It started the evening of April 23rd. I was in Chicago, on a conference call with some people. We were collaborating on a volunteer project for an inner city youth program, a very ambitious project to say the least, one we were pow-wowing over passionately when, suddenly, I received a text from Dad:
Mom’s vitals declining rapidly. Best be on your way
I had been making the five-and-a-half-hour-each-way journey to Cedar Falls, Iowa for months. I had, in fact, just made it the day before, having spent a long weekend into Monday there in hospice with her and Dad. The doctor reassured us she had at least another week in her before the final decline. At that point, she had been in hospice for three months. We were all on edge, fatigued, jumpy each time our phones buzzed, during the day and/or during the night.
I hung up with the conference call and called Dad. He was there alone as the others in the family had left from the weekend. She was one of eleven siblings so the visitors had been steady week after week. Some of them were returning upon hearing the news but likely would not arrive until after it all had gone down. I reassured Dad that I was on my way. I called hospice and spoke with the nurse. She said Mom’s blood pressure was 30 over something, barely enough to even feel a pulse. She said it was imminent. I swallowed the last sip of water from my water bottle, looked out at the night and collected myself. I had to get ready to go.
I made a step to the kitchen and the phone rang again. This time it was related to my then 18-month-old son. His mother was panicked in tone and informed me that he had diarrhea and had been vomiting all evening. Being that the tiny Wisconsin berg she was in with him (not my favorite whenever she insisted on taking him with her) was about an hour from the nearest Target, she worried about having access to Pedialite or some other hydrating solution for little ones should he need it. She asked if I would come, bring some Pedialite, and help her take care of him. She made it very clear she could not take him to daycare in the morning if he had had diarrhea within 24 hours of arriving there. The option of her staying home from work never entered the conversation, so I agreed. Fortunately, I work for and with a community that values family and what comes first. Besides, what is more important than taking care of your child, even as your own Momma is taking her last breaths? It is what Momma would have done, after all.
So the choice was clear. I only thought for a moment how I would feel if Mom passed away while I was en route to rural Wisconsin, well out of the way to her side in Cedar Falls. I knew exactly what I would do. I would silently pray/communicate to her the whole way that she might hang on until I got there. If it worked out, great. If not, I would be okay, too. I would have done what she would have done – make my son the priority at all costs, in any case. This was not, after all, the first or last time I would drive through the night to be at his side when push came to shove. I deeply enjoyed it. Not his being sick, of course, but feeling that useful, that needed, and that important to the survival of a little life like his. I was on the team, all the way. These are moments I will remember for the rest of my life. Is that why I write them here, now? It is not as if I could or would ever forget. I suppose I write this here now to help begin to process. Grief is such a bizarre animal.
I casually mentioned the state of affairs with Mom, so as not to seem selfish yet respectful of its gravity, collected myself, hung up and in about 10 minutes had packed an austere bag of necessities for the next few days. I had phone calls to make before I left, assistants to notify, superiors to inform, last minute things to do, domestically. I could not have known how the next day would unfold but I was ready for the river, whatever current was waiting for me. I shut off the lights, made sure the doors were locked, and jumped into it. It was startling.
First, was the three-and-a-half-hour drive from the city to the middle of Nowhereville, WI, but only after retrieving Pedialite from insert big box retail store name here. There was construction and deer crossings, and phone calls from friends that left me at moments too tearful to see straight, hence pulling over a couple of times, and mostly a lot of silence as I drove. And prayed or whatever it is we do to communicate to something larger than ourselves. What music do you listen to on such occasions? When I could not settle on anything I mostly just kept the music off. Although, at one point in my shuffling, a Christmas carol by John Denver and the Muppets was rather oddly soothing. Weird.
Upon arriving in that small, Wisconsin town in the middle of the night (shortly after 3am), I could already tell my son was beginning to feel better. By morning, he was snoozing comfortably beside me as his mother left for work. After our snooze, he woke smiling and then we danced to a new song I turned him on to and we made breakfast, hung out, danced some more, made a doctor appointment to make sure we was a-ok, and generally enjoyed the morning together. There is no better way to endure grief than in the company of a child.
By the time the doctor appointment came around, late morning, he was definitely feeling better and took the biggest, healthiest greezer in his pants in the lobby while we waited. One of the nurses was kind enough to let me change him in one of the unused examination rooms. Good thing, too. Stinkeeeeeeee. I knew right then that he was on the mend. Question I had for the doctor now was, can I travel with him? Is there a chance we can make it to Mom’s side before she slips away?
The doctor, upon examining him, taking a gander at that diaper, gave us a resounding, “Go. Now. There is nothing more important and he is fine to travel. Go!” We were up and out of there in a flash. We packed up all the stuff a little boy needs into our trusted Subaru wagon and drove off towards Iowa and Mom. Dad was not answering his phone. No way to know what the river looked like up ahead. No matter, the little boy and I rock and rolled down that road as if there was nothing else. He was still really digging that song. I was grateful and tearing up now for the sheer joy of him.
Upon arriving, it was self-evident that it was imminent. Mom was not responsive (had not been consistently for a few days now), though something had changed: her breathing. She was breathing so shallowly now. Her whole chest seemed to heave with the effort of merely maintaining stasis. Her eyes did not flicker beneath their lids. Her skin was grey and patchy. It felt like paper.
I had not slept much, save for an hour or so with the little boy earlier that morning, so was beginning to feel the effects of 36 hours of sleep deprivation. As a young man I was built for this. Now, it was wonky. My senses were caving in on me. I was experiencing audible distortions, seeing things, shadows running out of my peripheral vision, and I was trying with all my might to be present. I wanted to feel all of this but was collapsing under the weight of it. Isn’t it remarkable, though, how much we can take?
