Jennifer and her mother struggled to connect for a lifetime—until the impeding end made everything much clearer.
Within the hour, the time for discussion was over: The hospice called to tell me that Mom “experienced a decline in status and had grown unresponsive.” I cut the call short. I howled. Jack and I headed to our separate cars, in case we should need to keep alternating vigils if the death were prolonged.
Dawn was just breaking. At a red light on the ride over, a blur of movement in a graveyard caught my eye: a momma doe and her fawn both made eye contact with me. Then the doe leapt away, startled, while her fawn leapt in the opposite direction. In seconds, they were gone in the woods behind the graveyard. That fleeting vision prepared me for the next separation I would witness.
When I entered Mom’s room, I plopped on the bed where I sat before. I grabbed Mom’s hand, which was unresponsive and literally like ice; now I know where that expression comes from. Her hands’ penetrating cold contrasted with the heat emanating from her head and neck. I moved her hand and got into the hold position. Her breathing was labored; all that fluid had been building up and up as the tumor grew and shifted. The spot in which she’d specifically complained of pain was itself something new today: a protrusion on the already enormous beach ball in her belly. The tumor’s rate of aggression was surreal.
I’d been Mom’s sherpa throughout the past two weeks, helping her through each transition: from diagnosis to decision, from hospital to home, from home to hospice, and I knew she needed a sherpa to die as well, so that when her anchor shifted from one location to another, she’d see I wasn’t just a good tether but also a good rock to push off from. Jack was afraid I was “making it harder for Mom,” but I knew exactly what she needed from me. Above all, Jack’s karma was not at stake in this pass. Mine was.
As I got into hold position and brought my face near hers, I could hear all that fluid inside her, could see and feel her gasping but not fighting it. “I’m here,” I said, “and it’s okay, you’re okay.” She came out of that no-one’s-home dead gaze and connected with me, raising her eyebrows in disbelief. I could see some fear at the sensations she was having. “You really are okay,” I said, “and it’s okay to go.” She responded via her eyes and expression at that, so I said, “I love you.” I saw the eye connection and a quick expression before she gave into gurgles and let the liquid come fully up. I was still holding her and touching her chest and arms and face.
And then I rocked with sobs as I hugged the body she’d just left.
I pulled her eyelids closed because I didn’t want to associate with the non-person in those eyes. I covered the body completely, because literally it was a husk that possessed nothing of her subjectivity, of the person I knew. I rubbed her legs and arms through the blanket. My understanding was that the brain might have a few more minutes of processing after death—not much, but a little. If near-death experiences are to be believed, I wanted her to see that even in her absence, she would be cherished.
The nurses changed shifts just then, and Kim, the newly arrived nurse who’d last seen me the day before, said, “You look so peaceful.” I was. I felt emotions that I never had before in connection with a death—but then, I don’t know that I’ve encountered a death with someone where we worked out what we were supposed to do and mean to each in this life.
Kim asked me if I wanted the blankets. They were light, soft, friendly brown blankets my sister had brought for my mom to cuddle; until that moment, I’d planned to leave them. But suddenly I said yes. “If you told me yesterday that I would take blankets from my Mom’s dead body,” I said, “I would have told you you’re crazy. And now I want them badly.” She said: “I have my mom’s blanket. It’s a good memory of a good end.”
In the wake of Mom’s death, I’ve been thinking about my birth. It was remarkable, my parents told me, for its peacefulness: I had no birth trauma, not a mark on me, and my expression was placid. I find a fascinating parallel in holding Mom as I did—in birth, it’s two bodies entangled, until one releases the other to enter a new realm. Mom’s death in my arms was the same—just in the other direction. When she did it for me and when I did it for her, both times were surprisingly smooth.
I realize now how profoundly she loved me, even though I wasn’t loved in the way I wanted to be and at times needed to be, but those are the perfectly imperfect realities that enable us to be creative, adaptive, real, live grown-ups. I comprehend, looking back, how much pressure my mother was under to be The Perfect Mom. The desperation to embody that platonic form—a pressure that’s toxic for women in our culture—forced her into a role that wasn’t her authentic self, and the dissonance between self and role hurt her as much as it hurt me. It wasn’t the recipe for happiness after all.
As we prepared to say goodbye, I asked Mom many questions about things that had hurt me and things that had hurt her. I finally accepted: I was the imperfect daughter as much as she was the imperfect mother. And it wasn’t so much in her words that I found some relief but later, in the silence, in the gaze that passed between us hours before her death.
I returned the library books Mom was reading to the library. Out of habit, I then went to the mystery section to get more books for her, before I realized she wasn’t there to read them.
I have repeatedly found the most surreal moment of losing a parent—or anyone—is when you no longer have to worry about the “essentials.” After my Dad died, I picked up his coat and shoes from the cancer center to bring home, yet I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, wouldn’t he be freezing cold in this weather, and what, he should go barefoot? It’s that moment when you realize the books, the shoes, the coat are just stuff, as much as the body was just stuff.
Nighttime in a post-parent world is so fucking startling.
I replay her death and all that was mysterious and profound to me, and the ache isn’t what I thought it would be. It’s not like it was with my Dad, where I mourned the loss of his company; he was my best friend and the constant playmate in my life for 34 years. With Mom, it was more like falling apart after a whirlwind love affair: You fall head over heels in love with someone and do nothing else and think nothing else and breathe nothing else but that person, and then it’s over in some way that resembles getting hit in a car accident at high speed.
For weeks, the pint of ice cream I’d been feeding to Mom one coaxed spoonful at a time sat in the freezer untouched. I couldn’t eat it myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, either. With each thing connected to Mom, there has been some pain in letting it go—even in a partially eaten dessert. With each thing, I wait until I can handle letting it go, until the intuitive knowledge strikes me.
About a month after Mom died, I had to drive in the heat from the Philly ‘burbs to New Jersey. I had to bring my medications and my refrigerated probiotics with me; I couldn’t find the icepack I use to keep stuff cold in the car, so instead I grabbed the pint.
I figure Mom would want me to be practical.
Jennifer Clare Burke’s 2013 PW story, “The Obamacare Surprise,” won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Spotlight Award for health and medical reporting. Her books A Life Less Convenient and This World Is Desire are available at Amazon.com.
PW's Summer Guide 2015