Mama’s oxygen tube exhales with a hiss into the night. Her laboured breaths come at slow, unsteady intervals now. A Hospice nurse reassured us her passing would most likely be within a few days. Our beloved — wife, mother, sister, daughter, Grammy — would not suffer long.
Behind the couch where she sleeps, an open window reminds me of the night I snuck out of the house to see an old boyfriend. She was sitting on the couch reading in the gentle light, waiting for me. I stood in the darkness watching her, sad I had hurt her, frightened because she could be stern when angry, but most of all, enjoying the stolen moment of observing her unnoticed and unhindered.
Tonight, I am the one sitting in the low light waiting up for her, frustrated with the situation, but more so concerned she might be in pain. An inevitable season of life has come where I know I must let her go, and yet, I want so much to delay its coming. As these emotions run their course, it becomes clearer to me that I am a Mom now. Though I have three children, this realization startles me with new meaning.
Beyond the open window, the mountain breeze comes down through the old trees, like breath in a wind instrument, or a low whistle through gapped teeth. Or maybe, blood flowing through heart chambers. Both dirge and celebration tonight. The dark speech of God slowly unfurling; a calm before the storm.
Mother’s Day was Sunday. The card and bouquet of flowers stand idle on the brick hearth. Today is my birthday. A few friends tentatively sent birthday wishes, unsure how to wish me a happiness given the circumstances. Yes, I am deeply sorrowful, yet I feel this gift of a midnight watch is a providential one.
As we lie in the darkness together, I imagine how it must have been all those years ago; Mom listening for my breathing then as I now listen for hers, every rise and fall a welcome miracle mixed with fear and wonder. I marvel over each feature and the softness of skin. Counting fingers and toes, her olive color slowly yielding to a tide of bluish-purple; her body broken and poured out over all these years.
Memories of Mother’s Days and birthdays past ebb and flow — the scent of springtime flowers; Lilies of the Valley and Lilac. Chocolate birthday cakes with thick, creamy icing. Mother’s Day dinners at the church; generations of our women gathering around pretty teacups and music, light streaming in through stained-glass windows.
Suddenly, an unsettling conversation rises to the surface.
A sunny day, the season withheld from memory. Mom is driving me to a doctor’s appointment, a post check-up after an abortion I had a few months prior. Only nineteen and in an abusive relationship, she and I believed it was the right choice. We were told the child was not a child, but a mere clump of tissues and, at that time, we chose to believe what we were told.
For many months afterwards, the guilt and regret continued to manifest itself in the form of abdominal pain. During that drive to the doctor’s I was crying, and Mom was upset. She wanted to know where the father was and, “Why wasn’t he going, too?” I said he was working. A look of anger and disappointment came swiftly across her face. The car felt like a freight train headed for a crash, and she was right — it was not fair that we were the only two passengers, but she was going to stay the course with me whatever came of it.
The lamplight casts a solemn glow over her face, across the closed lids of her coal black eyes, and glints on the tubes that run along her high cheekbones. Even dying cannot diminish her beauty but seems only to enhance her exotic features and the gentleness she was so well known for.
A corner of the table is filled with the medicines she used to prolong her life these last twenty years. On the counter her Bible, devotionals, and a book she had been reading on world events. After she came to faith, she would sit in her favourite chair there, and pour herself into understanding the scriptures. Often, she would send me something that she had read and applied to one or both of our lives.
As if on a parallel journey, I had also come to faith. One day as we were talking, the conversation drifted to the abortion. With a pained look on her face, she said:
“If only I had known what I know now, I would have told you to keep the baby.”
The helpless look on her face, the wringing of the hands, pierces me. My Mother, usually so very private and reserved. For her to even bring this up revealed how deeply it wounded her. Through the heaviness I was able to tell her I had attended a post-abortion Bible study where I’d learned about forgiveness and had felt God tell me the baby was a boy. I had named him Michael. Her eyes gleamed and welled with tears.
“I would have had a grandson.”
“Listen, Mom. We both regret the choice we made. But, you are a great Mom and Grammy. Don’t ever believe differently.”
Remembering how we held each other that day, tears form and fall onto the back of my hand where I hold hers in mine. Two mothers who did so much to preserve life, also took it. I wonder how many mothers and daughters have walked in our shoes. I wonder how many unfinished conversations remain lingering in the dark, hearts aching for the chance to speak.
A gentle rain pitter patters in the pitch black outside the window. The tiny drops upon leaves like fingers on piano keys. There are words floating on the notes. Hard to hear at first, and then a slow crescendo.
Grace upon grace upon grace.
I always forget that reckoning continually comes through His grace. When we believe in the Cross and Resurrection, our sins never hit us full force. Jesus always stands in between.
I am afraid of waking her when she seems so peaceful, but I cannot resist the urge to brush the strands of hair away from her forehead, as if wiping away all the hard memories before she dies.
New heaven. New earth. Clean slate, Mom. You have done so well, Mom. Go in peace.
When she died two days later, an image came to me of her as a little girl in a white summer nightgown, the soft cotton kind she always wore. Surrounding her were the great cloud of witnesses, tall angels, and God. They towered over her, a fortress of protection, looking down at her with such love and affection.
She smiled up at them with that same expression of wonder she had when she looked at my brothers, me, and her grandchildren, only brighter, bigger.
For a bittersweet moment I wondered if she would get to see him.
Then the circle closed around her as she danced off into Heaven: healthy, free, and full of joy, that cotton nightgown as white as snow.