(Originally posted on Facebook May 15, 2010)
All day I have struggled for the words. I knew today would come and it would be a milestone and milestones are supposed to mean something. But I'm not sure what.
My mother was 85 when she was hospitalized on March 9, 2009 with atrial fibrillation. She was not terribly happy about the situation and really in no mood to die. The prospect held very little appeal. An attempt to correct the atrial fibrillation resulted in a perforated esophagus and near death. From there her condition played out like a long, sickening carnival ride. I will spare the details. I can say them but I don't know if I can spell them, those details.
I left home on Friday, May 15, for yet another trip to Chattanooga. Two days earlier her condition had worsened. She was retaining large, large quantities of fluid. She hadn't been able to swallow for 8.5 weeks. She was looking ahead to a long and seemingly impossible road in rehab. She had lost all strength. Her oxygen levels began to drop. And she decided that she had had enough. On Thursday she spoke with her doctor who encouraged her to be strong and not give up. Very confidently and by the grace of God she proclaimed, "I have been through hell. I am ready to go to heaven." Her doctor encouraged her not to make a decision about anything until he returned on Tuesday. She signed a Do Not Resuscitate order anyway.
So Friday I left to go down and spend the next few days with her, discussing the possibility of discontinuing treatment altogether and likely making a decision come the beginning of the week. From the moment I left home the day took on a surreal quality. As I drove through the Pigeon River Gorge I was taken aback by the beauty. The sky, barely visible between the mountains, was a deep, storm cloud blue. The vegetation was a brilliant, almost Kermit the Frog green. But it was the water. Every few yards was water cascading down the rocks. I have been driving the Pigeon River Gorge for 24 years and I had never before and have never since seen anything like it. It was as if God was giving me a small glimpse of the beauty that was in store for my mother.
About 30 minutes outside Chattanooga, near Cleveland, Tennessee, Bonnie (my sister) called and said, "You'd better hurry. She's dying." I told her she had to tell my mom that she could not die until I got there. As I walked into the hospital room my mother looked up at me and said, "OK. Now who else am I waiting for?" She had made her mind up, knew she was going and was ready to make the trip. Once everyone was there (minus my family, which was still in Asheville) she wanted her oxygen mask removed so that she could go. We fumbled around in a Three Stooges-esque sort of way until I finally took her orders and removed the mask, forever branding me, in a bizarrely humorous way, as the child who killed her mother.
Probably my favorite quality of my mother's, and certainly the one that I connected with the most, was her sense of humor. With the oxygen mask removed she began to labor in her breathing. But at one point she stopped laboring, opened her eyes, and asked, "Am I dead yet?" Bonnie's humorous and yet honest reply was, "I think we'd all look a whole lot better if you were."
It wasn't long, only a few hours. I had never seen anyone die before. None of us had. But it was quiet and peaceful and heartbreakingly beautiful to watch someone step from this life into the presence of God.
It has now been a year today. Her house is sold, the new owners moving in this weekend. Her estate is settled, for the most part. But in so many ways I find myself living that day over and over again, much the way I relived the births of my four children. I guess in some ways they are similar, birth and death.
They say it gets easier as time goes on, and I'm sure it does. But some days are just hard. Today was one of them.