How 15 hours became 20 years…
Today is the 20th anniversary of Mama’s death…but just barely. December 8 was just a couple of hours old when she drew that last breath and moved from here to Heaven. So while this is technically the anniversary, I always spend December 7 remembering…reliving…her last day of life, and spending it with her.
I arrived at Baptist Hospital around 11:30 that cold, grey Sunday morning, to relieve Dad, who had spent the night before with her. He told me that, after being unresponsive for over 12 hours, she had awakened in the middle of the night, and they had a conversation. She said she knew she would die soon, and that she was not afraid. His recollection of that exchange shook me, hard and deep. As we chatted briefly, he made a note to send to their financial advisor on Mama’s hospital menu for that day. I remarked that I probably had a blank sheet of paper he could use, and he said no, the menu would be fine, especially since it documented the date and his note was an instruction for an account change that needed to be done before the end of the calendar year. He was, and still is, careful and astute in financial matters. We hugged goodbye and I told him to go home and get some sleep, that I’d see him later.
Just minutes after he left, Mama’s face changed, as did her breathing, echoing through the room with “the death rattle” I had often heard mentioned in older people’s conversations, but had only heard with my own ears a few times. It didn’t register with me right away that she had begun actively dying, but over the course of the day it sank in. In about a half hour a nurse came in to check Mama’s vital signs, and she asked how long her breathing had been like that. When I answered, this sweet nurse just came and put her arm around my shoulder, telling me that she didn’t think Mama was in any pain or distress, that I could talk or sing to her, pet her and love her, because nothing was bothering her now. I think now that this nurse may have been an angel; I don’t remember having seen her at any other time during our hospital stay; I can’t recall her name or face or hair color; I only remember her words and the feel of her arm around me.
For her last 15 hours, Mama and I shared that little space together, mostly alone except for nurses and CNAs coming in to check her vital signs and to ask if I was all right, if I needed anything. We only had a few visitors, including a hospital social worker and her husband, who circled around and prayed with us, and my cousins Judy and Ann, who came that night just hours before Mama died. There were some phone calls through the day, but mostly many hours of stillness. Mama never awoke that last day, but I spoke to her, and I know she was aware of my presence…my love.
Flash forward to last week when I was messaging with a friend and telling him about Mama’s anniversary coming up. He expressed understanding of my residual grief. We talked on about the state of current affairs, the world, and concerns over what we, as individuals and as a culture, may leave behind. I tried to reassure him that he is sending light into a world that sometimes seems very dark.
And I realized something. Those last priceless hours I shared with Mama shaped the way I view my years, and how I want to spend whatever time I have left. When it is time for me to leave this world, I hope I am remembered for the moments I shared with others…one on one and bunches of us together, moments of music and silence, times we laughed until we cried, ate until we belched and then laughed some more, hugs and smiles and being genuine with one another (I don’t really know how to be any other way). If my moments are meaningful, then my years will be worthwhile.
In her last 15 hours of life, Mama taught me just as much as she did in the 58 years that preceded them. What a gift! If my days and decades are a tiny fraction as full as hers were, I will leave something good behind me here when I leave.