Mom lies dying. We sit with her, around her. She gasps for breath, her lips stretched tightly across her teeth. She has managed to wrap herself in a fetal position, which is surprising, as she lost control of her limbs sometime ago. She is thin, was always thin, but now skeletal. Her hair, blonde in her youth, and in my youth, appears translucent, without color. She is 81.
It is a strange sort of vigil, a wake with a dying corpse. There is no dignity here, no tender moment of farewell, see you on the other side, say hi to grandma. We simply wait for the end to come.
I am 52. Logic would tell me that experiencing her death is inevitable, that I should be prepared for it. But there is no logic in this room, for I am a child mourning my mother. Though I am a parent myself, with a good life, a happy marriage, my connection to the world started with her. Her eyes were the first I saw, first I loved. Losing her is losing a large part of who I am.
My siblings and I sit together, chew on the cheese and crackers left for us on a table in the room, refreshed when they grow stale. My brother and I arrived from our East Coast homes just this week, when we received the call from our Arizona-based sister, telling us Mom stopped eating and that we should come.
Our father is with us, his three children. Both he and Mom moved to an Assisted Living community near our sister, five years prior, when their own home in New York began to overwhelm them. Dad, in the early stages of dementia, does not seem to grasp all that is happening. “Get her up for a walk,” he says. We do not answer. My sister holds Dad’s hand.
Aides and nurses are in and out during our daily visits. One nurse arrives with an oxygen tank. “No oxygen,” my siblings and I say in unison. The nurse assures us that the oxygen will not extend Mom’s life, will simply ease her pain, her struggled breathing. We relent.
My mother is dying of Alzheimer’s disease. What began with lost memories, lost words, progressed, over the course of several years, to her inability to talk, to walk, to eat. We wait, during this week, on this day, in these hours, for her to forget how to breathe. We wait for the waiting to be over.
When I was nine years old, she made me a papier mâché head. It is this I think about most often during the week of her death. The head was for an oral book report that I was too timid to give. Mom did not lecture me about shyness or tell me that this could be a learning experience, a way to grow and thrive. She built me a barrier. That is what I needed then.
I wish for it now. Not a metaphorical head, but the real one. I want to put it on, feel its coolness, smell the old newspaper we used to create it. I want it to be dark and quiet. I want to be safe. I want to be not here.
“This is what we’ll do,” Mom said to the nine year old me, when the thought of standing in front of a fourth grade class and discussing Ramona the Pest overwhelmed me. “We’ll make Ramona’s head out of papier mâché, put it on top of yours. Cut eyeholes. You will see the kids but they won’t see you. You have to do a creative piece for the project anyway. You can wear yours!”
Ramona was brave and outspoken and full of confidence. Mom was, too. She laughed and smiled and whirled around her shy little girl. “Let’s have fun with it!” she told the serious me, slopping newspaper onto an inflated beach ball, forming Ramona’s nose, gluing yarn for her hair. “The kids will love it!”
I remember the heat from her body. I imagine the shirt she wore. I can feel her, not this her, this dying her, but that one, the one of the papier mâché head, of the laughter, of the whirling.
“When I was a teenager,” my brother says, as if alone, as he sits with Mom, holds her unresponsive hand. “We had a tough time. We never got along. It was mostly me, probably. Too wild, she didn’t like it.” Tears collect in his eyes. I watch, wonder when the wet fullness will spill over and roll down his cheeks. I do not comfort my brother, or assure him that Mom loved him. I am Ramona. I am in my fraudulent dome, deep inside, away from this, from this ending. “I left one time,” he continues. “Late at night, but I had nowhere to go. She was waiting when I got back. We held each other. She told me we’d get through it, we would be OK.” He looks at her when he says this.
I gaze at the walls. There are many photographs in my dying mother’s room. They are on every vertical space, adhered to the back of the door, stuck to the drawers on her bedside table. They fill the albums on the shelves. Old birthday cards are displayed, photos taped inside, drawings done by grandchildren, when they were very young. I read the hurried greetings. “I love you Mom. I will see you soon. The kids are getting big!” I look, but cannot find a photo of me in my papier mâché head. Most of the memories from that time are Polaroids, yellowed now, peeling. Still, I hope to find a glimmer. There is none.
