While my “other mother” was lying in her hospital bed at St. Joseph’s Medical Center 10 days ago, in between periods of stark awareness, my mind kept rewinding and fast forwarding. I rewound to a night thirteen years ago when my mother was in a different bed in St. Joseph’s, fading in and out of lucidity following procedures that first discovered her late stage lung cancer and then sought to repair a hole in her lung so that she could go home with hospice. But I was also fast forwarding, imagining the day that I will hold my father’s hand while he struggles to leave this earth. I think that’s how it is for many people: when we lose someone we love, we also think about the others we have lost, and those who we cherish and are losing.
I almost published this journal entry from February 16, 1999 just before I headed up to Washington state. When I returned Monday night, it was the first thing I saw on my desk:
Last night, I spent the night with Mom at St. Joseph’s Medical Center. Two-and-a-half weeks into her stay, following her diagnosis of lung cancer, she was for the first time completely lucid.
At about 9:45 p.m., Mom was looking at the ceiling. I asked her if she was thinking or looking at something. She replied that she was thinking.
Over the next hour, in quiet and measured tones, she said goodbye to me. She began by saying, ‘You’ve been a wonderful daughter.’ After a few minutes, she added, ‘You’re a very competent woman.’
I realized that she was beginning to say goodbye. I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me but the words seemed so inadequate. I told her she was a wonderful mother — strong, loving and nurturing. I remember once, when I was quite old, that she had responded to my sadness by pulling me on to her lap in my Nana’s rocking chair.
I hugged her and apologized for crying. She said, ‘Why not?’ Then she said, ‘You are a beautiful daughter; now get some Kleenex and blow your nose.’
After a few minutes she said, ‘We’ve had a wonderful life together. Sons are special but there is something very important about a daughter.’ She tried to express her thoughts about what makes daughters different and struggled a bit with the right words. She said, ‘Daughters are more emotional.’ It seem to me that what she meant was that daughters are close to one’s heart in a different way.
I said to her that my brothers had been wonderful throughout her stay. I told her they had comforted her and been loving and compassionate. I told her that we had not left her in the entire 2 1/2 weeks. This seemed to surprise her. I added, ‘We didn’t think you would want to be left alone.’ She said, ‘You were right,’ and smiled softly.
She said that her grandmother was in her late 90s when she died and that she couldn’t remember how old her mother was when she died. Implicit in her remark was her consideration of the age she would be when she died.
‘It’s one of the hardest things you ever do to say goodbye to people you love,’ she said, ‘but it’s important.’
I asked her if she was worried. She said, ‘Not exactly.’ I said we loved her and would be with her every step of the way and that God was with her.
She asked, ‘How is your Dad handling all of this,’ glancing at her hospital bed and surroundings. I said that he was sad because she is so precious but that he was okay and taking care of himself. I said I would take good care of Dad.
She said, ‘I’m going to outlive your Dad,’ and then she added, ‘at least I think so.’ Then she reflected for a while.
I commented on her strength and said that we were raising another strong woman in Maddie. She agreed and added, ‘And Tommy is wonderful, too.’ I reminded her what she had said emphatically to Maddie that morning: ‘You know what? I like you.’
Finally I asked if there was anything I could do to make this easier. She said, ‘Well, one thing you can do is continue to be the marvelous woman that you are — competent, with a high level of activity, a very high level of activity. The world needs you.’
She drifted off to sleep. Not long after this was written, she did make it home with hospice. She passed away the day after Mother’s Day, on May 10, 1999. I miss her.