Not everyone has an easy relationship with Mom. But when it’s time to say goodbye, things change.
* * *
Mom’s sobs were operatic as she walked in the front door, accompanied by her brother-in-law. “That thing wasn’t Harry,” she said. She meant my Dad’s body.
I hadn’t seen it. I had no wish to say goodbye to the body itself without Dad in it. My farewells had taken place gradually, over the months I’d spent caring for my father, making the difficult end-of-life decisions with him that my mother hadn’t been able to bring herself to do.
Mom took my hand and stared at it. “You’re so much of your father,” she said. “Hands just like his.”
She was trying to make peace after years of mother-daughter struggle. I was still angry. My father, my best friend, had left me, and I knew that, from here on in, it would fall to me to manage every detail — not only of Dad’s death but of Mom’s future life as well.
I gently disengaged my hand from hers, walked into the next room and shut the door. I sobbed, alone, and I let Mom sit, alone, as darkness fell.
* * *
Mom was almost 50 when she discovered she was pregnant with me — a life-changing surprise she never quite got over. My mother had been born in the 1920s, and her views of mothers and daughters had been formed in an America that was gone forever. Then, suddenly, there was me: young enough to be her granddaughter, all fire and in-your-face defiance. I wanted independence; she saw that as abandoning her.
I wanted her to love me for me, not for the stifling image of mother-daughterness she thought we ought to embody. And yet it was obvious to everyone but me: She did love me, ferociously. As my husband once put it: You two have a way of short-circuiting each other.
Our love-hate relationship went on like that for years after Dad died. And then came that one June day when Mom said: “Jennifer, I’m feeling awful. I keep coughing.”
I knew it was more than a cold. I was sure it was pneumonia.
At the ER, they imaged Mom’s chest. The scans showed the truth that my mother’s flowing muumuus had concealed: a fast-growing tumor, shaped like a dinner plate in her abdomen and quickly blowing up. No pneumonia — rather, cancer with metastasis to the bone and lymph nodes. Terminal.
A surgeon gave us options: Chemo. Surgery.
“What do you think I should do?” Mom asked me, her head propped on flimsy pillows.
“What do you want to put up with?” I asked.
“Nothing. At 86, I don’t want to do anything.”
“That’s what I would do too,” I said.
“Jennifer,” she said. “Stay with me. Get me through this. Get me to the other side of this.”
* * *
The second I left the medical room with the dying parent in it, I began crying so openly that people gave me a courteous distance. I felt too old for this behavior, but I couldn’t stop, either. Some of it was grief. Most of it was shame.
* * *
Her decline was rapid. Her food appetite, which used to be considerable, was gone, and it seemed to transfer to skin hunger. Mom fixated on my skin, touching it, complimenting it. Her attention startled me — until I realized just how rarely in my adult life I’d hugged my mother.
She exhibited a comfortable, easy gratitude and trust in her silent moments with me; it was so natural that I began to wonder whether I’d simply missed noticing such moments during her healthy years. I didn’t know the person who was looking at me with a peacefulness and love that I’d never seen on her face before, but I knew this: She was the mother I had always wanted.
We talked. I fed her ice cream. And after a few days at home, Mom and I moved into a hospice center.
In the middle of the night, while she spit up fluid, she held my hand and stared at me — intently, steadily, for hours.
I said, “Do you remember when I was little and would sneak into your bed for the night?”
She smiled and nodded. Despite the pain she was feeling, she scooted over enough so that I could rest my upper half next to her, my shoulder touching hers. I immediately felt relaxation come off her body — a settling, a letting-go. For both of us.
I knew I was supposed to help my mother. Being present for her death was a lesson I was ready to learn.
* * *
When I entered Mom’s room at dawn, her hand was unresponsive and literally like ice; now I know where that expression comes from. It contrasted with the heat emanating from her head and neck. Her breathing was labored. It was time. And she still needed me.
“I’m here,” I said, “and it’s okay, you’re okay.” She came out of that no-one’s-home dead gaze and looked at me. I could see some fear at the sensations she was having. “You really are okay,” I said, “and it’s okay to go. I love you.” Her eyes connected with mine before she gave in and let the liquid come fully up. I was still holding her and touching her chest and arms and face.
And then I rocked with sobs as I hugged the body she’d just left.
I pulled her eyelids closed. Then I rubbed her legs and arms through the blanket. My understanding was that the brain might have a few more minutes of processing after death — not much, but a little. If that was true, I wanted her to see that even in her absence, she would be cherished.
* * *
After Mom’s death, I couldn’t help thinking about my birth. Both times, our two bodies were entangled, until one released the other to enter a new realm.
I realize now how profoundly she loved me. I’ve finally accepted: I was the imperfect daughter as much as she was the imperfect mother. And it wasn’t so much in any of our words to each other that I found some relief, but in the silence, in the gaze that passed between us hours before her death.
Jennifer Clare Burke is the author of A Life Less Convenient and the winner of the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2014 award for health and medical reporting in Pennsylvania.