Note: This isn't quite finished. I doubt it will be "finished," ever. But I want to share it anyway, instead of fussing over each detail. The gist is here, and it's finished enough. It's a little bit too close for me to be completely objective. You'll understand when you read it.
We all knew my mother's days were drawing to a close.
The nearness of death was palpable. There had been other times prior, when the end had seemed certain… And then she had rallied, strengthened, come back to us. This time, though, it was different. The labored breathing, which suddenly required supplemental oxygen; the blank expression, except when it became rapt and attentive—and that, oddly, when she was looking past us. I couldn't help noticing that her most alert moments, when she murmured unintelligible words with purpose, happened when she was not looking at anyone in the room. At those moments, my mother spoke to someone else.
In a period of about 36 hours, she had changed from a somewhat functional and responsive person to a gaunt ghost of the woman she had been. It was clear the cancer and dementia were teaming up to claim her; she would not be celebrating her 84th birthday in a few weeks.
The family was in and out, my father a constant, anxious presence. My oldest sister, Sarah, had been there the day before, and now was out of town. Others had stopped by, and had ended up outside on the patio, unable to ignore her worsening condition, her obvious increased stress when noise levels rose in the room where she lay.
The caregivers had been working around the clock for the past couple of months as the situation deteriorated, and had borne the brunt of it, all with unflappable patience.
On Saturday evening, the day before her passing, discussion ensued about proper care for the overnight shift. The regular night nurse, Lin, had reservations about being alone. She'd seen this stage before, had witnessed the last hours of her other charges, and she knew the signs. The Hospice packet of heavy-duty meds lay waiting in the refrigerator, and had already been accessed several times... It would likely be needed again, and soon. Lin and Lottie conferenced quietly, then approached my dad to explain Lin's concern.
I listened to their conversation. I had been there through the day, and now was heading home to be with my young son; I knew I couldn't stay to support Lin on this night.
"I can stay with you," said the main nurse, Lottie; she also happened to be Lin's sister, and the very person who had recently enlisted her.
"But you've been here all day," Lin argued.
"I'll be all right. It's typical at this point to have two people on duty," Lottie replied. This wasn't her first rodeo, she had reminded us many times as my mom got worse. Lottie knew the end-of-life signs even better than Lin, having made caring for others her life's work.
My father agreed to the double coverage without hesitation. At this point, all hands were needed on deck; we had stayed the course throughout the journey thus far, and there was no reason to falter now. We had entrusted these ladies with my mother's life, literally. She had been in very capable hands.
"I'll come back tomorrow, and stay tomorrow night. Okay?" I offered. "Tom is home tomorrow night, and that will work fine. Mark can be home with him while I'm here."
"All right, Alyssa. That will work," Lottie responded. The plan was laid.
I gathered my belongings, said my goodbyes, and stopped last at Mom's bedside. "'Bye, Mom—I'll see you tomorrow." There was no response, her eyes were mostly closed, so I kissed her on the cheek and headed out.
The drive home was uneventful, the roads fairly clear, unlike the fullness of my brain. Mostly, I prayed the same thing I'd been praying: Lord, please don't let her suffer. Lord, please take her before this gets any worse, please don't let her hang on and on when she is actually already gone from us. God had been so faithful already: there had been no pain in a situation where every doc told us to expect it. Lottie for over two years, and then also her sister—the wonderful women who had come to our aid were truly angels. The visiting Hospice nurse, the friends and family who'd brought food and laughter and distraction, the pastor who'd stopped to encourage so faithfully. Even my mother's last two weeks were blessed; she had told my father she was going to take a long journey, was going to see her family… and she was the last surviving member of her family. I think she knew, through the fog of dementia, what was happening. She was ready. So, so many answers to my prayers.
At home, I immediately sent messages to my sisters and a niece, reiterating the seriousness of the situation. The niece and her little girl had been there with me earlier in the day. She echoed my sentiments; the words "death bed" were aptly used.
Middle sister Anne was planning to go back on Monday, when kids would be back in school and she'd have a few hours free from playing taxi. "Anne—I don't think we have until Monday," I messaged back. Anne made a new plan, to visit the next day, Sunday. The evening slipped away quickly, my mind heavy.
