My mom died with whiskers on her chin. I noticed them as I sat with her body just over two hours after she passed. White whiskers on her chin. If I needed proof, irrefutable evidence, that I was a horrible daughter, that was it. What kind of daughter lets her mom die with facial hair?
As I sat there, holding her slowly cooling hand, rubbing her arms, touching her face, and stroking her hair, I sobbed. I sobbed because of the whiskers and all that they symbolized. I sobbed for the lost years between us, and I sobbed for what was and what could have been.
The tears fell on her hospital bed, and as they did, I talked to her. I spoke to my mom’s body in a desperate hope that some part of her was still in there, still listening, still able to hear a remorseful daughter beg for forgiveness.
Memories crawled out from the shadows and sat vigil with me: My mom, sitting in my bed and reading to me. My mom, letting me help sew sequins onto the Bucilla felt Wizard of Oz Christmas tree ornaments. My mom, letting me go barefoot and get dirty with the neighborhood kids. My mom, sitting patiently with a squirming little me, spraying No More Tangles on the rat nests in my hair. (I will never forget that metal comb, Mommy.)
The other, not-so-sweet memories? They were there too, but not as big and bold as they have been before. My mom and her husband fighting. Every holiday dinner imploding in a mess of curse words and thrown dishes and slammed doors. My mom, standing silently while the man she left us for kicked and hit me, chasing me through the house, forcing me to hide under my bed.
I wanted to think only of the good, but sometimes the bad demands to be heard. I shut my eyes, hard, and whispered to them to go away for now. Please, just go away. Let me be with her and our good times.
Two years ago, I made the awful decision to stop interacting with my mother. Seeing her and being with her meant being with him and seeing him. I’d tried to help her leave a few years prior. I went so far as involving the local police, in fact. That was when I learned that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped.
I often wondered if he was hurting her physically, but now I am seeing it was something different. She was as vulnerable as one can be during her last years. Unable to walk, virtually imprisoned in what used to be my bedroom, her world was reduced to four dirty walls, a small screeching television, her laptop, and a phone.
Going over to see her became an exercise in restraint. Every fiber in my being called out for some kind of justice whenever I walked into that house — justice for her, justice for the little girl who hid under her bed, justice for all of the daughters and mothers everywhere who didn’t have the kind of relationship they wanted.
For two years, there were phone calls that went unanswered, birthdays and Christmases and Mother’s Days passed unacknowledged. There were days and hours and minutes of life that ticked away — a mother and a daughter caught in a sticky web of hurt and betrayal and anger.
When her health sharply declined a month ago, he left a message for me. He was telling me that it didn’t look good for my mom, that this might be it, and I’d have to live with myself if I didn’t go see her. Three of my four kids and I made the trip one night to the hospital where they all took their first breaths and where my mom would ultimately take her last.
We gathered around her. I touched her shoulder and said, “Mom, it’s me. I have the kids here.” Her eyes opened, and I saw a universe of sadness in them — planets of pain, a solar system of a life dotted with injured stars in my mom’s eyes.
We looked at each other, and the anger which had built a seemingly impenetrable wall around my heart slipped away. I told her then how sorry I was. I told her what a walking disaster I was, and I begged her to forgive me.
I said to my mom, “Maybe we will get a second chance somewhere else, and then we will get it right.”
I said to my mom, “I love you, Mom.”
I said to my mom, “Please, please, please forgive me.”
I promised my mom that I would love my children fiercely for the rest of my days and that I’d never, ever let anyone hurt them.
Those were the words I said to her again, to her body. The nurse who had been with her at the end sat with me, with us. She cried with me and told me that my mom went peacefully and that she wasn’t alone. She and other nurses held her and talked to her as she left this place. This beautiful woman (Christy? Cindy? Methodist Hospital ICU, 3 North, October 3) hugged me and told me she was sure my mom knew I loved her.
I hugged the woman who helped my mom die, and then I turned and kissed the forehead of the woman who was my mom, the woman who helped me live.
The night my mom died, my own daughter and I were on our way home from a Target run. As we drove down the highway, I had a sudden overwhelming urge to lay my head on my mother’s lap. I could see it in my mind, could feel the warmth of her hand on my hair, the softness of her body on my cheek. According to the angel nurse and her timeline of my mother’s last hours, this sense of my mom hit me just as my mom began failing.
My grief-wracked heart is telling me this was my mom reaching out to me, letting me know it was okay, telling me that she too held our sweet memories dear, just as I did.
Maybe it was her saying goodbye.