August 13, 2022, 4:00 a.m.
My purse knocks against my thighs as I sprint toward the bright red ER sign of the hospital.
It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.
My mind flashes to a scene in Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is on the verge of being launched into space in an extraterrestrial aircraft. When the spaceship begins shaking as it ignites, through her fear, Ellie continues to utter, I’m okay to go.
Even though she doesn’t know what awaits her on the other side, she continues to say these words.
It’s okay to go, Mom. You don’t have to wait for me, is my prayer.
But I’m still running.
I’m running because none of her children are there.
Because my father died alone, without anyone who loved him to hold his hand.
I’m running because my heart is screaming for just one more moment to be with her before she escapes to places where I cannot follow.
Just one more moment.
Just one more moment.
I’m running because Love compels me.
And I will expend every last ounce of my energy to help someone I love.
The ER sign grows larger in my sight and I am breathless already because I’m so anemic. But I keep running, my heart pounding in my chest, fighting the lightheadedness, my lungs seizing.
And part of me wonders if my heart has known for years that this is how it would all unfold.
If my body was simply following the rhythms of my heart.
And now those early morning runs, my feet pounding the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., have prepared me for this very moment.
To run to my mother at this very hour, when she needs me the most.
Perhaps my heart has felt this moment approaching for years.
I haven’t really slept in days.
(It always seems like it’s dark when these things happen.)
My dreams aren’t dreams right now. They are instant replays of the last three days, holding my mother’s hand, watching her heart rate tick up, up, up as her face loses its color, its tone. Her eyes struggling to remain open.
(Labor and Birth.)
The image had been replaying in my mind for hours and hours.
It’s both too early. And too late.
(Dying and Death.)
I burst through the doors to the ER and slow to purposeful walk until I reach a set of double doors. I jiggle them. Locked.
A voice comes on over the intercom.
“Can I help you?”
“I need to get in. My mother is dying.”
“Do you need help getting there?”
“No,” I say. Then I repeat the number of the hospital room.
The door unlocks.
And I’m hustling now to the end of the hallway toward the first set of elevators. I need to go to the seventh floor. The buttons read 1, 2, and 3. I press 3, going as high as I can go. I ask for more directions, someone at a nurse’s station, a security guard, a custodian.
Every person stops what they are doing and guides me.
Down this hall, to the left.
What floor? Down that hall, take a second left. You’ll find the elevators to the seventh floor.
What room? Those rooms are in the west wing. Hang a right at the Exit sign.
I’m hurrying down the hallway when I see Doug come out of the room, flagging me down. He hugs me tightly.
“She stabilized again,” he says.
I gaze into the room and see that my mother’s bed has been lowered nearly to the floor. Warren is seated on her left, holding her left hand, the softer, unbroken one.
This room at the top of the hospital is dim, barely lit at all. The brightness and bustle of yesterday’s ICU room proclaimed plans and interventions. Real hospital work. But this room lacks any of that. Instead, it has been emptied, drained of all the light and equipment and interruptions. I wade into its stillness, as if it were a pond, the water barely rippling around my movements as I press forward.
She breathes heavily through her mouth. Says nothing.
There aren’t as many tubes and wires connected to her anymore. Just enough to monitor her heart and oxygen. An IV port for medication. Warren tenderly holds her arm where her last IV was threaded by Maria, an excellent nurse on the fourth floor who took the time to warm my mother’s arm with compresses to thread the IV on the first try into her tiny veins. The tape over the IV still bears the nurse’s initials and the date, MR, 8/11.
The monitor shows her vitals in bright green numbers and letters.
“Her heart rate is 155?” I ask Doug.
155 is my heart rate when I’ve been running for 30 minutes.
“She’s been holding at that for hours. Until just before I called you. Her vitals started dropping, but she rebounded.”
He pauses and his voice breaks.
“I think she’s waiting for you.”
I look at her chest rising and falling rapidly, how she is still fighting, even here at this late hour.
We could be here for hours, waiting for her body to surrender.
But I am resolved.
I will bear this moment for her. I will be here for her, no matter how long it takes. No matter how hard this gets.
“Mom, it’s Sharon,” I say. “I’m here.”
She breathes heavily, the cool washcloth still folded over her brow. Her eyes are closed.
