I sit with Mom on Thursday after work. She’s sleeping so deeply that even when I put a wet sponge in her open mouth to moisten it, she doesn’t stir. I wash her face with a warm wash cloth and rub lotion on her face and neck. Even since my last visit two days ago her face feels smaller in my hands. While Mom sleeps I call my sister, Juliann, and put her on speaker phone. Somehow I think our loud, familiar voices might rouse Mom. I set my phone on the table next to Mom’s bed, and I use both of my hands to rub her body through her blankets while Juliann and I talk. Though she was here just four days ago, I know how difficult it is for Juliann to be four hours away. We talk on and on. This was our Saturday ritual for the last fourteen months that Mom lived here: I visit Mom at lunch time, and I put Juliann on speaker phone for Mom to listen. Before Mom lived at Golden Age, I used to give her Saturday baths at home and while Mom lounged in the livingroom in her robe, we talked to Juliann on the speaker phone. It was just like she was in the room with Mom.
“Dad’s good,” I tell my sister today. It’s what she needs to hear, and today it also happens to be true. He was with Mom earlier, and she didn’t wake up. He has lunch plans tomorrow with old friends. I wrote Mom’s obituary, and he added a few things. “We just have to fill in the blanks,” he said. He means the date on which she dies.
Tonight when I walk out Mom’s door, I realize I haven’t said goodbye. I go back and kiss her on the eyelid. “See you, Mama.”
My sister Geralynn visits after me, and she overlaps with our sister Mary and a great grandson.
Geralynn calls me when she gets home and we make plans to visit Mom this weekend at the same time. I say, “It’s so much better if we go together.” What I mean is, I hate waiting more than anything in the world, and we are waiting for Mom to die. “Mom must have a strong heart,” Geralynn says. We can’t believe she survived this long.
I’m so exhausted that I go to bed around 9:30. At 11:00 I dream my phone is ringing. I pick up just as someone hangs up. I see the number and know it’s the nursing home. “This is it,” I say to my husband. “I’m sure my mom died.” I call the number back and a CNA says, “Your dad didn’t answer. We didn’t want to leave a message. Virgie’s gone.” I call Geralynn, who I know will realize our mother is dead as soon as she sees my name on her phone at this time of night. Then I call David. He once told me he never answers the phone because he doesn’t want to get “the call.” He answers immediately. The curse of caller ID is that we guess bad news before we hear a voice. David says he will call Joey.
I slip out of my pajama bottoms and pick today’s pants out of the hamper and put them on. I dig in a drawer for a sweatshirt and wonder if this CNA happened to check on Mom and notice she wasn’t breathing. What if she was dead this whole time, and I didn’t know it. I was putting away laundry or brushing my teeth, and my mom was dead. I’m not sure why that troubles me so.
In the car I call Juliann. Then I call my dad. He answers on the second ring. “I’m coming to pick you up,” I say.
“I’ll be dressed when you get here,” he says.
I pick up Geralynn, and then we both go in to get Dad. He’s standing in the kitchen with his coat on. “After you,” he says and ushers us out the door.
Dad’s in the passenger seat, and Ger’s in the back. I feel like I have to say something. “I’m so glad this is over,” I say to Dad.
“Tears of joy,” Dad says. He looks out the window. I realize that I rarely drive this late at night. Our small town is quaint and lovely at this hour. We’re the only car on the road, and my mom is dead.
We walk into Mom’s room, and Mary and her daughter, Karri, are sitting in chairs across from Mom. “We were here when she died,” Mary says. I throw my arms around her neck. “I’m so glad you were with Mom,” I say.
“I just got done reading your blog to my mom and Grandma,” Karri says to me. They noticed Mom’s breathing changed, and then nothing. In other circumstances I might make a joke that it was cause and effect. My writing might put someone to sleep, but never this.
Mom looks exactly like she did 5 hours ago when I was here, except her quilts are not moving with each breath. I touch her face and her hair. I take my turn with her and then move to another side of the room, so another child can be near her.
Soon Joey and his wife then David and his wife arrive. Dad opens a folding lawn chair near mom’s bed and sits down. I call my other sisters, Sharon and Jackie, who live away.
“You sit for awhile,” we take turns saying to each other. There are ten of us here and four chairs. We are somber but nobody cries. Mostly we laugh, a nervous response, or simply what we do best together. A hospice nurse asks when we want the undertaker called. “It takes about 30 minutes for someone to get here for the body, once I make the call,” she says.
Dad says, “I got my pants on in 30 seconds. What’s his problem?” We laugh some more.
It’s after midnight and I realize my son may be ending his bartending shift soon. I call, and he doesn’t pick up. He calls me back. “Grandma died,” I say.
“I’ll be right there.” I didn’t expect this response, but I’m so glad to have him near.
As I wait for Alex, I look at my watch and hope the undertaker doesn’t show before my son does. I don’t recall the time that either was called. I’m tired and flighty and maybe a little bit high on adrenaline. Alex comes in the front door ten minutes later. I give him a hug and thank him for coming. He says that he knew about Grandma as soon as he saw my call. “I could have had great suggestions for your religious studies paper,” I tease. He sent me his paper right before I visited my mom this afternoon, and he asked for a read-through. “Maybe something that couldn’t wait till morning.”
When the undertaker arrives, he shakes Dad’s hand and offers condolences. We make plans to go to the funeral home at 11 am the next day. “You can bring her dress and undergarments then,” the undertaker says. Dad looks at me. We both know that we gave away all of my mom’s underwear at least a year ago. I look at a sister-in-law, who ended up with most of them. “We can get some,” I say to Dad. I don’t want to explain to this stranger that Mom’s been in diapers for longer than a year, and Dad offered her underwear to other family members.
Dad says to the undertaker, “Why does she need underwear? No one’s gonna lift her dress and look.” We all laugh.
I’m sure this guy deals with many family members who are relieved when a long-suffering Mom or Dad finally dies, but perhaps none so punchy as we are right now. It’s 1 in the morning, and our dead mother is lying inches from us, quilts covering everything but her face. We carry on our conversation as if we always gather in this tiny room at this hour with a corpse. Dad puts Mom’s glasses in his shirt pocket, and I slip her dentures in my coat pocket. We’ll need both when we visit the funeral home tomorrow.
We file out of Mom’s room and some of us linger in the hallway. “Do you need me to go tomorrow?” a brother asks. “I think we’re set,” I say. Dad walks out the front door and the familiar alarm buzzes and buzzes. He’s ready to get home.
“Bus is leavin’,” Dad says to me, what he used to say to Mom each time he was heading out to start the car and wait for her.