My mother’s name was Mildred Virginia Peacock Becker. She died shortly before 9/11, right at the end of an era. I spent the last week of her life beside her bed in a Connecticut old folks’ home… she was in a coma from numerous small strokes. I feel blessed to have been there with her for this passage, although she was barely conscious. I’d spent most of my life stressing our differences, but we had an uncanny psychic connection– like, my picking up the fone to call her and finding her already on the line without time for the fone to have rung…
I’d agonized over her living alone, and had planned to bring her to the West Coast to be with us in a room we’d build on specially. I even worked with old folks for several months, to learn what was involved: after the loss of a mate, the worst shock for an elder was being removed from their familiar surroundings. At the very least, our lifestyle in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Rim was radically different from hers in a small New England town!
She volunteered weekly in her own local old folks’ home, and used to say if she was ever headed for such a place, to take her out in the pasture and put a bullet in her head instead! This request was a little hard to respond to… My brother set her up with 24/7 care in the house Dad had built after we 3 left home, where she’d lived for 35 years, until her condition deteriorated.
So there I sat, next to her in this long-dreaded but nonetheless pleasant place. At first, she’d roll from one side of the bed to the other; at the near side she’d give me a tiny mischievous smile before rolling away.
Every day, there was less and less movement.
For some reason I felt she needed SPACE, and kept the television on to travel channels– those ones with half-dressed unshaven feral bachelors on windjammers and deserted islands.
The nursing staff was obliged by law to drag her out of her reverie at mealtimes and offer her spoonsful from trays of food, which she always brushed away. I found this particularly distressing as it had nothing to do with her wishes or condition– it was obvious to me that she was irrevocably on the way out, despite her physician’s willingness to maintain an ‘open mind’ about her chances of surviving. She was 92, for Goddess’ sake!! She’d been longing to die since Dad passed, 13 years earlier– her life job, daily maintenance of my brilliant father as a gift to the world– was officially over then, and although she found useful and interesting ways to enjoy her days, she prayed to be taken under God’s wings. Once, after a particularly melancholy fonecall from her, I had the temerity to suggest she stop eating. There was a stunned pause. Then she said “Oh, I couldn’t do THAT! They’d be angry with me!” She’d given herself over to the nursing staff.
So I sat there beside her, and spent the nights at the home of her best friend nearby, bless you Vi! and daughter Linda… There was a subtle level of emotional exhaustion to this vigil which I could not have predicted, which came from the lack of response. Mother and child to the end, some part of me hoped for a sentient remark or glance, but none was forthcoming. My back ached, sitting there– At one point a nurse asked ‘Mildred, are you in pain?’ and she nodded, and they administered a painkiller. I felt somehow shunned, and left for a couple of hours to regain some balance.
On returning, I noticed that the underneath of Mom’s forearms had become dark and burgundy… pooling from diminished circulation. A fonecall brought her minister (a kind and bearded man beloved by his 3 teenage daughters, quite a credential). Together we administered a homely form of Extreme Unction. It was… simple, and sincere, and very deep.
Something kept me from accompanying Father Jim outside… I returned to my vigil in the chair beside the bed, and held Mom’s hand. A lullabye from sailing camp came to mind, Baby Owlet, won’t you lend me your sweet pinions… at one point the words stopped in my throat. I stood up. Father Jim had released her, and Mom had died. As I watched, her face smoothed, became waxen, and I noticed with surprise that she and I have the same eyes! After all these years.
I took a rose from the bedside vase and put it over her heart. Now what? I walked out of the room and stood in the hall, and looked at the nurse reading in her station. My gaze caught her attention– ‘Has something happened? Oh, your mother has died!’
She came over and hugged me. There was one huge sob stuck there and released– everything else had passed during the week I spent saying farewell.
We washed her. The staff was pleasantly surprised– no one else had ever wanted to assist in this ritual.
Outside, behind the Home was a grassy hill. It felt like many other folks in similar circumstances had come there to stand a moment– a view of the Berkshires spread wide from side to side beyond the low stone buildings.
The sun set. The sky turned brilliantly turquoise blue as a white contrail streaked across coral clouds.
And my backache had left with her.