The call came at 2:20 a.m. My mom was about to die.
I’d been preparing for this for the last two years. But I still felt as though I were falling through a trapdoor.
I remember, when I was young, becoming aware that people die, and that parents die. I was younger than 10, I think, and I remember being relieved that such terror still lay so far ahead that it seemed almost impossible that it could ever arrive.
Back then, this eventuality was like standing on a beach and seeing an oceanliner way out on the horizon on a sunny day — just a speck shrouded in a haze, a near-mirage that’s hard to see because of the sparkles of sun flashing on the water and the dancing of the waves. Now, that oceanliner had come ashore, and I felt dwarfed by it.
• • •
Fifteen hours earlier, my mother, Susan Clara Nivens, who had severe dementia, had been assigned a nurse from Hospice of Palm Beach County to sit at her bedside around the clock at the nursing home. Her swallowing mechanism had totally broken down, probably leading to a lung infection. Plus, her gastrointestinal system was shutting down. These were all telltale signs of coming death.
I’d had the option of bringing her home or admitting her to a hospice center. But a move would have been stressful for her, and the medical staff had convinced me that it was not worth the risk.
That evening, the nurse said my mother was comfortable. She was on morphine. In her notes, she’d said she was unresponsive. As I sat by her side and told her, ‘I love you,’ she managed to make sounds, low but audible, back to me. The nurse added, ‘Responds to son.’
Her vital signs were still pretty good and the nurse said she didn’t think anything would happen overnight, although she couldn’t guarantee it. I left at 6:15 p.m. to have dinner at home, expecting that in a day or two I’d start a 24-hour death vigil.
Then the call came in the wee hours. My wife and I bolted out into the night.
• • •
When we arrived, my mother’s breathing was much louder and more irregular than when I had last seen her. Her eyes were now wide open. The hand I was holding was limp. Her fingertips were cool and pale blue under the nails.
‘I’d be nothing without you,’ I told her, staring into her eyes. I said this kind of thing over and over. I called her two sisters and they talked to her on speakerphone. I believe she heard everything.
Then, suddenly, her breaths grew quiet and shallow, with long pauses between them. I kissed her cheeks and forehead. The hair on the crown of her head was sticking up and I tried to comb it flat with my fingers, but I couldn’t.
At the nurse’s request, I left the room so she could give my mom a Tylenol suppository for her fever. I hadn’t wanted to leave, but figured this was something she would not want me there for, no matter the circumstances.
Three minutes later, the nurse came out to tell me she’d died.
I gently closed my mother’s eyes. I removed the oxygen tube from her nose. I caressed her hair. I touched her cool hands, then found warmer skin farther up her arm. She did not seem dead yet to me, but half-dead and half-alive. But I instantly knew a phase of grief had begun that would continue, to a degree, throughout my lifetime. The crying started.
• • •
I had taken refuge in my mom even through the end stages of her dementia.
In the few weeks before my son Quinn was born in March, my wife and I, like children, exchanged some harsh words one night after I got her dinner takeout order wrong. This was our first birth and I had become jittery, and had gotten maddeningly forgetful as a result. I’ve always been scatter-brained, but this was worse.
After the argument, I drove to my mom’s nursing home. I arrived at a quiet time, when almost all the residents were in their small, quiet, dark rooms.
As I stood over her bed, she awoke and gave me a flicker of pleased recognition. I told her I was worried I wouldn’t be a good father to the baby. I shed a few tears.
I hadn’t needed her at full capacity for comfort. Just her presence.
• • •
The funeral in Baltimore brought together family and friends, many of whom had not seen each other in years.
Since then, I’ve been mostly poised, but sometimes weep uncontrollably when alone.
Most often, I am numb and disoriented, feeling that part of me has been marooned, like an astronaut left adrift in space.
In addition to all the work she did for me and the love she gave me, I like to think she has given me one more gift, bestowed right at the very end.
I have always been afraid of dying. But now, I’ve seen death literally occur. The known is always less frightening than the unknown. I’m still afraid of dying, but certainly less so.
Who else could have prepared me? Who else will I likely see die, close-up, in my lifetime? Maybe no one.
My mother, by letting me see her die, has helped ease that fear.
As only she could.