The Women by My Side in the Hospital as My Mother Lay Dying

In the period of time before my mother died, there were days and weeks and months where we felt isolated. We worked together navigating gurneys, wheelchairs, bad hospital food, and Medicaid hearings. There was so much to learn, too. So much to keep track of.

We always knew where it would end. She’d go; I’d stay. How it would end exactly? I figured I’d either get a 3 a.m. phone call from a nurse, or else have to make some horrible decision alone in the ER of our small town.

Mom told me last Christmas she was leaving soon. She knew it in her bones, she said. At 78, her brain was sharp and clear. I imagine that kind of knowing comes from the marrow.

Later, as summer came around, Mom went into denial. It was as if she’d never seen it coming, never said anything about it. She stopped eating, too. She wasn’t going to die, but she wasn’t going to eat anything. A paradox.

The hospice people said those contradictions are “part of the process.” I could anticipate more confusion as her life faded away, they said.

And then one night in August we were in her room. A cheap plastic essential oil diffuser on the table, and the air smelled of cloves. Lights flickered from the storm raging outside. Since I’d just seen “Stranger Things,” it was all a little eerie, creepy even.

Against this backdrop, my disabled, elderly mother had begun what they call “active dying.” It would take her three days to finish the process.

On Thursday night, as Mom labored to cross what they call “the veil,” we weren’t alone anymore.

Calls had gone out. A group of women gathered around us. There were nurses and nurse’s aides — past and present — and my friends from the city. There were people there I’d known for years. Others, like the hospice workers, were new. Young and old, straight and gay, white and brown, Christians and spiritual skeptics — we merged into one body. We told stories, listened to music and soothed Mom when she awoke in a panic, momentarily terrified by what was happening.

After years of emotional isolation, we weren’t alone anymore, me and Mom. We were part of something that felt bigger, more important.

I don’t remember if I ate anything that night. I know I took a few breaks with some of these women outside the nursing home’s porch. We watched rain drip from the roof and off the limbs of a massive oak. We talked about life and love. Inside Mom’s room, we poured cheap contraband tequila into small Styrofoam cups stolen off the medicine cart.

We stayed stone cold sober, though. How could we not? Death is sobering.

But as I learned that night, death can also be a kind of communion.

I miss my mother. But there are moments, too, when I miss the intimacy of that night, the simple humanity of it all.

And when I miss it, I feel it right down in my marrow.

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Thinkstock image by KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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