In 1966, when we got word of my father’s death, it was my brother’s crying that frightened me most. The way he beat at the wall and yelled about the men he would grow up and kill one day. Mama had worried that her death would undo Frank. Maybe she’d remembered his cries from all those years ago, too.
“Men aren’t as emotionally strong as women,” she said. “Besides, you and Linda have your families.”
“Frank has a family, too, Mama,” I reminded her. “He has the biggest family of all.” Six kids.
She acted surprised, like it had never occurred to her that my brother had someone other than her to care for him.
“Linda is going to have the hardest time, Mama,” I said. “You are all the parent she’s ever really known.”
I read recently that in tribal villages it is the wails of the mourning that alerts others in the village when someone has died. People in this country don’t give over much to wailing. We are conditioned to think that such mourning is unbecoming. I blame the damn Yankees who burned Atlanta. Perhaps you blame the Puritans? Whatever. The wails of my sister, head down on Mama’s lap, are what I will recall forever more about Mama’s dying day. And I will never ever again be able to think of Jesus upon that cross without hearing the sounds of Mama’s suffering.
Mama drowned to death. It was an awful, terrible, horrifying dying.
I’d told my brother and sister ahead of time, I don’t need to be there when she passes. It has taken me a lifetime to get over the horror of seeing my father dead in that military casket when I was only a young girl. I did not want my last memory of Mama to be of her dying, so I told them not to call. But they called anyway. On Christmas Day. You better come. Don’t tarry, they warned. Mama had told Frank that morning: I am dying. Later in the day, she told Linda: I am leaving soon. She never said anything to me about leaving at all.
I began writing Mama’s obit in the car as we headed north on I-5. Snoqualmie was snowy, icy, so Tim took the long route through Portland. Mama had called me in July and asked me to write her obit. I had been upset with her for asking. Why was she talking about dying? She wasn’t ill. Not that any of us knew of then. Did she have a premonition?
“You didn’t bring me a present,” she said, when we arrived late Christmas night. I wish I’d thought to tell her I was her present. Instead I reminded her of the new Christmas jammies and slippers I’d already given her.
I finished writing Mama’s obit at 2 a.m. on Dec. 26 at the foot of my mama’s bed as she lay sleeping. On Christmas Day Mama had woken unable to swallow any of her pain medications. The only pain relief she had was the liquid morphine which we had been giving her for several weeks in addition to her daily dosages of medications. Keeping her comfortable was increasingly difficult. I woke at 4 a.m. and gave her more morphine, and again at 7 a.m. but her breathing was labored, as if she was moving wheelbarrows full of rocks from the garden. Hospice visited her that morning, said we could give her the morphine every hour but that she might last weeks, yet. No way to know for sure.
“Warm up the car and let’s go somewhere, girls,” Mama said mid-afternoon. Linda and I laughed. Mama was never, not for one minute, not keen to what was going on around her.
By late afternoon, the breathing that we had thought so labored in the morning sounded like a diesel truck moving up a steep grade. Mama’s forehead and face were pinched in pain. Nothing we did eased it. So Frank, Linda and I gathered around Mama’s bed and prayed for God to hasten her death, to show all of us a mercy.
Not a one of us could stand to see Mama suffering so.
At 6 p.m. I broke down in tears, angry that Mama was drowning, that I could hear the fluid building and yet could do nothing to make her comfortable. Only one dose of morphine an hour Hospice reiterated when we asked. Anything else would be euthanasia, someone suggested.
“She’s dying,” I cried. “Why do we have dosages for the dying?”
Linda was on one side holding Mama’s right hand. I was on the other side, holding her left. She had a good grip on the both of us as her frail shoulders heaved, as she gasped for the next breath.
“She needs more morphine,” I said to my sister.
“Then you give it,” she replied.
Neither of us moved. We had half-an-hour before we could give the next dosage. So we cried, my sister and I, cried and prayed for Mama, who was now pushing a train full of rocks up Mt. Rainer.
I remembered when Mama’s brother Uncle Charlie died, Mama was at his bedside. She told me later she could tell he was about to die because of the death rattle. As a nurse, Mama was familiar with the death rattle of the dying. Was this it? Was this what was making Mama work so hard to get the next breath?
Linda got up to go to the bathroom. Nicole Barnes, my nephew’s wife, took Mama’s left hand and as we sat there, Mama’s breathing shifted, like a trucker switching too quickly into second-gear. Linda returned and there was a loud thumping. It really did sound as if Jesus was knocking on the door of Mama’s heart. Over and over again, loud thumping. Linda got up and gave Mama another dose of morphine. We saw Mama’s face relax, felt her breathing calm a bit, fall into a rhythm. She was sleeping, finally.
Frank and nephew Robert took our places at Mama’s bedside while Linda and I retreated to the den for a moment. A half-hour later, Linda went to check on Mama and she called out to me, “Mama is burning up.”
Linda could see it the minute she walked into Mama’s room. We took her temperature: 104. Frank and Janet went to call Hospice, to see if we could do something more. Mama was awake again, working, laboring, the breathing a gazillion times worse than it had been all day. A demon had a gnarly grip on Mama’s throat and was holding her underwater, and she was fighting to surface.
