I padded into my parent’s bedroom like I had countless times over the past forty-one years. Usually, my mom wanted to show me a dress or a pair of shoes she bought at Macy’s or maybe get my opinion about a necklace. But this time was different. She called my sister and me upstairs to show us the leopard dress she wanted to be buried in.
“This is the one she said, with my black sweater to cover up my arms,” she said, holding the dress out in front of her.
My sister and I humored her, “Okay, Mom.”
After dress selection, we carried her jewelry box to the kitchen, surveying its contents like fine purveyors of jewelry. My mom pulled her favorite pieces out and asked us who wanted which one. We tossed the old costume pieces and left only the items that she valued. My sister and I went along with this charade, confident she would rally against the cancer she fought for eleven years.
I showed up a few days later, carrying her vanilla latte from Starbucks when my dad came down the stairs to the kitchen.
“I can’t wake her up,” he said.
I didn’t believe him and went up to the bedroom, gently shook her shoulder, and said, “Mom, wake up.” Nothing, no reply.
Not a week later, I walked back into her bedroom; it was quiet, heavy with anticipation, no TV sounds, or chatter. The fall breeze blew through the window and injected some air into the room billowing the sheers. My mom laid in the bed on my dad’s side. I’m not sure how she rolled over to his side, maybe his body had created a tiny slope over the years, and she gravitated to him, even when he wasn’t there. Her body made a C curve, and her eyes opened, but she didn’t really see me. My mom flickered in and out of consciousness over the next few days.
I crawled into the bed next to her. I moved slowly, trying not to jostle the bed. I curled her hand in mine and laid my head on the pillow. I stared at her face, taking in all the lines, praying she would wake up. The hospice nurses weren’t giving us false hope, but no one knew what to expect. We were unprepared for my mom’s sudden decline. Although she wasn’t, she knew and was trying to prepare us the best she could. The dress, earrings, sweater, all picked out for the funeral home, the notes written about the service, all clues, that she knew she was losing the battle.
The days dragged on and she remained semi-conscious as we circled around her in a heightened state of awareness. Then a few days into our new normal, she was more awake than other days. “I love you, Mommy. Do you remember when I used to sneak into your bed as soon as Dad got up?” I whispered to her. I don’t know why I called her Mommy. I never called her anything other than Mom. I felt like a child again, needing my mom to comfort me when I was in pain, but our roles had reversed over the weeks.
Her eyes opened, and she nodded, a faint smile on her lips, “I love you too,” she murmured.
I wanted to beg her to stay, but I knew she was in pain. Tears ran down my cheeks as I continued to hold her hand. There were so many things I wanted to tell her, but my mother, only sixty-seven years old, was fading away, and I wanted to make sure she left the world feeling loved. Our family and friends sat vigil with her, taking turns perched on the edge of the bed or the vanity bench we moved in next to her. Every night I watched Jeopardy with her, me answering, her mostly unconscious, just like we did night after night when I was on bed rest with my daughter.
When I was a little girl, I crept across the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, dragging my Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bag behind me. I paused in the doorway and listened for my mom’s breath to determine just how asleep she was. I tiptoed to mom’s side of the bed and whispered, “Mom, are you awake?”
“Huh?? What? You scared me,” she mumbled as she slowly realized I was standing there.
“Can I sleep on your floor?”
“Okay,” she sighed.
I laid out Strawberry Shortcake and snuggled down on the hard floor. I sandwiched myself between the side of the bed and her closet doors, hoping I didn’t hit my head on the sharp edge of the nightstand as I threw my pillow down. Still, l couldn’t calm down and fall asleep, “Mom, can I hold your hand?”
“Yes,” she said as she dropped her hand off the side of the bed.
My fingertips stretched up to reach hers’ in the dark as I entwined my fingers between hers. I felt my mom’s skin melt into mine, and I didn’t care how uncomfortable I was in my contorted position when I was holding her hand. I was safe. My fears dissipated, and my sleeplessness faded into slumber when I was tucked away in my sleeping bag, my mom inches away.