When I was 19, someone broke my heart. It was a big, ugly break up that the 52 year old me would have seen coming: a boy who loved too many girls and a me who loved just one boy. I called Mom from college, sobbing into the phone, pouring out my brokenness. “Stay put. I am coming,” she said. Three hours and 150 miles later, she arrived. In her haste to rescue her child, she had forgotten to wear shoes, but had taken the time to turn the back of her car into a little nest, with pillows and comforters and other items that 19 year olds should have outgrown. “Get in,” she said. “You’ll be OK.”
I do not tell this story, in this mourning room with my grieving family, as my mother gasps for air. I sit inside myself, in the quietness, the blackness, the comfort that is my head. I embrace my selfishness, my decision not to share. As I grasp my memories, I hold the mother that was just mine, only mine.
My sister climbs into bed with her. Phyllis’ small dogs, along for the visit, for the distraction, jump up to follow. In doing so, they disrupt the oxygen flowing into my dying mother’s lungs. The scene that ensues is messy and awkward and exhausting to watch; it is this death, this death of our mother. Phyllis commands the dogs to the floor. She settles them. Then she lies with Mom, positioning her own body behind her mother’s, my mother’s, as a parent would an infant. She rubs her face in Mom’s hair, murmurs something in her ear. My sister is alone with Mom’s death, making peace with it, but we watch, the rest of us. We eavesdrop, spectators at a play, rubbernecking a car crash, unable to look away. Still, my mind drifts.
I recall presenting my Ramona book report, standing in front of the class, being strangely disconnected. I remember looking at my classmates’ eyes, their shoes, the color of their socks. Mom and I had recorded my words onto a tape recorder, thus allowing me to simply press Play, remain silent during the presentation. My nine year old self observed as some kids listened to Ramona’s summary, some daydreamed. Then it was over. I removed the head, sat down. Fourth grade continued.
I receive a text from my oldest friend. She knows my mother, loves her. “Are you OK?” she asks.
I respond, “Do you remember my papier mâché head? Fourth grade?”
“No,” she texts. And then, “She is a good lady, your Mom.”
Although I can not expect her to remember, having made many memories since the fourth grade, still, I yearn for a connection to my nine year old self, a brief glimpse of me before heartbreaks, before a dying mother.
“Fourth grade was fun,” my friend texts, “I remember that.”
“Yes,” I respond, “Thanks.” I can think of no other reply.
When she started to lose her memories, Mom called me. “Something weird is going on,” she said. “I keep forgetting things.” At this time in my life, I did not think much about the conversation. I was busy being a mother myself, tired, muddled, overwhelmed. Then she got worse, and her words didn’t come out right, her sentences jumbled. Mom got lost, she panicked, was confused by everyday tasks. My father was little help, having long played the role of the follower to her leader. He didn’t know what to do.
On one of her visits to my home, before Assisted Living was a thought in either of our minds, we went shopping. “Mom, fasten your seatbelt before we go,” I said. She held the strap in her hand, looked at it, pulled it to her mouth, held it to her head, looked at me.
“Mom, put it in the buckle. Mom, look, the buckle.”
She sighed, “I’m cuckoo!”
I would like to have that Mom back, now, to replace this barely living one. I would swallow my clipped words to her. I would put the car in park, turn off the motor, embrace her, whisper gently in her ear. I would tell her I am afraid and don’t know what to do, what to say. Maybe I would talk about Ramona, the head we built, and how it made me feel, how she made me feel, how she loved me, took care of me. I would come out from behind the barrier. I would be brave.
“Let’s go for a walk,” my father says, weary of watching his wife die, here in this room, next to his children. I join him, to get some air, feel some space. It is hot in Arizona, and we do not make it past the patio. There are many rockers gathered on the porch, but no occupants. The Assisted Living residents have long since moved inside for the summer, away from the sizzling sun. We sit, my father and I, rock in those chairs; he puts his hand on top of mine. We are silent, but we are together, and that is good for us. I listen to the rhythm of the chair and am soothed by the motion.
When Mom dies, my brother guides my father and me back inside. Mom’s limbs are relaxed, her labored breathing no more. My siblings wrap their arms around Dad and me. We stand in a heap of quiet tears and loud sobs but also tremendous relief. My impulse is to duck and cover, retreat inside myself, seek protection from my sadness. Instead, I hold tightly to the family that surrounds me.
Maribeth Darwin is a freelance writer from Melrose, Massachusetts. She is the mom to three growing boys, the wife of a supportive husband, but first, and always, the daughter of the most amazing woman who ever lived. Maribeth has published essays in Grown & Flown, BrainChild, and BrainTeen Magazine.