I have no plan for this moment. I wasn’t committed to being in the room with her when she passed. I’ve allowed myself to accept whatever fate would have for the end of my mother’s life.
Whatever was bound to happen would unfold just as it should be. And it did not need to involve me.
But here I am.
In this room.
And I know that Death is here.
I feel it thick and still in the air around me. It doesn’t spin around us, like a vortex pulling my mother into some other dimension. It drifts and floats, like dust in the air when the light shines through a window. Only there’s nothing to see. You can only feel it, seeping like thick syrup, settling heavily into your ears, your mouth, your nose. So heavy is Death in this room that simply uttering words takes a concentrated effort, not to mention anything meaningful or heartfelt.
I open my mouth to speak and, at first, I choke, the sob caught in my throat.
I push it down and remember.
I will bear it for her.
“I’m going to play some music for you, okay, Mom?” I say calmly, searching for the live version of Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, just recently performed at the Newport Folk Festival less than a month ago. “I’ll start with the one that you said you loved last night. Remember that? I played it for you and you said, ‘I love it.’ It was a little hard to hear you, but I know you said it. Here it is.”
I let the song play without interruption and we all listen to Joni sing to my mother with her haunting, soulful voice. I hold my mother’s right hand, rubbing her knuckles, her fingers. I say nothing.
But now they only block the sun
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
More tears fall and I wipe them with the back of my hand.
I can tell how loved she is, the ICU nurse on the second floor, Regina, had said as she administered morphine the night before, into the IV that Maria had placed. Two amazing human beings who treated my mother with such compassion.
So many people here with her. You’d be surprised how many people leave this world alone in these rooms.
Have more heart-breaking words ever been said?
The song finishes and soon we are listening to troubles melting like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, rainbows stretching off into the distance, leading my mother to an unknown land.
I want that so much for her.
Even as my heart cries out for her to stay.
I want for her to wander into a land of rest and peace, where her memories of broken hips and legs and arms and necks, of cancer, of diabetes, of untreatable, chronic pain… Where all these memories become nothing but distant moments in time through which she has persevered. Where she has no need for morphine or demerol or toradol or fentanyl or hydrocodone or any of the other medications that only cut the pain in half.
Tears and more tears. I pull her hand to my wet cheek. Just two days ago, when she could still utter words, I asked her if she was in any pain. She fought to simply whisper the words, “They can never make it pain-free.”
I wish I could have born some of this pain for her.
But I know her better.
She would never have allowed that.
Just as I would never allow my children to bear my pain.
The song finishes again and I look over my shoulder at the heart monitor.
156. 154. 155.
The fog of Death that surrounds us is growing. Why is it getting heavier?
Doug is seated behind me, his head rested against my mid-back, as if literally supporting me so I don’t fall over. Every now and then, I feel him turn to look at the monitors. Warren is gripping my mother’s hand, sometimes pressing it to his face, sometimes lowering to the bed and bending forward over it.
It’s so hard to remain upright. I’m not sure how I could explain to anyone else why, in this moment, simply sitting up and speaking takes unimaginable strength.
But it does.
How many moments has my mother faced that were as heavy as this? What would she do?
And then I know what to play.
The soft notes of the song begin and I’m transported back to those final minutes, laboring with Henry, this song soothing my ears while my screams filled the air and my hips lit on fire. Those last moments just before I hemorrhaged and nearly bled to death on the bed, only minutes after I finally pushed Henry free from me.
“I played this song when I was in labor with Henry,” I say. I pray that she can understand. That she feels my intention. Because I cannot find my words to articulate it in this moment.
What I want to express is that I’ve been here before, in this most sacred of spaces. More sacred than any cathedral or altar. I’ve been here before–But never on this side.
There is a stillness in the air when Life enters this world that I cannot explain to anyone who has not been present for it.
Now, I know that there is also an unexplainable stillness when Life leaves this world.
We all want to bear witness to the beginning of Life. We believe that it is good and holy and pure.
But who wants to bear witness to the end of Life? Even though it is just as sacred?
I will bear it for her, I tell myself.
“Mom,” I hold my voice steady. “I want to tell you that it’s okay to go. You don’t have to stay here for us. We’re all going to be okay.”
I pause and consider what to say next. Doug and Warren are both bent forward, their heads bowed, reverently as I speak, my head lifted, my back straight.
Now, I understand. Why Death is so thick, so heavy.
