We’re honoring Mom’s wish not to be kept alive by artificial means, but none of us knew back then to ask whether she wanted to be fed in this near-vegetative state. When I visit, I can’t help but spoon feed her yogurt my dad has brought to the Golden Age kitchen. I offer her sips from a straw. Sometimes she sucks, and sometimes she just holds the straw between her lips. She is starving. I knew this would happen, still I was not prepared for her emaciated limbs or her skin stretched tight over her skeletal face. Her organs will simply shut down, eventually. She sleeps 23 hours a day. Her large breasts have disappeared into her torso. She is starving to death.
Today I sit beside her bed and watch her chest rise and fall as she sleeps. I put on her favorite Glenn Miller CD, and I grade papers. What else is there to do? I hold her hand, and I write on my students’ papers with the other. I teach courses for students in poor academic standing, and today I’m reading their “History as a Student,” an autobiography of them as learners. I am often surprised at what they tell: the teachers they loved or how they came to hate school because of one defining incident, their addictions and their arrests, their romantic dramas. “Good insight,” I write. Or, “I’m sorry to hear that.” One student writes that his parents split up after his dad said to his mom about his terminally ill grandma, “How long do you think it will be before she dies, so I can leave for California?” I look at my mother, wheezing softly in her sleep.
“Oh my,” I write in the margin of his paper. Sometimes it’s the best response I can muster.
I put my papers aside and try to awaken Mom. It’s supper time and a CNA brings in yogurt and a can of Ensure, a liquid supplement. I touch Mom’s face, then her arms through her two layers of long sleeves, her legs through her quilt. “Wake up, sleepy head,” I say.
Her eyes flit open and shut, open and shut. At this moment, it’s like spotting a rainbow after a thunderstorm. Bright blue against her sallow skin. “There you are,” I say. I keep rubbing her face and arms. “You still like to be touched, don’t you?”
“Mm-huh,” she says.
Everything is important to me: the turn of my mom’s head as I guide her to a straw, her heavy breaths, the one black hair I pluck from the middle of her chin, the hollow of her eyes, each stroke of my hand on her tiny face. But nothing matters to me: not my kitchen floor, un-swept for days or the check engine prompt that keeps appearing on my dash or the stack of papers waiting to be graded. We sit and look—me gazing at Mom, her in a blank stare straight head. Even when I move my face so it is precisely in front of hers, there is no recognition in her eyes.
Mom hasn’t known my name for four years or my face for over a year, but I believe she feels my presence. I have to think she knows me now, at the very end, just as my own newborn son knew me—connected by primal wiring. I keep stroking Mom’s face and hair, and when I take a break she opens her eyes, perhaps telling me don’t stop. My touch, my smell, my voice, my Glenn Miller CD. She knows I’m near.
My mother believed the key to life was more life. She’ll never know that today we welcomed her great-granddaughter into the world.