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I hung up the phone and looked in on Mom lying so still and quiet in her bed. She hadn't eaten anything in over a week and was asleep most of the time now, only occasionally opening her eyes. I walked over and adjusted the blankets, knowing it didn't need doing, but it made me feel useful. Dying is done alone while everyone else watches and wonders.
The doorbell rang and I heard the front door open. My sister Debbie called out hello.
"How's she doing?" she asked.
"She's sleeping. I didn't think we'd be doing this again so soon."
"Me either, but I think Mom's been ready ever since Dad died. She's not fighting it like he did."
"I never thought I'd get the sound of his ragged breathing out of my mind. Every breath seemed like his last, but then he'd take another."
The images from that last night with Dad came back to me - standing over him, looking so small in the hospital bed in the living room, watching him breathe, wondering what it would be like when he didn't breathe again. I had been careful, then, not to think too far into the future. I only had strength for the moment. And now here we were again.
Debbie was the steadfast one. She accepted whatever life threw at her as part of God's plan. She trusted that everything was as it was supposed to be. I like order and reason and answers to unanswerable questions.
"I talked to Lauren earlier," I said. "She's flying out this afternoon and will be here late tonight. Will you stay with Mom while I go pick her up?"
"Sure," Debbie said. "Maybe I'll work on our itinerary."
"Mom would get a kick out of that. She always joked about our being tempted to make the travel arrangements before she was actually gone."
Mom and Dad grew up in New York. Dad was born in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan and met Mom when his family moved to Queens while he was in high school. They married while still in college and had three daughters in quick succession - I'm the oldest. Mom and Dad really loved each other - not the sappy 60's sitcom kind of love, but the real-life kind. They laughed, they cried, they argued, but they were always there for each other. It was obvious that they enjoyed each other's company. Dad started out in the plastics industry selling plastic bags before anyone knew what they were. He had my sisters and me going door-to-door to convince people to switch from paper to plastic. He wrote up personalized sales pitches for each one of us and put it on 3X5 cards. I still break into a sweat thinking about having to make speeches to perfect strangers. We were the only people in town with our own personalized garbage bags - Dad printed up bags that said, "This is Don's Garbage." Dad's career took us to nine different cities in seven different states before my youngest sister Debbie finished college. With each move we grew closer, because when we didn't know anyone else, we had each other. We shared memories, we shared joys and sorrows, and we shared laughter. The smallest things became family jokes that we repeated often. After my sisters and I moved away and we all lived in different states, we talked on the phone weekly to catch up on each other's lives. Many years later, in a weird coincidence, my family and Debbie's family moved to the same town. Eventually, Mom and Dad retired there as well. Lauren still lives with her family in another part of the country and struggles with feeling left out.
Dad first felt the pain in his back in March the year he turned 70. He didn't think much about it at first. He had had back pain before and he assumed that he'd lifted something the wrong way. When the pain persisted he went to see his doctor who took x-rays and told him he had the spine of a 20 year old. The doctor prescribed a muscle relaxant and sent him to a physical therapist. Dad never was the type to complain so he didn't say much about the increasing pain, the sleepless nights, and the difficulty walking. Mom and Dad went on a cruise in August and by the time I picked them up a few weeks later, Dad was in a wheelchair. An emergency visit to the doctor brought staggering news. A virulent form of cancer had spread throughout his body. We all knew what that meant but we weren't ready to say it out loud. Dad was put in the hospital, Lauren flew in, and we rallied together, relying on faith, love and humor to get us through. Dad had always seen life as an adventure and he saw the cancer as a new adventure - one he hadn't done before. Through it all he remained optimistic. His only concern was for Mom. Only once did he acknowledge that he was dying and that was when he asked me to take care of Mom. There was no question that I would do that, but at that moment I felt like I was drowning. Four months later he was dead and we were bereft, Mom most of all. Mom and Dad had been married for over fifty years. The life seemed to go out of Mom after Dad died. She looked like she'd aged twenty years in those first few months. She still got up everyday and kept to a routine but more than once she said she didn't see the point. The future seemed like an eternity to her.
I waited for Lauren at the security checkpoint. Four years earlier, when Dad was dying, I had waited for her at the gate. But that had been before 9/11. I felt the same now as I had then - the same heavy, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the same dry mouth, the same lightheadedness, and mostly, the same feeling of disconnect, as if this can't possibly be happening.
I watched Lauren come through the doors and waved to her. Lauren walked up and we gave each other a long hug. There were no greetings - it didn't seem necessary - there are no words for moments like these.
"How's Mom?" asked Lauren finally.
"She sleeps most of the time now. It doesn't seem like she's in pain. The doctor said her heart would gradually slow down until it finally stopped altogether. He thinks it'll happen in the next couple of days."
We walked to the car in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. As we drove through the gray, winter fog past other cars, past houses filled with people living their lives, it didn't seem possible that the world could go on while our world was falling apart.
Mom's house was quiet when we got there. It wasn't an ominous quiet but a welcoming quiet. Through all the years and all the moves, each home our parents lived in had been warm and inviting. Even if it was a new house in a new town, going there felt like coming home. It was no different tonight. Everything was so familiar - the furniture, the pictures on the walls, the knick-knacks, the dishes in the cabinets, and even the way the kitchen drawers were arranged. It all meant home. The difference this time was that Mom didn't greet us at the door.
Debbie came up and gave Lauren a hug. The three of us just stood together taking comfort in each other. Growing up we had been "the girls", and even now, when we were together we reverted to type and became "the girls" once again.