This room is not empty.
It’s overflowing with everyone waiting for her.
My father. My mother’s mother. My mother’s father. And on and on. The generations have poured into this room, surrounding her and holding her, just as They held me when I cried out for help in laboring with Henry.
They have returned, these People of my Blood.
My heart almost cannot stand it.
I know what to say now. I close my eyes and I speak without any hesitation.
“And Mom…everyone is here with you. It’s not just me and Warren and Doug. Everyone is here. Anna is here. Nate and Lisa are here. Holly and Corey here. Dominic is here. Felicity and Henry are here.”
The words are spilling forth from me, as if she’s relinquished her sword to me and allowing me to fight this last battle for her.
So I will not stop.
I will do this for her.
I will help her over to the Other Side.
I keep listing all our family, as many as I can remember, all her brothers and sisters, their spouses, their children, her cousins, her friends. My shoulders hurt now, physically ache, simply from the action of sitting upright. I can almost feel my mother transferring her burdens, her cares, her wishes, her regrets, her Love, all to my own shoulders.
Perhaps that’s what Death really is.
A great transfer of all the emotions and cares that one person has carried to those they leave behind.
I will bear it for her.
The hospital door opens, but I don’t look at who it is. Words are still pouring out of my mouth, names, reassurances that we’re going to be okay.
“It’s okay to go, Mom. We will all be okay. You can go. Dad is waiting. Your mom is waiting. Your dad is waiting.”
“It’s okay to go, Mom.”
“It’s okay to go.”
I repeat this over and over, my last reassurance to my mother.
That if she would be courageous enough to press on toward the unknown, I would also be courageous and press on here in her place.
I choose to carry this pain of losing her. For the rest of my life.
Because it will free her.
“You gotta go, Sweetie,” Warren says, his voice as broken as his heart. He clutches her hand to his lips and kisses it, his tears freely falling. “I’ll see you there.”
“Mom,” my voice shakes. “There’s not a single person who loves you who can’t be here for you right now. We are all here and we love you so much.”
Doug taps me, but I keep going.
“But we’re going to be okay, Mom. I promise you. It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.”
I say it over and over again.
Doug taps me again, but I keep going.
“And the last thing I’ll say, Mom, before you go…” I take a breath. “I just want to thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches.”
Warren reaches across the bed, over my mother’s body, and grasps my hand.
“She’s gone, Sharon.”
It’s true what they say about how a person changes in that first minute after death. In that first minute after death, I surrender to the wave of grief crashing over me and weep over my mother’s arm and hand until I feel her go cold.
But that coldness is all it takes for me to know wholly and thoroughly that the thing that made my mother who she was–a spirit, a soul, an essence–was not her body. She was not just skin and organs and fluids. She was so much more than this body that is now left, apart from her.
I’m the first to stand up.
It’s surprisingly easy to do.
To get to my feet and walk out of this room, knowing that I’m stepping into the shoes that my mother is leaving behind. She would be the one to say the hardest words to the people who need to know.
I feel it already, the passing on of matriarchy.
I will be the Keeper of Family Memory from now on. The one to memorialize what we’ve lost. The one to keep her memory alive by baking her recipes. The one to be a mother to all of us left behind.
And it starts now. With this walk down the hallway, where I will say the hardest words to say in this moment. I will say it.
At the nurse’s station, a young woman is eating what looks like her lunch, a large bowl of noodles, something that requires her to anchor her head over the bowl to not make a mess. 4:30 a.m. I suppose it is lunch for the night nurses.
She sees me and puts down her spoon.
I point to the room behind me.
“She just passed.”
The nurse’s face goes solemn.
“I’ll let the doctor know right away.”
I shake my head.
“There’s no rush.”
Dawn is breaking by the time I arrive back at the hotel.
I meet my sister in the lobby of the hotel. She is sitting on a bench, tears already running down her red cheeks. I lean down, hold her by the back of her head, and kiss her forehead. She stands to hug me.
Then, I tell her everything, as much as I have the words for. There is too much that I don’t have words for yet, that I don’t fully understand yet, that I will need time to make sense of, that I will need to find the language for. But I say as much as I can and promise to myself that someday I’ll sit down and commit the sacredness of this morning to human memory, that it may never be lost.
But in this moment, what I say over and over again is this:
“I told her we were all there. And we were. We were.”