I flew in on the red-eye from the West Coast to Atlanta, rented a car, and drove the rental car 45 minutes northeast to the small town where my mother lives just as the sun was coming up. I’ve made this trip from west to east coast numerous times over the last few months and several times in a crisis mode, as I am now. My mother has gotten weaker and smaller and more vulnerable with each passing week, kicked off by a debilitating virus at the end of December.
Bleary-eyed, I walk into her darkened room at the assisted living home at around 5:30 a.m. The hospice caretaker is writing on a pad, sitting quietly in the often-reupholstered wing chair, my mother’s favorite place to sit, her grandfather’s chair. Many of her things have been moved to make room for a large, steel-framed hospital bed, with protective bars along the sides of the bed, that takes up most of the space. I slip the cold, metal bars down so I can move closer. I take my mother’s hand, smaller but still soft and smooth, in mine. Her brown eyes open and widen, with great intensity.
“It’s you,” her lips move into an almost smile, with great effort. She looks at me directly, extremely focused.
“Yes, I’m here, Mother. I love you.” I reach down to gather her frail, thin shoulders in my arms to hug her, to touch her, to let her know how much I love her. My ear is close to her lips.
“I’m dying.” She whispers, slowly and deliberately. She pauses. “Good-bye. I love you.”
I hug her. Tighter. Tears flood my eyes and spill in waves down my cheeks. Emotion clogs my throat. My mother has always, even when I was a small child, talked to me with unembellished honesty, sometimes entrusting me with secrets and knowledge well beyond what a child normally receives. She always tried to help me understand why things happen the way they do or the rationale behind her beliefs and values and those of others. She taught me to look at people as individuals. Once again she is sharing her honest assessment of the situation, at once bringing me into the inner circle of her secret thoughts, collaboratively, helping me to understand, and preparing me for what is ahead in her usual thoughtful, loving, and thoroughly open way. And this time, I know that she has summoned from somewhere deep inside her the energy to focus just on me, let me know how much she loves me, and help me with this transition I’m about to experience. She has somehow put her dementia and physical frailty aside to deliver this intense affection directly to me. The nicest gift I could ever receive.
This transition is a much larger one than I expected. I am no longer part of the sandwich generation. My mother has been my only living parent. I will no longer receive direct support and sustenance from my mother, although the dementia that my mother experienced much reduced her ability to express these emotions in the last years. But I still felt them every time her brown eyes got big and excited when I entered her room. She has never failed to recognize me and rejoice in seeing me, in her intense but increasingly smaller ways.
Suddenly, I am no longer arranging my schedule and that of my family to fly to see her as often as possible. I won’t be taking her on shopping excursions, to see movies or museums, or out to lunch and dinner. I won’t be making time in my life for calls and visits or analysis of her prescriptions, medical care, or bills. I won’t be ordering yellow roses or lavender orchids, her favorites, to brighten her room—and her face. I won’t be seeing her big brown eyes widen with joy when I come through the door. The void is huge. The transition is difficult. But I know that death is part of life. My mother taught me that.