In the morning, I heard the closet door squeak open as my Dad tried to navigate around me as he got ready for work. Once I knew he went downstairs, I jumped up and scurried into his still-warm spot. I loved lying next to my mom in the mornings when I had her to myself.
My mom looked at me, “What was wrong last night?”
I didn’t have an answer; I was afraid of everything. The excitement of Christmas kept me awake every year, or a scary movie, and forget about it if I heard Michael Jackson’s Thriller song. The narrator’s voice, in the beginning, was enough to keep me up for days. When the movie Seven came out, I was nineteen-years-old and slept on my parent’s floor for three nights. Me and Strawberry Shortcake made numerous trips across the hallway.
But today, as I held her hand in mine, I was most afraid of losing my mom. The thought of her not answering the phone or giving me advice on raising teenagers suffocated me. Year after year, she battled back against cancer time and time again. It was easy for me to believe cancer wouldn’t kill her. Even when hospice came to manage her medications, I thought she would rally, but seeing her in the bed for the last week was making it difficult to deny the reality that my mom wouldn’t be here.
Each night I left my parent’s and went home to my children who needed me, I tried to make their lives normal. I feared that my mom would be gone when I got there in the morning without saying goodbye. And then it happened, the ring of the phone pierced the early morning silence, and my dad said she slipped away in the night. It was 5:00 AM when I picked up my sister to see her one last time. I raced from the funeral home to my parents; I couldn’t let the next time I saw her be in a casket.
As I approached the bronze coffin, I touched her folded hands; they would never hold mine again. I wanted them to squeeze my fingers reflexively, but there was nothing but papery coldness. I wouldn’t feel her aged skin or see her painted nails, entwined with my younger, less manicured ones for the rest of my life. I wasn’t sure who would comfort me again or answer the phone when I called. As we said our final goodbyes at the cemetery, my heart sunk with loneliness as I walked away from her grave. It was unbearable to leave her there alone, in the cold and dark, when I was going to my warm house and pretend to carry on with life.
I spoke to my mom at least twice a day. No one cares about your mundane nonsense, except for your mom. Ten 0’clock, that was our first phone call of the day; she was home from the gym, and I needed a break from work. We only deviated from the routine when one of us was on vacation, or I had a conference call. It took months of practice not to pick up the phone and dial her number each morning.
I listened to her voicemails. I needed to remember her voice, but how can you remember how someone felt? The feel of their hand in yours, their hand on your back as you cry, it’s not possible. I felt the ache on my heart for the warmth of her touch. Again, I’m reaching for her in the dark, but I’m unable to find her hand.
She’s been gone a few months, and my phone contact was still labeled, “Mom.”
When I sync my phone to my car, I instruct my Bluetooth, “Call Mom.” My car replied, “Calling Mom, Home.” I knew she wasn’t going to answer. I should have updated my contact to something more appropriate, like Dad or Parents. But parents would be misleading. I cleaned out my voicemails, all but two. The lone messages were from August 26th, 2017, from Mom- home.
“Hey Maura, it’s Mom. We were out working on the pool. So, uh, I will be here ironing. Call me if you want. Bye.” Eleven seconds. Her voice was clear; she seemed strong, helping my dad close-up the pool for the summer. The last message was from September 14th, 2017, from Mom-mobile.
“Hey Maura, calling you back. I just got on the phone with Mary Fran, so obviously I’m here. Call me back when you have a chance. OK bye-bye.” Fifteen seconds. She sounded groggy and like her tongue was thick, or she had been crying. The calls were two weeks apart, not enough time to come to terms with her declining so quickly. One month later, she was gone. The message totals 26 seconds; that was all I had left of her voice. I should change her name in my phone. I know that once I do that, I’m admitting she is gone. Gone from me. Gone from my dad. Gone from my sisters. Gone from my kids. Irreversibly, gone.
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