I was reluctant to leave for lunch. Ever since mom’s admission to the hospital the previous night, she’d acted peculiar. Her words were as foggy as her brain.
“Where’s Maxine?” she asked. Maxine, my older sister, had just slipped out to eat. Before I answered, mom continued in her drunken tone. “Oh, I know. She’s downstairs being chastised.”
In her mind, we were back in time. My forty-eight year old sister was nine years old, her mouth foaming with soap as a punishment for back-talking. And I was Elva, Mom’s younger, spoiled sister.
Time slipped from my mother’s mind as it had from my hands. Should we have brought her to the emergency room late last night when she failed to watch Jeopardy? What was happening?
Mom screamed out, the raw squeal of a wild leopard, as she grabbed one side of her head. I saw pain radiating through her head, hot sparks snapping. It was that movement, the unearthly sound, that reaffirmed what I suspected: Mom was in the beginning throes of a massive stroke. She would never be the same again.
After the pain subsided, Mom whispered, “I’m going to die.”
Donna, the attending nurse, tried to soothe her. “But you’ve lived a good life, haven’t you, Lois?”
The pause before Mom’s response was palpable. I saw the reel of years fly by, the pictures of rejection she’d had as the seventh of nine children, the agony of unjust accusations from my mentally ill father.
Mom sighed. “Yes, I guess so.”
Donna didn’t ask any more questions. Her last one had failed to bring back happy memories.
Mom sensed my need to get away. “Why don’t you go eat lunch, honey? I’ll be all right.”
I should have said No, but I needed to get away.
As I ate the cardboard hospital meal, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Mom had once told me. She’d visited her cousin, Edna, in Boston, when I was eight years old. After returning home, Dad took her to a private spot on Lake Huron. He’d accused her of having a fling with a former boyfriend, then flashed a sharp hunting knife and threatened to end her life. Though he didn’t use it, the threat was ever present.
“I’d wanted to stay in Boston,” she later admitted. “But I just couldn’t leave you girls. I knew I had to come back.”
How glad I’d been that she’d sacrificed her freedom for our chance at life. Even now, a small ball pain of pain, hard as metal, gathers at the center of my head as I remember.
When I returned to the ICU hallway, once again I heard the piercing scream of a wild animal. The sound of people scurrying about in mom’s room and a nurse standing guard at the door told the story.
The doctor, a handsome young man with ocean blue eyes, walked out of her room, his hands shaking. The word “guilty” was smeared across his forehead. He hadn’t learned that life and death were not in his hands.
“Is she …”
He forced himself to make eye contact. “She’s had a stroke. We’ll have to wait and see. There’s nothing I can promise.”
But there was a promise he didn’t know. It was the one hummed by a young nurse a few days later as she emptied the catheter bag at mom’s bedside. “In His time, in His time, He makes all things beautiful in His time.”
The familiar chorus had run across the tracks of my mind ever since Mom had been released from intensive care. When the nurse hummed her tune, not knowing how much I needed to hear it, God had used her gentle breath.
“God”, I’d prayed. “Do what You will. I don’t know what to ask for. All I can do is beg for the Holy Spirit to say the words I cannot say.”
The neurologist called our home with a report every evening during mom’s hospitalization. He was kind and compassionate, heaven sent.
But the physician in charge was God himself. The eight months following her stroke until her physical death seemed interminable, but there was a purpose. God gave my sister and me time to adjust to our loss. Time to grieve and time to let go.
I still remember standing by mother’s bedside after her death and singing a quiet song of grateful praise. It was my last gift to her. It was a freedom song.
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