The Last Time I Saw My Mom
Feb 10, 2008
[Note: This column was written three years ago when my brother was waiting for transplants. In April of 2005 he got a new liver and new kidney and is now healthy and functioning, with his new lease on life. God bless the doctors and technology of transplants.]
It’s interesting how parts of our lives are a blur when we look back on them. Certain details stand out and we forget the rest. Twenty two years ago, I got a phone call to come home for a few days because my mom was dying. She had been ill with cancer for four years but she was finally losing the battle. My dad drove me to the hospital where I saw a grotesque caricature of my mother in the hospital bed, something between Dickens and Dante -- shrunken, sick -- her head lopsided. I tried to straighten her head on the pillow and my father asked me not to -- her head had been evidently frozen in that terrible position for some time and no one had moved her, no one had massaged her and allowed the muscles to relax so she could lie there comfortably.
My father didn’t want her to be touched. She was so far gone. I was shocked. The month before I had visited and she was lively and friendly and full of hope. Then her health suddenly took a turn for the worse and she was moved to a nursing home. Perhaps moving her there caused her to give up. I wondered.
We were there for a little while and then went back to the house. About three hours later there was a call that she had died. Many years later, I wondered if she had waited for me to come before letting herself die.
I’ve heard touching stories of people who talked to their dying, seemingly comatose relatives, believing they could hear them. I didn’t do that as I recall. I recoiled in horror, seeing her so far gone. I was paralyzed with fear and didn’t know how to react. So I think I just looked at her, rather in shock, and after a short while we went home. Perhaps I prayed, I don’t remember.
Then back at the house, my father and I watched TV. We didn’t talk about anything. If I had been with a friend or my brother, we would have talked about it. We would have at least reminisced about mom, or talked about life and death or something. But my dad’s character was to act as if nothing was going on. I didn’t challenge it, and so the painful pretense played out. We watched television until the hospital called. My father acknowledged the news of her death with a squashed murmur of resolve and so did I. I’m sure he felt deeply sorrowful but he couldn’t reveal his pain in front of me and I couldn’t reveal my pain in front of him.
We went to the undertaker the following day, and then a couple of days later there was a wake. People who knew her streamed through the room, people that I didn’t know. I looked at my mom in the casket and she didn’t look like my mom. I didn’t touch her or kiss her, I was afraid of the cold, dead body. It frightened me. Years later when my dad died I wanted the coffin closed. I don’t know why I wanted that, but I couldn’t look at him. Perhaps that was disrespectful, but I couldn’t bear to look at him. They could have put another person in the coffin and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
We’re so disconnected from death in this modern age, in America. The undertaking / coffin business is one of those industries out of control, like real estate or insurance. It has somehow become a way of life, and we just sort of let it all happen to us. It is something we do because we’re frozen with shock at the death of loved ones. It’s how our society has evolved into dealing with it.
Hundreds of years ago people sat with the body. They washed it, they looked at it, they prayed around it, they wrapped it in cloth and they buried it. They got used to the idea of their family member dying and they saw the body go into the earth. They buried their loved ones simply. It wasn’t a big business, with outrageous prices robbing the grief-stricken survivors who might have had a life insurance policy to cover the damages (or worse, those who had no insurance at all).
I spoke to my older brother on the phone tonight. He’s in the hospital now and needs a liver transplant. I realized how fragile we are, how transient. My brother told me he took communion the other day. A lay minister came to his hospital bed and he started to think about the church again. Sickness gets us thinking about eternity. I want to be able to make connections again. To love my brother, in lieu of my parents. To somehow care more, and not let fear dictate my behavior. I just know that I want to comfort and love everyone I know and I don’t want to do a slipshod job. May God help me give others what they need.
I wasn’t able to be there properly at my parents’ bedsides at their deaths. So after they were buried side by side, I went to their graves in Pennsylvania, in a cemetery next to a K-Mart in a busy little town. I lay down on the ground between them and proceeded to tell them everything about the circumstances of my life during the time of their deaths. I apologized for all my mistakes and for not giving them the type of sendoff they both deserved. And I prayed they could forgive me. I lay there for an hour unloading all the regrets of my heart. I bought two dweebie plastic flower signs from K-Mart and placed them on their graves; Mom’s and Dad’s.
I then said a little prayer and left them. I didn’t have a vision, I didn’t feel a flood of love, I didn’t experience anything really, except that I said all I needed to say, and hoped that if they could hear me they understood my actions at the time of their deaths. I hoped that they knew that I loved them as much as any daughter could love her parents.
Kimmy Sophia Brown has loved humor and music and freedom for as long as she can remember.She is especially passionate about the environment and caring for animals.
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