And when it's over, it's over.
Last week, I told a few of my best friends that I had decided everything was going to be okay. Mom was going to die, and I would be okay. She will let go, and it will be over. I would be lying if I didn't admit I will breathe a huge sigh of relief somewhere in between my sobbing bouts of anguish. There will be relief that she no longer has to exist in this hollow shell. She will be free. Her work here will be done - and it was beautiful work.
Yes, it will be over. The battle will be over. The sickness and deterioration will be over. The balled fists and clenched teeth of frustration will be over. But when one thing ends, another must begin. I will start anew in this world without my mom. Don't they say you are never truly grown until you lose a parent? Alas, I will arrive at the gates of true adulthood.
-Jaime Pollard-Smith, “Acceptance” (October 24, 2016)
I wrote those lines almost ten months ago, and today, the moment finally arrived. She let go. It is over. But as I go to bed tonight knowing I wake up tomorrow to a world without my mom in it, I take comfort in knowing that she was mothering me until her very last heartbeat. She had a strong finish.
Mom was admitted to the Hospice home on Wednesday evening. The ambulance transported her from her house to her final earthly home, room 24. I was not present for the transport. I was an hour and a half away in Charlotte. I had spent the day with her Tuesday but did not want to see her leave home for the last time. Hospice nurses and doctors believed she had 2-3 weeks left to live. With this timeline in mind, I taught my first classes of the semester on Thursday and Friday. Syllabus day! That first day sets the tone for the entire course. Mom stayed strong while I got my classes in order.
On Friday afternoon, I arrived in Winston for dinner with my dad. We enjoyed a quiet meal and headed to Hospice for time with Mom. She had deteriorated. Her breathing was labored. Her entire body jerked and shook with each gasp for air. The nurse told us that Alzheimer’s patients “forget how to breathe.” It seemed like a cruel joke. Forget how to breathe? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. We sat with Mom. I held her hand, and she looked into my eyes. I sang to her and told her how proud I was of the life she had lived. Eventually, we said goodbye for the night.
The next morning, Dad asked me to go with him to his gym. I was thrilled to have an hour of my “normal life,” even if it was in a strange setting. I found a barbell that felt like home in my hands. I needed to sweat. I needed the heavy physical load to counterbalance the emotional weight I was bearing. Mom held on.
After a quick shower and breakfast, Dad and I headed to the Hospice house. Brent and the kids were driving up from Charlotte later in the day. There was an evaluation with the doctor and Mom’s condition was upgraded to acute - the final stage. She was given medication to help her relax. I grew angry and impatient as nothing seemed to help. Mom just kept staring at me, but I wanted her to close her eyes and rest.
When Brent arrived, we spent time with Mom and then allowed my children to say their goodbyes. We took a walk in the Hospice garden, and eventually, decided we should eat. I needed a few moments of normalcy with my husband and kids. Mom knew that.
We headed out to grab lunch, leaving dad with a family friend to sit with him and Mom. We arrived at Krankie’s, our favorite coffee house in Winston. They had just stopped serving brunch five minutes earlier, but they had enough biscuits left for four chicken, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches. Jackpot! A family favorite treat. Biscuits for everyone!
Right as we got in the car, I read the text from dad saying the nurse thought Mom only had a few hours left. He asked us to go to his house and let the dogs out on our way back. Brent dropped me at the Hospice home first and kept the kids with him.
As I entered the room, I could tell Mom had taken another turn for the worse, which I didn’t think was even possible. Dad and I stood on each side of her. Five, ten, fifteen seconds would pass between each breath. This was the end. She made a final gasp for air. The nurse came in and checked her. “She no longer has a heartbeat.”
My mom’s heart beat for the final time less than ten minutes after I returned from lunch. She waited for me. She knew that had she left this world while I sat eating chicken and biscuits with my family, I would have been buried in guilt for the rest of my life. But once a mother, always a mother. She waited on me so that when she let go, I was right by her side - seeing her across that finish line.
The nurse filled out the paperwork as I watched a hummingbird sipping syrupy nectar right outside the window. One second it was there shimmering in the sunlight, then it flew away, taking my momma’s sweet soul upon its wings. Rising higher and higher. And then, she was gone.
It just so happens that the fall migration of hummingbirds occurs mid-July through early September. According to ebird.org’s description of migration, “We realize some of our best birding days center on being at the right place at the right time.” Yes, I was there to witness the beautiful flight of the hummingbird. In birding, as in life, Mom made sure I was right where I needed to be.