“I see my end in sight,” she said.
It was Friday morning, a little before 10:00. She had been sleeping when I arrived back at the care home an hour or so earlier, and the new hospice nurse on duty told me that Mom had thrown up twice and so the nurse had given her something for the nausea along with Ativan to slow her respiration. Her breathing was visibly slower and easier, and she seemed to be resting comfortably. The nurse had just finished giving me her update, and I sat down and pulled out my colored pencils and the picture I was working on, when Mom woke herself up coughing and then started to mumble. I went to her side, brushed her hair from her forehead and leaned over to give her a kiss. I couldn’t understand most of what she said, but she looked right into my eyes for a moment and her voice was clear when she said “I see my end in sight.” I knew that was a moment of lucidity, and I knew the time was short.
Mom’s sister, Alice, had wanted to call and talk to her before we left the SNF but Mom was too weak. I worried aloud that Alice wouldn’t get another chance to talk to her. The nurse, a gentle Pakistani woman with kind eyes and a lovely accent, told me that hearing is one of the last senses to go and we should keep talking to Mom even after she stops being able to respond because she WILL hear us and be comforted by our voices. I texted my aunt about this, suggesting that I could put the phone on speaker and set it on her pillow. When Alice’s familiar voice said “Hi Dot, it’s Alice,” Mom opened her eyes and looked around. I could tell she was listening to everything Alice said and when her sister said “I love you,” Mom replied just above a whisper, “I love you, too.” With her voice breaking only a little, Alice opened her Bible and began to read from Corinthians 13, the verses that end with “And the greatest of these is love.” Mom drifted back to sleep as she read. It was beautiful and heartbreaking.
The last words my dad ever said to me, in a phone conversation two weeks before he died, were “I love you, too, sweetie.” It wasn’t something he said to me very often, and I have cherished that memory. I was grateful that Alice got to hear those words one last time from her big sister.
A little later, when the nurse had stepped out of the room, I stood by Mom’s bed and told her that I know my dad is waiting for her in Heaven. “… and your brother Bill and your brother Tommy and your sister Shirley… and Fritz and Bob and Marilyn. They’re going to be so happy to see you again! I’ll bet they throw a big party to celebrate your arrival, with singing around the campfire.” She didn’t stir, but I trust she heard me.
I’d been feeling my dad and two of Mom’s brothers, Bill (the oldest) and Tom (the youngest), around her bed since she was at the SNF, even before we got the end stage diagnosis. Mom always said that Bill was “the best big brother in the world,” that he always looked after and protected his younger siblings, so of course he’d be looking after her now. At random moments, while sitting beside her bed or making the arrangements for hospice, I’d see my Uncle Tom’s smiling face or just get the reassuring sense of his quiet strength. One night after I left the SNF in tears of anxiety, I got a clear mental picture of my dad dozing in a canvas camp chair beside her bed. The message was clear: Go home and get some rest. I’ll stay with her. I knew they would all stay with her through this transition and be waiting with open arms to welcome her into the next world.
That night I helped the hospice nurse give her a sponge bath and change her into a fresh diaper and a clean, soft t-shirt (cut down the back so we wouldn’t have to pull it over her head). The nurse was so careful and gentle, but Mom still kept murmuring “Ouch ouch ouch” whenever we moved her. At one point, when the nurse lifted her knees, Mom said loudly “Ouch! Stop it!” We smoothed lotion over her skin, and the nurse cleaned her mouth with a swab, and she was resting comfortably when I left to get a few hours of sleep.
(Later, I would realize that my mother’s last words were “Stop it!” and make half-hearted jokes to cover the hurt. I would remind myself that she didn’t need to tell me she loved me one last time because we had said that to each other many, many times during her last days and weeks. She knew that I knew. Later still, I would realize that she hadn’t even been aware of who was touching her when she reacted to it – she wasn’t telling ME to stop it. The last thing she said to me, to her daughter, was “You’re a good girl.” I can hold onto that.)
Saturday morning, she was visibly worse. Her breathing was once again labored, chest heaving with every breath, even though the oxygen had been turned up to 6 liters. She was non responsive, and the new nurse on duty told me that “she could go at any time now.” She asked if I wanted hospice to send a chaplain and I told her no, I’d ask for someone from her church to come. I emailed the pastor’s wife, who had come twice to visit Mom in the SNF, and she quickly responded: We’ll be there within the hour. I sat by Mom’s bed, praying that both my sister and the pastor would get here before it was too late, tears streaming silently down my cheeks.
They did arrive in time. My sister got there first, and I asked the nurse and the care home administrator (who had stopped in to check on things) to leave the room and give her some private time with Mom. Then the pastor arrived and prayed with her and read something from the Bible that talked about angels carrying us to Heaven on their wings. After the pastor and his wife left, my sister and I stayed by her bed for a long time, gently stroking her arms and talking to her about everyone who is waiting for her in Heaven.
The hospice nurse must have told the administrator that the time was close. The staff set up a bed for Mom’s roommate in the TV room, so that I could sleep on her bed and stay with my mom. My sister took a nap there, while I journaled and colored, and then we ordered some food delivered. I went home briefly to pack what I would need for overnight and feed my cats. Then I called an Uber to take my sister to her hotel, since she’d had a very long day on very little sleep.
I was sitting on the other bed, sipping some wine I’d brought in a Mason jar and contemplating whether I should try to get some sleep, when the nurse suddenly stood up and went to stand beside Mom. “It’s OK,” I heard her say. “You can go.” I was instantly on alert, and I went to the other side of the bed and began gently stroking Mom’s arm and her forehead. “Your daughter is going to be fine,” the nurse continued. “Don’t you worry about her. There’s nothing you need to worry about now.” She nodded to me, and I started to talk.
I told her again about all the family who are waiting for her, about singing around the campfire again like they always loved to do… I reminded her what the pastor had said about angels carrying her on their wings to Heaven. “You’re not going to have to struggle or work to get there, Mom. They’re going to carry you on their wings. All you have to do is let them.” I told her that I love her so much and that I’m going to miss her, but I’m strong and I’m going to be fine — and I’m happy for her that she’ll be reunited with beloved family and won’t ever hurt again.
And while I was saying these things, she was breathing… and then, she wasn’t. It was so gentle and subtle, I might not even have noticed if the nurse hadn’t drawn my attention to it. I gave Mom one last kiss and told her to hug Dad for me when she sees him. At 11:46 p.m. on Saturday, September 22, her story came to an end.