I dwell occasionally on these little snippets of time – mostly from those four days of dying. I see her face come alive with the purest delight to see her dear little grandson, “‘Allo my treasure!” she exclaims drunkenly, all this ridiculous dying business fading away for a moment in the shadow of her grin. And something breaks dully inside my chest.
I think of her apologizing for upsetting everybody and me saying, “Don’t be silly!” and then wishing I hadn’t.
I told my big girl to wear the dress Grandma bought her and sure enough, Mum noticed. Even through the haze of drugs and pain her face lit up to see that girl in that dress. “Ah! That dress still fits!” “Yes, you always give the best presents,” I say. “I do…”
I show her the video my little girl made for her: a charming, but inevitably rambling speech about Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s too long. I feel pained to ask this of her, but of course, even now, she watches dutifully, squinting a little. “I like your video,” she tells that little girl. One last gift. Every day, every single day, for the longest time, she sat on the other end of the phone and listened to that little girl talk and talk and talk about Sonic the Hedgehog and every other thing under the sun and moon that takes a three year old’s fancy. “I like your video.” She will never be lucid again after this. After they get her medication right.
I think of her pain. It’s the reason she is talking to us this one last time. My aunt is calling for more meds and, oh God, I’ve never wanted anything as much as I want that pain gone, even though I know that it is so large and mighty, that to dull the pain is to take my mother away to a sleep without rest. More than once, I want to hiss at them to just give her what she needs, for fuck’s sake! The stupid fucking games we all have to play to cover our asses…
A priest comes to give her the last rites. He is too matter of fact; impersonal. Slow death is routine for him. This is our first day of dying. This has not come to follow an interminable illness where hope was whittled away over time. It’s just suddenly here, a couple of days after her doctor tried to convince us Mum was well enough to go home as an outpatient. A couple of days after I watched the doctor heatedly declare to my aunt (a nurse), “We can’t keep people in hospital for social reasons!…She’s far more likely to catch something in hospital and you’ll be responsible if that happens.” The doctor was arrogant and wrong. They often are, in my experience. The priest carelessly splashes my mother with holy water and she wakes, shocked and momentarily angry. He doesn’t seem to notice. I pray for the first time in many years, as she drifts away once more, “Hail Mary, full of grace” – loud so she will hear that I am there with her in body and spirit – “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen”
Things quiet and I mumble that I don’t want to leave. But I know my babies need to go. I kiss her; give her a half hug and say, “Bye. I love you.” I always say, “I love you.” Sometimes now she says it back. Not this time. She manages only a terse, pained “Bye,” but that’s okay, because I know with all my heart.
I am three and she is holding my hand, palm up, on hers, tracing tickly teddy bear footsteps. “Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. One step. Two steps. Tickle you under there!”
Those four days run into one another. She has her pain meds, but still groans and reaches ineffectually for the handle above the bed – to steady herself; to hold herself in place. Someone from palliative care is there. He says, “We don’t think this is pain now; we think this is existential angst.” I feel a stab of shock. My mother is an uncomplicated person. She is not the over-thinker I am. Why the fuck is she being subjected to existential angst? My aunt explains that as her kidneys fail, they are releasing toxins that effect her brain. They are giving her medication to try to combat this anxiety. It’s not enough.
My sister and aunt keep vigil. She is never alone. I come as often as I can. I bring the baby. He is excited to see his grandma and flaps his little hands. He is disappointed when she doesn’t respond. He must content himself with sitting by her side, playing with her plastic hospital wristbands. It has been their ice breaker in the time she has been an inmate here. She drew him in with the colorful wristbands and gradually his shyness waned. There’s a silver lining in the geographical closeness of this hospital that allowed us to see her every day or two. It created a different sort of closeness, albeit brief. It’s not enough, but it’s something – a consolation; a sand bag.
She still reacts when the baby makes a noise. Her impulse to care for him is a reflex. Caring for the baby has been her life’s work. She is not ready to let go. When I am alone with her for a few minutes, I move close to her hearing aid and I say softly, “You were a wonderful mother. You were a wonderful mother to all of us. I list all the babies I can remember by name; the baby brother she helped raise when her own mother was ill; my sister and I; her mother-in-law’s challenging foster son; her niece who spent her days with us while her parents were working; I list as many of Mum’s own foster babies as I can think of; then I list her grandchildren. “You were a wonderful mum to all of us. Thank you. Thank you so much. You are very loved.” I kiss her. I rub her arm gently. I feel the life in her. I try to imprint the sensation on my memory, because I know it will soon be gone.