Christmas. Most of my friends are out of town. My mother is dying.
Our doctor visits, gives advice, support.
I tell her I didn’t think Mum would be able to speak so well.
"Sometimes at the end people become very clear.”
She writes prescriptions, listens to my mother’s chest.
"Her heart is still strong. We have a way to go.”
For dinner I feed my mother pieces of milk chocolate, custard, sips of cold white wine.
Mmm . . . good. Mum and Dad were over this morning and they just love my new place.
“Wonderful. Do you know who I am?”
You’re my baby. You’re my step, step away.
The homecare nurse visits, inspects, arranges and starts an IV for me to put drugs into. Listens to my mother’s heart.
I wish someone would listen to mine.
I lie beside my mother’s struggled breathing, her wet, constant cough. Pat her chest.
Is there enough compassion in there?
“Yes, Mum. It’s full, beautiful.”
“Is your hand bothering you?”
No, not really. Why?
“You’re rubbing your fingers.”
It’s much better than last night. Last night, this finger here was giving all the answers.
"Mum, are you looking at something? Is there someone in the room with us?”
Just a little bird.
I straighten her bedclothes, give her a sip of water.
“She’s coming first thing in the morning. She’s been baking all day just for you but you mustn’t let on, she wants it to be a surprise.”
I wish she were here now . . .
“So do I.”
I turn on the radio.
"We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring, to you and your kin . . .”
Turn it off.
I look through her music and choose a Chopin Prelude, op. 38. My mother closes her eyes, waving her hand left and right, beating perfect time.
Listen, there isn’t any room for the melody . . .
I take her hands and kiss them. Breathe them in. Fine, ladylike hands. Octave-reaching hands.
La la la, La la la, La La, La La
On her last trip to the bathroom she is frail, shaky. Her thin legs dangle high above the floor like a child’s. The back of her hair lies flat against her head.
My great big love, aren’t you?
My mother is restless. All day long and through the night she talks to people I cannot see.
"Are there people in the room?"
“Do you know them?”
I don’t think so.
“Would you like me to ask them to leave?”
Oh no, it’s fine. They’ll leave soon, thank you.
Every four hours I give my mother injections to ease her pain and restlessness. I put them into her IV, sometimes into her arm, trying to find a place that won’t make her wince but she always winces. I stroke her brow, give her ice chips to suck on, lift the thin damp strands of hair off her face. I’ve sent the caregiver away. I want to be alone with my mother.
I’ll tell you something . . . Cathie and I are covered in flowers.
Our doctor visits.
“It won’t be today.”
I start to cry.
"I don’t think I can do this anymore, I can’t bear it.”
“Yes, you can. I know you can. You can call me whenever you want to. You’re doing a great job, it won’t go on forever.”
But it does.
The flowers I’ve ordered arrive—three stems of deep pink, frilly-edged orchids and a dozen roses—bright red, tinged with orange.
I give my mother the drugs that are supposed to take away her moaning but they don’t. I run my hand over her brow, back and forth, cooing, stroking, nodding.
“There, there now.”
I wish someone competent was here, a take-charge sort of person, an English nanny. I wish someone would hold me. A man.
My mother is struggling to breathe. I listen to her trying to catch her breath and have trouble catching mine. I make myself tea and take the steaming cup out onto the balcony. A sliver of December sun catches my face.
A crow sits on a branch a few feet away.
“Pretty bird, pretty bird . . . you beautiful thing, you.”
I go back inside and call my bravest friends to sob out the horror of my mother’s dying.
"I don’t know what to do. I can’t stand it anymore.”
They tell me it will end and that I’m doing all the right things but no one can tell me how to stop my mother’s suffering, no one can tell me why my mother has to suffer.
The doctor comes.
"Not long now.”
My mother is a skeleton. Her face has angles I haven’t seen before. By late afternoon there’s a large red blister on her back. I call the homecare nurse, screaming.
"I was a nurse and I can’t even take care of her!”
“No, no, it happens almost all the time, no matter what you do.”
“I haven’t turned her enough, haven’t taken proper care of her skin. I haven’t done anything right!”
“You’ve taken wonderful care of her and she can’t feel anything now, it’s alright.”
I look out the window at the dark, empty street.
My mother is breathing through her mouth and no matter what I do I can’t keep her mouth and lips moist. Pieces of skin come away with each bloody lemon-flavored swab. She clamps down, won’t let go. I start to cry.
"I’m sorry, Mum. Please, let go . . .”
My mother is no longer awake. I watch her chest rise and fall in thin, uneven gasps and try to follow the shallow rhythm, in-out in-out, but I can’t get enough air.
It’s almost midnight.
Her finely shaped lips change from berry-stained to light rose to lavender, settle on a soft smoky gray, like the underbelly of a jellyfish. I kiss her forehead, her hollow cheeks.
"There, there, Mum. Almost over. It’s good, soon no more suffering.”
There are long seconds when my mother doesn’t breathe. I hold my breath and listen—was that my mother’s last breath, was that her last breath? Was that my mother’s last breath?
And then—there is no sound.