Hospice has provided a hospital bed for my mom to keep her head elevated and more comfortable. The nurse tells my dad that they will leave Mom in bed from now on and turn her every two hours to keep her off of her terrible pressure sores. The next day the parish priest, Father Victor, comes to give Mom her last rites. It’s the final sacrament she will receive. We all know how it important it was to her to be anointed.
At some point, dying becomes nearly entirely about the living. I no longer worry how Mom is dealing with the end of her life—she is unaware—but how we are. How do we say our last goodbyes or what we do to help Dad adjust when she is gone? What will her obituary say, and how can I condense 82 years into 400 words?
The kind hospice social worker spends time with my dad in Mom’s room. I suspect that with this benevolent stranger he can let loose tears in a way he can’t with his daughters. He wants to be strong for us.
Mom will never again be moved from this bed. The CNA’s are keeping her “fresh”—changing her pajama top each day. There’s no reason for bottoms. She’s in a diaper and covered with many blankets. I sit near her and think that I will never experience my mom any way but this again. The last ten days, each time I visit, I bring my camera to take photos of Mom. Today my niece, Robin, is here from Minneapolis. I ask to take a photo of her—seven months pregnant—with my dad. They face each other and both laugh at the similar size of their bellies.
“No more pictures of your mom,” Dad says to me as he’s leaving tonight. “She looks like hell.”
It’s important for Dad that no one else see his Virgie like this: skeletal, mouth agape, two remaining teeth hanging out like a Jack-o-Lantern. It’s important for me to capture each moment of her last days, since I may never have this photo opportunity again. “Okay,” I say.
After Dad leaves, Robin sits on the edge of Mom’s bed and touches her through the blankets. Mom’s eyes are open, and she stares straight ahead. I don’t think she can see anything, but we can see her eyes. Robin and I talk about Mom’s beautiful skin. Even now there are very few wrinkles on her forehead, amazing given her age. I say, “Her whole adult life she gooped up with lotion every morning and night.” Robin reminds me that Mom’s cure-all was aloe, fresh from her own plants. She tells a story about when Mom walked into a glass patio door. It was so clean that she thought it was open. She immediately went to her aloe plant, broke off a leaf and rubbed the gel on her scraped and bruised nose. Robin and I laugh and laugh. “She was rushing out to look at a bird,” Robin says. My mom always got excited about her birds.
I want my mom to die like this, while some of her kids or grandkids are here with her, telling stories and laughing. I know she may be too nosey for that. How could she check out when people are talking in her room? She hated to miss anything.
While Robin says goodbye to her grandma, I go out to the kitchen to talk to the sister CNA’s, Konnie and Darla. They’re both on a sixteen-hour shift. Konnie’s got her shoes off—always a sign that she’s on the tail end of a double. I tell them that when my mom dies, I want someone to call me. My concern is that if she dies in the middle of the night, my dad will surely drive here alone in the dark. “And I want time with her body before the undertaker comes,” I tell them. They both nod.
I sit with Mom a long time after Robin leaves. I tell her that I’ll take good care of Dad and that all of her kids are fine. “You don’t have to worry about anything,” I say. “It’s time to go. Your mom’s been waiting for you for a long time.”
Another resident, Wilma, is walking the halls, and she stops near Mom’s open door. She knocks on a closet door in the hallway. I can glimpse her skinny torso from my spot beside Mom’s bed. “Are you there?” she is saying to the locked closet door. “Are you there?” My heart is so heavy right now, my legs so tired. I don’t have it in me to walk Wilma back to her room. I just let her knock.