We went in the bedroom to see Mom.
"I hope she's awake," Lauren said.
"She was asleep the last time I checked," Debbie said.
Mom was breathing very slowly and quietly when Lauren leaned over to kiss her cheek. Slowly, Mom's eyes opened and haltingly focused on Lauren. For a moment it seemed as if she didn't recognize Lauren, but gradually a slight gleam appeared in her eyes.
"Love you Laurie," said Mom, calling her by her childhood nickname. Her voice was a feathery whisper but a smile played at the edges of her mouth. Mom's eyes closed once again but the smile remained.
"I think she was just waiting for you to get here," I said. "Dad did the same thing. He kept asking for you and when you got here he slipped into a coma and never woke up again." I suppressed the flicker of jealousy that threatened. I was the one who was here, taking care of things, but it was Lauren they waited for.
"Yeah," said Lauren. She squeezed Mom's hand. "Love you too Mom."
"Come out when you're ready," I said. "We'll have hot chocolate."
The three of us were in the living room, sprawled out on the couch and love seat. The television was on and tuned to A&E, which was playing a biography of Bob Newhart. Intermittently, we stopped talking and watched bits of the Newhart comedy routines. It seemed bizarre to be laughing and joking when Mom was in the next room dying, but laughter had always bound us together. We took comfort in the shared humor.
"Okay," said Debbie out of the blue. "So, where do we go first?"
"What are you talking about?" asked Lauren.
"The trip. You know, the ash-spreading trip around the world."
"Should we be planning this now?" I asked.
"Not planning," said Debbie, "just musing. It was important to Mom and Dad that we go."
"You're right," I agreed. "You know we'll have to get Dad's ashes out of the safety deposit box. I've always wondered if it's legal to have them there..."
"The life insurance will pay out pretty quickly," said Lauren warming up to the idea. "And since Mom and Dad designated that $100,000 for the trip I guess there's no reason to wait."
"Good," said Debbie. "So, where do we go first? I say we go to New York and start there. We'll go to the Lower East Side and throw the first bit into the East River."
"That's good - that way we'll get Manhattan and Queens at the same time," I said.
"Good start since we were all born there too," added Lauren.
"Okay, that's stop number one," said Debbie. "Where to next?"
We agreed to go to Louisiana where we had lived for seven years in the '60's. It had been the time of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., desegregation, and school busing. We had been Yankees in a Deep South still rooted in the Civil War. Ours was the only house that didn't fly the Confederate Flag. It took a few years but the neighbors finally came around and found out that Yankees could be just as friendly and hospitable as Southerners. The humidity had been stifling, the cockroaches had been the size of small mice, and lizards crawled along the sides of the house. It snowed once in the seven years and we weren't even allowed to play outside at recess. The snow had melted by the time school was out. Pete Maravich had been the hero of L.S.U. basketball and the Vietnam War was in full swing.
I thought of Mom and her Bridge Club ladies.
"Remember how Mom would come home from her Bridge Club chewing spearmint gum and wouldn't kiss us?" I asked.
"She said she'd quit smoking but we all knew she smoked with the ladies," laughed Lauren.
"And we'd use straws to pretend to smoke like they did, pinkie fingers extended out like proper Southern ladies!" Debbie added. We laughed as we mimicked the moves again.
We decided Minnesota was a good idea since we had lived there for a few years in the early '70's. The people in Louisiana had warned us that the roads in Minnesota weren't paved, but we'd been pleasantly surprised to find that they were wrong. We had as much snow in Minnesota as Louisiana had rain and the snowball that we put in the freezer as a "keepsake" came to symbolize our naiveté. Dad had insisted that we all learn to ski. We had taken lessons at Ski-Haven outside of town. It was more of a bump than a hill (much less a mountain.) We'd taken three night lessons on icy slopes with rope tows in temperatures below zero. We'd had lace-up boots with long wooden skis that kept getting crossed and tangled. The beginner slope was on the backside and we'd had to come down the expert slope to get back to the car. Debbie just pointed her skis straight down the run and went for it. Lauren was already a natural and, I, taking the easy way out, walked down. I'm not sure why we went back for the second lesson except that Dad hated to waste money and the lessons were already paid for!
We sat there late into the night, drinking hot chocolate, and recalling the places we'd lived and the places we'd visited together. Talking and remembering was a way to keep the present at bay. None of us wanted to think about losing Mom. Who do you go to when both of your parents are gone? I knew then what Mom must have felt when she'd lost her parents. Suddenly, you're the oldest generation and people are counting on you. I didn't feel up to it.
"I wish we were doing this twenty years from now," said Lauren.
The house suddenly seemed achingly quiet. We looked at each other and then toward the bedroom as the reality of the situation became clear again. "We'd better go check on her," I said getting up from the couch.
I knew the moment we walked into the bedroom. Mom was gone.
"Mom," I whispered under my breath, "What do we do now?"
It seemed like an eternity that we stood there looking at Mom, although I doubt it was more than a minute or two. Finally, I looked away. She was gone. The tears would come, I knew that, but right now I was numb. I tried to envision her laughing and joking with Dad again, looking young and vibrant. I knew it would take time for the old memories of Mom to replace the images of her last days. But I knew from experience that time would erase the painful memories and replace them with good memories.
"Well at least she's with Dad again. I'm sure he's showing her around and giving her the grand tour," said Lauren.
"So, we'll add heaven to the itinerary and we'll make that our last stop," said Debbie.
We all agreed - as long as we took our time getting there.
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