due to a lack of oxygen) would sometimes need help eating it. She let me feed her but I could tell that she often didn’t know who I was. Her eyes were glassy. Time was running short.
For me, the thing I remember about the hospice was that they had a package of flavoured tea. I drank all the orange spice. The scent of that tea always takes me back to standing in the hospice kitchen while another doctor quietly gave me the news that my mom would die in a few days. Three days later, she did.
I was holding my mom’s hand when she passed away. Her breathing by then was so laborious, intermittent, with long pauses between each gaspy rattle. I watched as the pauses became longer.
When she died, I felt my mom leave. Her spirit lifted up and went away. I cannot describe it any other way. I called out quietly for the nurse on duty. Yes, she said after checking her. Your mom is gone.
I didn’t cry immediately. I felt dizzy. I had cried a lot before and I cried a lot later. But at the time…
So, yes. 25 years ago. Long, long ago.
E.E. Cummings’s words, though written for a different kind of love and a different kind of situation, express best this defining goodbye – how I feel, how I felt then, my great responsibility, my great honour.
I continue this journey for the both of us now, and will until my own last laboured breath:
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)