My sister, Kelly, arrived then and we sat on either side of the bed with Mom. This was one of the most beautiful moments of the experience of Mom’s decline: my sister and I, sitting on either side of her, telling her how much we loved her. We thanked her for being so gracious and kind and for teaching us so much. We told her it was okay for her to leave now. We would not be upset. We told her she had earned it. Time to go.
Another breathtaking (literally) beautiful moment was the weekend before. Mom was still responsive at times and I had had a particularly emotional stay of it that weekend as I knew it was getting close. It was indisputable at this point. Any day now. With tear-soaked eyes, I was able to say,
“Momma, when you get wherever it is you are going, please tell them thank you from us. Please tell them we said ‘thank you for our Momma.'”
At that, she acted as if she was trying to sit up, opened her wide, blue eyes widely, madly, and looked at me deeply as they welled up with huge tears that streamed down her face.
That is the last time I ever spoke to her and can be certain she heard me.
Now, I sat beside her at approximately 10:30pm on April 24th. Everyone was heading back to Mom and Dad’s new apartment. It was a place we had no memories of as Dad had moved them into it during the beginning of Mom’s decline. Once she had become mostly unable to walk, he made the tough choice to move to a place where she could live as independently as possible. It would hardly make a difference it was such a short amount of time. Within only a few months, we were faced with moving Mom to a nursing home. It was one of the toughest days of our lives.
Now, here we were some months ever further down the river. As everyone was fixing to leave, it was clear to me that I would stay. I knew in my heart she would not make it through the night. I was so tired I could not see straight. My son’s mother arrived and informed me she could stay through the night but had to be back at work early the next morning. I was grateful.
After everyone was gone, I left Momma’s side for a few minutes to get something to eat across the street at the nurse’s insistence, returning with some noodles from a Chinese restaurant at that late hour. I sat beside her and talked as I ate. I talked about how grateful I was. For her teaching me to play baseball. For teaching me about music. For her kindness and dedication. I apologized for my stubbornness and willful irritability during my twenties (we had already had this conversation it seemed like so many times but I was doing a full-on inventory), and mostly told her of everything wonderful about her heart, her soul, and her love for her family. She had the done very best she could. I know no one more devout and true to her family, her God, or her privacy.
She lay there, silently. Chest heaving. Breath shallow. I could not eat but a couple bites, after all. The exhaustion of the previous night’s journey was overpowering me. The moment hardly lent itself to appetite.
Even though I was running out of steam, memories inside me stirred from a long slumber. Out of my control they ran rampant through the rooms in my mind. Next thing I knew I was relaying one of them to her out loud.
When I was very young, around eleven, I remember Mom being famous in our neighborhood at the time for her homemade pizza. Every kid we knew would constantly vie for an opportunity to come to dinner on a night when she was making it. The smell of it wafted across the streets and yards of our neighbors, so it was difficult not to detect. She made it more frequently in the summer, often sending me out with bundles of the stuff, leftovers, wrapped in aluminum foil, to be delivered to this pal or that. It was the most happy time in her life. She loved that place, that house, that chapter in our lives. She held those memories closer than the rest of us did. The smell of those pies sticks in my head like glue to this day, along with the words she used to say whenever I went out to play, because it was also one of the last things she would say to me, “Don’t wander too far from the house.”
As I told this story that was the end of the noodles. I chucked the lot of them into the trash as I said, “Nothing compared to the love you put into those pizzas, Momma. I will make pizzas, too, but of course they won’t be like the ones you make.”
I sat there, spent, my arms folded on the side of her bed with my chin resting on them, a wet, soppy mess of me. I was in between moments. I did not want to sleep but at the same time was so ready for her to let go. We were all exhausted from the journey down the river that led to this moment. It is a hard way to live, waiting for someone you love to pass on. It is a cruel struggle between wanting them to hold on, even come around, and battling feelings of relief from when it is over. Oh, funny life.
I last looked at the clock at 1:45a. I told her, “Momma, I am beat. I am going to get some sleep, too, okay? Let’s take a little snooze. I am going to hunker down here next to you (one of the nurses had extended the chair and made a comfy bed of it for me), but before I do I am going to say goodnight like we used to, k?”
At that, I realized it had been almost 25 years since I had done what I was about to do.
As children, upon preparing to sleep, we had a ritual identical to the Waltons. I would typically start it out, until my little sister got older and would make an equal contribution to getting it rolling before we retired each night. It went like this:
“Good night, Momma”
Upon which she would reply from her room, “Good night, Chad.”
“Thank you, God, for Momma.”
“Thank you, God, for Chad.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she would reply (or Dad, too, when he was home).
“See you in the morning light.”
“See you in the morning light, too.”
On this night, however, as she lay there, quiet, motionless, and grey, it was only I:
“Good night, Momma.”
“Thank you, God, for Momma.”
“I love you bigger than the whole wide world.”
I fell asleep. It felt like I had been asleep for a very long time when the nurse nudged me gently at 2:30am, only forty-five minutes later. She whispered kindly, “She’s gone.”
It was April 25th, 2013. One year ago today.
Momma, I love you.
I miss you.
I am grateful to be your son.
I am grateful, also, to have the first year behind me. The first year is so rough, with all the “firsts” – the first Mother’s Day without Mom, the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, all of it. It seems like a constant battle, getting used to the matriarch’s absence.
It does not get any easier with practice, however, I am grateful for the gifts you have left behind, the letters, the photos, the memories, the lessons. I carry them, and you, with me. I am grateful, Mom. I love you. I miss you.