I went straight down to see her and was dismayed to see how lifeless she was. She had not been sitting up for a few days, and she had stopped eating.
I knew that, and I knew what was happening, and I knew why I was there. But when I lifted her hand with her pretty rings on it and it was lifeless, I was shocked.
She was dying, and was already leaving. No squeeze from her hand. No energy in the capable hand that had washed me, patted me, lifted a finger in admonition, cooked me many meals, typed out so many stories.
I leaned over her ear and said “It’s Meg”, she made a small sound. I sat beside her and said the first thing that came into my mind. In the last few years I had done that with her, just released thoughts straight out of my mind into hers. No sensor, no fear. I said, “You must be very happy”, if she could have, she may have moved an eyebrow. “Your kids are all around, and everyone is happy and healthy. You did a good job, you are a good Mama”. She said, “Mama”.
The last word she said to me was “Mama”. Her last word.
I rambled on after that, and said “Do you remember when we went to the cottage, just you and me?” I was talking about the first thing on my mind. “Do you remember how we had orange pop on our picnic?” She made a ‘Huh’ sound. She remembered, and I was glad I was reminding her of a moment that we shared, when I was about 12 or so, and before I was a young woman and so defensive and easily offended.
Then I told her, “Liz and I are going to go visit Kate for her birthday, and bring her some presents and make her feel special. Do not die while we are gone, wait for us”. We went and saw Kate, who was in high form but loved the presents and cake that we brought her. When we returned we told Mom how much Kate had enjoyed seeing us. I could feel relief in her almost inert body.
She had stopped moving and her feet were very cold. There were no more words out of her. The Cheynes-Stokes breathing typical of a dying person had been replaced by a hard strong breathing that seemed to take over her whole body. I sat beside with my hand on her chest, feeling the breath pound through her lungs and beat her tired heart. It looked like hard labour.
My brother’s face was pale with concern, watching her hard breathing was hurting him. But I said to him, it is almost like the body is doing this all by itself.
At about eleven at night we all prepared for bed, thinking that Mom might have another few days like this. The night caregiver Mafe was settling into her chair when Mom made a sound, and opened her eyes. Then she stopped breathing and Mafe said into the monitor, “Liz, you should come” and Liz flew down the stairs. When she got to the bed Mom was still and quiet.
Liz approached me on the couch in the other room. I was just slowly falling into deep sleep, I had heard a voice, and wondered what it was, but the night was drawing me down. Then Liz woke me and I thought, why would anyone wake me? “Meg, Mom died”. I leapt out of bed and ran to her room.
I placed my hand on her now still and quiet chest. No more deep strident breaths, no more living. No more oxygen, no more heart pounding away in a universal beat; just a quiet body.
Liz and Mafe began to move around in a slow but frantic manner, looking for the clothes that we wanted her to wear. They went into the closets and started pulling out random bags of clothing. They were quiet but I wanted to do some sort of primeval wail. I said something, like “I just want you to know, I am going to make some noises”.
A keening sound was arriving in my stomach and pushing its way up to my throat. Later we thought how funny our behavior was, me warning them of my wailing, them digging through random bags of clothing.
A tableau emerged, of Liz and Mafe crying and washing her body while I sat up by the pillow, with my hands around my Mom’s face. I was holding her mouth up, pushing her mouth shut so she would not be left with her mouth hanging open. I cried and wailed and held on tight.
It was still my Mom but it was obviously not my Mom. She would not have liked anyone to force her to do anything, even if it was to close her mouth for the viewing of her body.
The hard labour of the breathing, the naked woman in the hands of other women and the bedroom setting reminded me of home births. We labored with her, to take her to the next life. I am so grateful for that. There were no anonymous nurses, no matter how well meaning, no bells or harsh lighting. We had complete control of the ‘home death’, as I began to see it in my mind.
Then, just as in a home birth, we made strong tea and sat around her bed. She was dressed in my beautiful wedding gown, a second hand raw silk dress that I had given her. She had on make-up and her hair was brushed. Her head was tilted back as if she had just leaned back and passed out. Her eyebrows were calm and majestic, her mouth calm and almost in a smile. If you knelt beside her you could almost imagine her puckering her lips in a kiss, lifting an eyebrow.
I remembered lying beside her as a little child, when she wanted me to nap. I remembered watching her nap.
At 3 am Liz and I crashed. We had taken all the medicine out of the room and cleaned it out of the detritus of life. It was now a viewing room, cold and empty except for Mom, a candle and Mom’s cat that would not leave her side.
As I crawled into the couch, with a comforter around me, I found myself holding on to a teddy bear that we had cleared out of her room. I laughed inwardly, Mam, are you tucking me up with a bear? And I passed out.
Mama’s other prime caregiver Remia had gone home but on the arrival of our text she turned right around to come back, crying the whole way. She and Mafe sat and prayed for our Mom while we slept. I don’t know if they slept at all.
The next day, when I woke at 6 am I was hit suddenly by the loss. I was never going to take tea to my Mom again. I remembered going up to my Mom’s bedroom when I was a young mother living in her ground floor apartment with my little girl and baby boy. She was the only one up at that early hour. How she gladly dropped her book when she saw me, and put her arms out for the baby.
There was not a time when I sat down on her bed when she did not rustle about trying to cover me with blankets and make sure I was warm. I have so many visions of her, flashes of her being. She does not really feel gone.
The day she lay in state, like a queen or a movie star, we had visits and we sat in the kitchen with family and close friends. We drank very good scotch and we talked and laughed just as she said we were to do.
Now we are preparing for her public Wake on Friday. It should be a Wake like no other. We do not know what to expect, but that is what is beautiful about life.