Frank appeared in the doorway and made a proclamation issued by Hospice: “If she has a fever she is actively dying.”
Brilliant. Freaking brilliance.
Oh. And they are too busy with others dying to come out and help but, no, you can’t give any more morphine, other than the one dose an hour. You can, however, crush up the oxycodone and try to give that to her. This was the best they had to offer as Mama lay dying?
I turned to a praise station on Pandora and placed my iPhone on Mama’s chest.
In the morning when I rise give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. You can have all this world. Just give me Jesus.
I was in desperate need for an outer body experience. I did not want to be there. I did not want to witness my mother’s death.
When I am alone, give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. You can have all this world. Just give me Jesus.
I wanted to remember her eating the soup I had brought her before my last leaving. I wanted to remember how sweet she had been that last week together. How happy she was over the Christmas tree I had decorated and put up in her room. “Leave it plugged in,” she said, when we got ready for bed. “I like looking at the lights when I wake.”
Mama loved Christmas, always. The grandkids earliest memories of her always include stories of Christmas at Grandma Shelby’s.
Mama gripped mine and Linda’s hands as she tried to rise above the drowning.
When I come to die, give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. You can have all this world, Just give me Jesus.
Deep, deep rattling breaths. And then nothing. Complete and utter silence. Linda looked at me. I looked at her. Then we both looked at Mama. She was still breathing. Her shoulders still moving but Mama was breathing quietly as a newborn baby. In and out. In and out. And then she opened her eyes and Linda cried out, “She dying.”
We both cried out, “We love you, Mama.”
“I believe that,” Mama had said on Christmas night as I sat on her bed and told her I loved her.
Mama died in that moment when she opened her eyes and they rolled back in her head. That’s the moment when Linda fell across Mama’s lap and let the villagers in the tribe know that Mama had died.
I left the room, did my bawling sitting alone in the den, wondering how in the world I would ever forget that moment, afraid if I don’t forget it my brain will snap and it won’t be Frank or Linda who has the hardest time, but me.
Writers are different breed. Tim says we are all a little crazy to begin with. I have long been drawn to the literature of those who live on the edge, emotionally. I wrote my senior thesis on Edgar Allen Poe. While others were reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, I was reading everything I could find on Zelda. I felt I knew her, understood her fragileness. People always tell me how strong I am, but inside I don’t feel strong. I feel like thin glass.
I worked up enough whatever it is to go back into my Mama’s room. Tim was standing behind my sister, comforting her. I sat back down by Mama and made myself look at her, and cried along with everyone else in the room.
Then Frank walked over, kissed our mother and told her “Go be with God.”
I asked my nephew Robert to bring down a pan of warm water. Then I went into the bathroom and grabbed two bars of soap and two washcloths, and a couple of white towels. Robert brought a deep bowl of warm water. Then he left the room and I shut the door.
Everyone left Linda and me alone while we tended to our mother the way we have been doing every day since August, when she first fell ill. “Pick out something pretty to wear today,” Mama would tell one or the other of us. If she didn’t like what we picked out she’d tell us and we’d have to switch it until she had something that matched, that she felt comfortable and pretty in. Linda started the routine of taking Mama’s picture every time she got her dressed for the day and texting the photo to me and I would do the same for her.
When Mama died she was wearing blue flannel pajamas with little grey donkeys on them. Appropriate, given that I always said Mama was a mule-headed woman. But when nephew Mannie had dropped by earlier in the evening, he had razzed Mama about the pajamas.
“Really, Grandma Shelby?” he had chided. “Who buys pajamas with Eeyore on them? Pooh I can understand, but Eeyore?”
I unbuttoned the top. Linda tried to slip the sleeve off Mama’s arm. I tried the other one. Neither of us could get Mama’s arms out. So Linda opened the bedside drawer and took out the scissors Mama had used nearly every night to cut open packs of nicotine gum. Then Linda cut those Eeyore pajamas off our mama.
And we laughed.
And then we cried.
“Thank you, Jesus,” Linda said, as she took one washcloth and I took the other and we began to work in concert bathing our mother one last time.
Daughters bathing the mother who had first bathed us.
It may have been the most primal thing I have ever done in my life but I could have stayed in that room with my mother’s dead body bathing it for a long, long time.
It felt like grace after all we had all been through.
“How do you like bathing your big baby?” Mama had asked me one day as I was toweling her off after a shower.
“I like it fine, Mama,” I’d replied. In truth it had been uncomfortable at first, but over time I came to see the dressing of Mama for the day as the most loving, intimate moments I would ever have with my mother. I chose the fluffiest of towels to pat her dry. I rubbed the cocoa butter lotion gently down her arms, her legs, careful to not mess with the blood clots.
Linda picked out her last outfit. A black beaded top. A cream silk sweater with pearls. Tan pants. The new hat granddaughter Taylor had bought her for Christmas and the glitter shoes that granddaughter Konnie had mailed her for Christmas. Linda couldn’t get the clasp on the snowflake pin she’d bought Mama as a Christmas present, so she handed it to me. I pinned it to the left side of the sweater, like a medal – only this one was made of all sparkle.
That was our Mama. The sparkle of our family.
Forever and for always.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (William Morrow).