Trigger warning: This post recounts my time with my mother in the last hours and moments of her life. It might be an upsetting or otherwise emotional read.
My mother died two months ago, and I am still in the process of processing it all. I imagine it will be a long process and likely one of those processes that is never complete.
As an expat, living nearly 6,000 miles from home, I always expected the death of my parent(s) to hold additional challenges – especially in the case where I didn’t get to say goodbye. However, I was home in America for Christmas with my folks when Mum died after a short and unexpected illness. And that meant I didn’t have the agony of “no goodbye” regrets. Indeed, I was there with her when she took her last breaths.
Mum’s (known) illness was “sudden and short”, and her health declined quite rapidly over the course of a few weeks. In the last days of her life, we decided that Mum would only receive “compassionate care” (in line with her wishes) and we all did our best to prepare for what we knew was coming. And we knew it was coming very soon.
I asked Daddy if he would be OK with someone staying with Mum around the clock for her remaining days. We agreed that I would stay that first night and my youngest sister, Royann, would stay the following night. Outside of the overnights, we would ensure that someone was always with Mum; she would never be alone.
When everyone left that last evening, and it was just me and Mum in the room, I pulled my chair up next to her. I wanted to be as near to her as I could be. (Had it been possible, I would have just curled up in bed with her to hold her in my arms.)
When the clock turned 8 pm, I realised that it was our normal “Sunday Skype” time (although for Mum, our Skype time was noon, given the 8-hour time difference). By this time, Mum was unresponsive, but still, I told her we’d have our “call” and talk about the things we normally spoke about on our weekly calls. I proceeded to tell her about my work and my run earlier in the day and a range of other “normal” topics. And I gave the “highlight” reel of our normal rants – lefty-liberal stuff and our shared views on x, y, and z. (Oh, how I miss our weekly Skype calls…)
The nurse came in hourly throughout the evening/night to give Mum pain medication. When this happened, I set my alarm for 15 minutes and closed my eyes to try to sleep. I never made it to the alarm, but the few minutes’ sleep I got each hour was enough to recharge me for my vigil. A vigil that saw me sitting there, my hand on Mum’s chest feeling her heartbeat and finding as much acceptance as I could in the knowledge that her heart wouldn’t beat for much longer.
As night turned to morning, I knew she would be gone that day; maybe very soon. But Dad was on his way to be by Mum’s side, and I was confident that he would be there with her for those last breaths.
And then, Mum’s breathing changed, and I knew she had moments, not minutes.
I knew that this was the end. And I wanted to help her; I wanted to save her; I wanted all the doctors to rush in and stop what was happening. But I knew they couldn’t stop this. I knew this was the end, and I knew that trying to stop it would not help. I had to let her go; I had to let her take those last breaths… and I had to find peace with that.
I knew these were her last moments on Earth, so I did everything in my power to speak calmly to her. I told her how very much I love her and how very lucky I was to have her as my mum, as my friend. I told her that we all loved her: Daddy, me, my sisters, her grandchildren, her siblings; all of us. And I told her that we would carry her with us forever; we would take her with us everywhere we go because she is a part of us.
As my mother drew her last breaths, I told her I loved her whilst I stroked her hair with my right hand and my left hand rested on her chest where I felt her last heartbeats. And when there was stillness, I sobbed into her chest, willing her to breathe again, but knowing that it was a selfish desire; she was at peace now and to breathe again would only bring back her pain.
A couple of minutes later, the doctor came into the room. And a couple of minutes after that, my father arrived, and I had to tell him that his wife of nearly 53 years was gone. I then stepped out of the room to give my father some time alone with my mother…
Mum died at a military hospital where they do a “flag ceremony” after a death. It’s a functional process of taking the body from the hospital room to the mortuary, but it’s done with a bit of ceremony in that the body is draped in an American flag and the corridor is lined with military and hospital personnel who salute the deceased as they pass by – something my proud United States Marine Corps mother would have really loved.
Because my sister, Royann, lives just down the road from the hospital, and family are allowed to be present for the flag ceremony, she came out to the hospital. When she arrived, she and our father went for a walk outside whilst I had the honour of helping the nurses wash my mother before they took her earthly body from the room. I combed her hair and I made sure that it looked just right for when Daddy came back to the room to see her one last time.
Then the three of us made the walk down the corridor with Mum’s flag-draped body. As we made our way past the hospital staff and military personnel, they each saluted my mother and I did my best to hold back the tears. We then stood together to say our final goodbyes, and to give our final “head-bumps” outside of the hospital mortuary, before leaving the building. And as I walked out into the fresh air, I was aware that my world would never again be the same.
The process of processing Mum’s death is ongoing. We delayed her funeral until early June, which means that the funereal mourning has yet to take place. I know it will be a cathartic part of the process, but I am dreading it because it will be another reminder that she is gone.
I wish so much that I had more time with my mother. But I will always be grateful for those last moments with my mother; the woman who raised me; the woman who helped shape me into the woman I am today; the woman who inspires me. And although I walk forward in this life without her physical presence, I will always remember her, I will always carry her with me. And I will always love her.