Barbara Keene, a fellow this year with the National Writing Project, has a story to tell, and as our generation gets older, it’s a story so many of us have lived ourselves. This first grade teacher, and mother of eight, lost her own mom more than a decade ago, but it took her this long to say in prose, “I loved her with every ounce of my being.”
“Let’s get a photo.” There was urgency in her voice. “I’ve always wanted a photo with the grandchildren,” she added softly.
“Not all the grandchildren are here, Ma.”
My mother stood near the hedge of tall yellow flowers that appeared out of nowhere one summer along the back property line. She disappeared for a time and reappeared in different attire. Her sunflower blouse purposely matched the preferred background. It was all so perfect, like she had orchestrated this photo shoot.
Arms in motion, without a word she directed her precious few grandchildren to gather and pose. Elizabeth had already plucked a yellow flower from the overgrowth and tucked it behind her ear. Her brother Alex, cousin Taylor, and sister Gabrielle followed suit. My mother’s flower touched her right cheek, but not before she withdrew the oxygen tubing that made a parallel imprint on the ridge of her cheeks. The children entwined arms, yes because they truly loved each other and were bonded through their grandmother, but they also seemed to sense the gravity of the moment.
Over time, my mother left the house only for doctors’ appointments. The movements necessary to pull on her pants or wriggle a shirt on over her head robbed her of breath. She required help with most things and the doctor’s prescribed cocktail of drugs did not relieve her of the anxiety that came with minimal lung capacity that accompanied her genetic condition. My mother slept through daylight and darkness. My sister and I took turns, bathing and dressing her. After sleeping on the floor to be close, early one morning I slipped into bed with my mother. With an arm hooked over her torso, I discovered theloose flesh-on-bone. My mother had lost so much weight. Our bodies melted into each other.
“I can’t stand that you have to take care of me,” she croaked in a whisper.
“Ma, you took care of me all these years. It’s my turn now.” I could not imagine being anywhere else during that moment in time. “I love you forever and always. Forever and always,” I added.
That night, I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling and listening. Listening to the ragged breath. Wondering when I would hear the last exhale and considering the emptiness I would feel with that last breath my mother was sure to take soon. I shook my head thinking, Mummy’s still here. She’s alive now. I grew still and quiet, listening for the breath. Don’t miss today getting ready for tomorrow, I thought.
There was one more trip to the hospital. My mother looked so tiny in the hospital bed, as she slept. Her blue eyes would open now and again. All energies went into breathing. Speaking was too difficult and became minimal, for only the most important matters.
“Last night I dreamt that I died,” she began.
I paused and thoughtfully considered a response. “How was it?”
“Peaceful. But, I don’t want to leave. I worry about you and your brother.”
This was not a conversation I wanted to have, certainly one that I had dreaded for sometime, but I knew that my mother needed it, needed to be reassured.
“We’ll be OK, Ma. We’ll take care of each other. Promise me you won’t go anywhere without saying goodbye first. It’s OK for you to go.” My mother drifted off to sleep, while I tiptoed out of the room. Tears streaming, mouthing, “I love you Ma.”
Four days later, my mother placed an unanswered phone call to my home. She died a few hours later in silk pajamas that matched her striking blue eyes.