The Day My Mother Died
The importance of last words.
Posted Aug 13, 2019
My mother died on June 18, 2019. She was 96. It was a mere 23 days from her diagnosis of colon cancer to when I got a call early on a Tuesday morning. The physician’s assistant said she had died peacefully, but she had been alone. My first thought as I sat on the edge of my bed was, “I should have been there.” I was there when my father died in 1998. Why not my mother, as well.
During those 23 days, I had made the trip back and forth to Pennsylvania, where my mother was hospitalized, several times. She may have been 96, but she had lost none of her cognitive abilities, so we talked, as we often did, about everything, including politics, church, and what was coming. She refused treatment. In her own words, she was “ready to go,” and had been for several years. Sometimes she even grew angry at God for dawdling, but she never abandoned her faith.
Twice she suddenly asked me to hold her hand because she was afraid. Soon after she would be fine. She made additions to her memorial service plans, and insisted that it not be sad; she didn’t want anyone to think she wasn’t happy to die. (I announced this at the beginning of my eulogy.) We talked about when to hold the service, and she said with a glint in her eye, “It doesn’t matter because I won’t be there.” Ever my mother’s son, I replied, “That’s too bad because I already have you penciled in to do a reading.”
She speculated about the afterlife. She said she didn’t “know if it was allowed,” but if it was, she’d come back to “tap me on the shoulder.” I smiled and said, “That would be great.” I thanked her for being my mother and told her I loved her.
Her prognosis changed from "days" to "weeks," so I felt comfortable going home for the weekend. I planned on coming back Wednesday of the following week, what turned out to be the day after she died. While home, I talked multiple times with my brother who lived in PA and with staff at the hospital. When the phone rang at such an odd time that Tuesday morning I knew exactly what it was about.
I did not feel a tap on my shoulder, at least not one that I noticed. About a week later, though, I couldn’t sleep and came downstairs to sit on our enclosed porch. Eventually, I lay on the swing and fell asleep. Sometime during the night, I sat up to turn over. When I did, I heard a female voice say, “It was time.” The voice was so loud that I was frightened and called out, “Who is it?” Then it was quiet again and I lay back, wondering if it had been a dream.
The next morning, I sat on the porch thinking about what had happened during the night. Was it possible that the words I heard were meant as a response to what I thought when I learned my mother had died---“I should have been there”? That somehow I was being told she had wanted to die alone. That she didn’t want either of her sons to be there, to suffer that. This was a comforting, if fanciful, notion.
In the coming days, though, I learned from my brother that my mother had suggested he “take a day off” from visiting her that Tuesday. And my cousin told me that my mother had always said she wanted to die in her sleep by herself.
Who knows about these things? Who understands the final acts of the dying? Is there anything more painful than for a parent to leave their child for any reason, particularly by dying? Perhaps I was awakened by a mother trying to comfort a grieving son.
In her final months, my mother often told me she missed my father. I asked her what she missed most about her husband. She thought for a moment and said, “Dancing with him.” And in her final days, she told me she wished he would be there to help her “cross over.”
I have reason to believe that when she died, the music she heard wasn’t a choir of angels, but rather it was Glenn Miller, and the arms that were outstretched for her were my father’s, and that she nestled into his arms and they did what they loved, which was to dance.
I am reminded that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
David B. Seaburn is a novelist. His latest novel is Gavin Goode. Seaburn is also a retired marriage and family therapist and minister.