This entry is very long. It also contains details about the night my mother died one year ago today. It may not be suitable reading for everyone, and it may contain triggers for others. Please continue reading with that in mind.
It has been one year since my mother died. One year to the day. I have kept myself busy all day at work, my best friend and her little girl came over for a girl’s night not too long ago, Josh is out and Nellie is in bed and for the first time all the day, I am alone with my thoughts.
I was okay until the music started.
I made a Spotify playlist of songs that reminded me of my mother. I planned on listening to the songs and writing my feelings out this evening and my feelings have not disappointed. The first song is playing now – “Song for Judith” by Judy Collins. Tears are streaming down my face as I type.
I feel overwhelmingly sad. I don’t miss my mother. This is something I’ve maintained through the entire year. I do not feel a longing for her, I do not miss having conversations with her – she contributed very little to our relationship the last thirteen years of her life. But I feel sad. Heavy. Full of sorrow, longing for a mother I never had and never will. I feel a void inside of me for all the things that could have been but never were.
I am remembering the night she died clearly. Josh dropped me off at the hospital that afternoon. Ellen, my brother Drew, and I whiled away the remaining daylight hours in her room without saying much of anything. I played around on my laptop and wrote. At one point, we pulled up that website, Akinator (if you don’t know what it is, go have some fun with it) and enjoyed some light moments. Drew and I were getting hungry, so we decided to get some pizza at Mellow Mushroom. I was gathering my things, getting ready to go when all of a sudden, Drew began to speak. He began to speak of memories past, of things from our childhood. He sat back down and I did, too. He sat beside her and I sat in a chair at the end of her bed.
It was like there was a silent force in the room with us commanding us to stay. Without ever communicating why to each other, my brother and I began talking. And talking. And remembering. There were a lot of “do you remember” and “so did I ever tell you?”s.
She had changed. Somewhere between my arrival that afternoon and the decision to go out to eat, she had changed. Until then, her arms still occasionally twitched. Her eyes were closed, yet moved beneath the lids like she was dreaming. Now her body was rigid and growing colder to the touch. Her eyes were half-open and fixed. They give you literature in hospice with telltale signs that a person is approaching death. But it doesn’t prepare you for what it looks like when someone is there and also not there. My mother was a breathing corpse.
I sat in my chair, anxious and scared. We all knew the end was very, very near. At one point she inhaled and stopped breathing for a moment only to exhale in a ragged, rasping rattle. I lifted my head and looked at her. Her face had contorted; her eyes were bulging from her head and her lower jaw jutted forward at an unnatural and horrifying angle. She looked like something out of a horror movie. I choked back something between a sob and a scream and jerked my head back down. Fat tears spilled from my eyes as I tried to force the image of her out of my head. I thought she was dead.
She began breathing again. I drew my breaths in slow and deep, trying to calm myself down. After a little while my brother and I looked at each other and reached an unspoken decision. It was time for us to leave. We told her goodbye, and went out to grab a bite to eat.
The drive to the restaurant took about fifteen minutes. We climbed out of the car and as we got close to the doors I heard music coming from the outdoor speakers. Jack Johnson’s voice, normally mellow, hit me like a freight train:
Please don’t go away. Please don’t go away.
I stopped dead in my tracks for a moment and exchanged a glance with Drew to see if he had heard the lyrics of the song at the same time I did. I am not sure if he did. I walked through the doors, feeling shaken.
We ordered our pizza and a salad to share. The waiter brought the salad and we each took a few bites when Drew’s phone rang. Our eyes darted up and locked. We knew. Drew looked at his phone and nodded, almost imperceptibly, to me. He picked it up.
She was gone.
It felt like a dream. The noise of the restaurant, the smell of pizza sauce seemed like it could not possibly exist in that moment in time. I texted my husband. My best friend. My fingers were numb. My body was numb. My mind was numb. The waiter came by, all smiles, until he saw our faces. He asked if everything was okay. My brother quietly told him that no, it wasn’t. Without batting an eyelash, the waiter left to have the kitchen box up our pizza and print out our check. I’m fairly certain fate put him in our path that night for a reason. He asked no questions, gave no pity looks or half-assed well-wishes. When he gave us our food and picked up our check, he looked each of us in the eyes and said that he hoped everything turned out okay, and walked away.
In an act of amazing love and friendship, my friend Nicole headed to my best friend Rachel’s house to sit with her little girl, while Rachel came to my house to sit with mine so my husband could hurry to the hospital to be with me. I will be forever grateful for those two women for doing this without hesitation and without being asked.
When we got to the hospital, the door to my mother’s room was open but a curtain drawn so you could not see in. I felt panicky. I felt like I was being held together by a tiny, vibrating threads and that those threads were about to snap apart at any moment. My brother went in to see her and I waited outside the door. When I finally saw my husband appear at the end of the hallway, I felt like screaming and sobbing and falling to the ground into a thousand pieces. I fell into his arms and buried my face in his chest.
He and I went into her room together, the curtain still obstructing my view of my dead mother. I turned to him and felt like I was hyperventilating. I began fanning my face with my hand, tears coming down fast and hot. I asked him through my panic what she was going to look like. If it was going to be scary. He pulled the curtain back just enough so he could look. I studied his face carefully and he turned toward me, his face set like stone.
“Is it horrible?” I asked, on the verge of a complete panic attack.
He put both hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes, steady as a rock.
“You do not have to go in there. I don’t think that you want your last memory of her to be this way.”
“Is it really bad?” I asked desperately.
“She was very sick, honey. And no, she doesn’t look good. You do not have to go in there.”
And so I didn’t. I did not look at my mother after she died. On the drive home I felt like a coward. I felt guilty. I felt like the least I could have done was look at my dead mother.
But I didn’t.
The days after her death are well-documented on this blog. When I think back and remember that night I can remember almost every detail. Do I regret not going in and looking at her one last time, of not saying a final goodbye? No. I still have the image of her contorted face in my mind and that rattling breath that I was sure was her last in my ears. I am glad I don’t have another nightmarish image burned into my memory.
I don’t have anything else to say. I will leave those of you who are still reading with the lyrics to my mother’s favorite song; the song that she identified with the most. If you knew her, you know.
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind.
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind.