Over the years, my mother and I shared a number of disagreements:
- The critical nature of house-cleaning schedules—
- The “truth” of Catholicism—
What “lady-like” means–
The discipline of only buying things on sale.
But we shared a lot of the same beliefs, even if we weren’t able to exhibit them perfectly:
- It is better to be kind than to be correct—
- Don’t judge, or you’ll find yourself in the position of the judged soon enough—
- Have the courage to do the right thing—
- Nothing is as important as love.
Mom was a teacher by trade and by avocation. In her passion she enriched her student’s lives, including mine, in unexpected ways. She never managed to teach me to sew, but as I find myself enjoying a particularly magnificent sunset, I’ll remember her saying:
Debbie, look at those golden clouds. Don’t they look as if they’ve been swept by the sun?
It was Mom who taught me to wonder at the intricate design of flower petals and rain storms, and to appreciate them with awe. After spending hours scouring my house, I can sit back and admire the beauty only order creates, remembering Mom’s great patience. But the most important thing I learned from Mom was incidental, as a voracious cancer ravaged her brain and her body.
I became her care-giver—a job I embraced. As her disease progressed, she was forced to relinquish her fierce modesty. And in that letting go of pride, we melded together as neither of us could have imagined. The strict boundaries that defined our roles softened. Now as her nurse, she no longer saw me as the daughter she thought she had to tutor. Now as the strong one, I no longer strove to prove myself worthy. So many years after giving me life, still mother and daughter, we were equals in this last dance.
One month after her diagnosis, the ambulance was called and the vigil began.
On a warm evening in late May, I agreed to leave Mom’s bedside to drive my sister to the airport, leaving the rest of our large family in Mom’s hospital room. She had been comatose for days, but Patty needed to get home to her young family. We were quiet on the ride, both lost in private thought. Hurrying her through the terminal doors, I gave her a quick hug. Mentally, I was already back behind the wheel, desperate to return to the hospital. The need was physical.
But there was a traffic jam on I-95 and the usual 30-minute trip seemed to take forever. I prayed with tears streaming, fearing I wouldn’t get back in time to say good-bye. Moments flashed through my mind as I remembered all the times my mother was my champion: the days my children were born, the time my baby son was operated on, the day I went to divorce court. Mom was always there. Now, I would be alone.
“Why aren’t we moving?” I demanded out loud. Panic rushed my ears, my throat as dry as paper. “Please, God. Please, God,” I chanted over and over. Finally the traffic opened and I was moving again.
I sped through the hospital parking lot, slammed the car into park and raced through the doors to the elevator, smashing the “UP” button with my palm. Impatient, I considered running up the flights to Mom’s floor. What would be faster? Waiting or running?
The doors gape open.
Hit the circle with the number three. Doors close in slow-motion. No choice but to be anything but still. Wait. Try to calm down. Pass the nurses’ station. Hurry on rubbery legs.
It takes all my strength to open the heavy door. Inside, I see my brother and sister-in-law beside my mother’s bed. The light is soft. “The nurse just left,” hushes Leona. “She thinks Mom will be leaving soon.”
I sit opposite my brother, and take Mom’s hand. “I’m here,” I whisper. “It’s Debbie. I love you.” I bend to loosen the too-tight elastic of the oxygen mask and kiss her cheek; my brother exclaims, “Debbie, look!” and I see my mother, who hasn’t spoken, or used her eyes, or shifted her weakened limbs, or acknowledged us in over four days, raise her arm and gently wave good-bye. The moment is brief. Effortlessly, she leaves her body behind.
I know, as strongly as I have ever known anything before or since, that she is not really gone. She is with me now as I tell this story, loving me more than ever. The inevitable end of this brief life is not the end of us. There is no final good-bye, no last farewell. Our dance goes on.