And then it was Sunday morning, time for church, the hustle and bustle, hurrying to get there on time. We sang a praise song, and I remember feeling very peaceful, mentally rested, in spite of everything. Nothing had changed with Mom's condition—I had checked with my father earlier Sunday morning—but something had relaxed inside of me. I went home with my son, and we waited for my husband Tom to get home from his Sunday school class so I could head down with bag packed for an overnight stay.
And then, a text message. From sister Anne. They needed the Hospice nurse's private number, right now. I had left it on the refrigerator, but in the confusion of the previous day, had forgotten to mention that to anyone. I texted it to her quickly, and as I sent it on its way, it crossed paths with another note from Anne: "We think she may be gone."
Oh. My. There's a simple phrase that'll make your heart flop.
But I don't want to tell a story about my mother's passing. I want to tell a story about God's goodness. So here is where I skip ahead a bit. Of course I drove quickly down to stay as planned, thanking Jesus through tears for yet another answered prayer—a quick departure, and no lingering. As you probably have guessed, I did not see my mother alive again. We all gathered for the next three days, my father and sisters and I, and did what needed to be done. We spent a couple of days in a blur of grief diffused by a whirlwind of activity, of company, of throngs of people and hugs and tears and flowers and food and wine.
And somehow, we reached the burial day. A lovely day it was, weather-wise and otherwise. The churchyard where her body lies is situated on a hilltop, and I wondered, looking into that stunning blue sky, how much more beauty must surround my mother in Paradise. The pastor shared wonderful, hopeful words, honored her, buoyed our spirits. We held a casual luncheon with those who'd known her best, and shared a meal, but mostly we shared memories.
As we cleaned up afterward, and carried bowls and slow cookers back to vehicles, I had a moment to chat with Lin and Lottie, to thank them again for their selfless care of my mother. "We knew it was close," said Lin. "That's why I wanted Lottie to stay with me that last night. I knew. And then I saw those angels."
"What?" I asked. "What angels?"
"I saw three angels through the night. I sat facing the front door, and Lottie sat in the other chair next to the bed, and your dad lay on the couch when he wasn't sitting next to your mom… We were all trying to get some rest between checking on her… And I saw an angel in the front doorway, three times."
"What did it look like?" I asked.
"Just a bright outline of light. Just there in the doorway, three different times. And there were those voices, too."
"Lottie and I both heard them, those last couple of days leading up to her passing. In the next room where the television is. I thought I was losing my mind until I mentioned them to Lottie, and then she said she'd heard them, too. Murmuring, they were, not words you could make out, just quiet talking. It wasn't scary or anything, and then the day and night before she passed, I heard them again, louder." Lin was very matter-of-fact about it.
"I'd heard them, too. You couldn't tell what they were saying, just the sound of voices, like they were having a conversation," Lottie chimed in, nodding.
I processed this for a minute. Was that who my mother had been talking with when she looked past me? And I haven't explained her last few hours on this earth, and I should. She was hanging on, stubbornly clinging to life. The pastor was called in, and then my sister Anne and her girls arrived. My mother was in her favorite place, her home; she was surrounded by love, her husband by her side; she had a chance to say goodbye to all of her close family. The pastor and a granddaughter sang to her, and she took her last breath.
She hadn't lasted more than an hour after Anne's arrival. I suspect that's what she was waiting for, to see and hear each of us. I like to think that's what she was murmuring about, with those angels, maybe with Jesus himself—arranging her departure, every detail, just the way she wanted it. She was attended by earthly and heavenly angels, and music. She said her goodbyes, and then she was escorted to the Next Place.
It was as good an end as it could have been. I think about it, and am amazed again and again. How good He was to her, to us. I am thankful. My faith is strengthened and confirmed. We are loved more than we could imagine; we need only receive, accept, be grateful. And tell people, too. My mother's story becomes my story to share, so that others can see the lovingkindness of God even in terrible trials.
I hope for a heavenly escort myself, someday. Music and blue skies? That would be icing on the cake.