A Journey to the Edge of Eternity
Today I am here watching my mother die. She is not cooperating. I was about to say I am glad she is dying, but that’s not right. Not even close really. It would be closer to say my emotions are sad but my intellect approves. We often speak of mixed feelings. Few are as mixed as our feelings when someone very aged who you love is leaving us behind.
Nita, now ninety-four, fell and broke her hip almost three weeks ago. It was the starter gun for her final race—perhaps a sprint, perhaps a marathon. I got the call standing in a Costco parking lot in a Denver suburb, collecting materials for our youngest daughter’s wedding. It felt paradoxical—in the midst of a launching, news of an ending.
After returning to Minnesota, we got another call saying she might be in her last 24-48 hours. That person, a hospice worker, is kind to have told us, but she doesn’t know my mother.
My wife and I drove the five hours to Ellendale, North Dakota. The sun is bright, but it is bitterly cold. As I think it should be. Nature should reflect our loss. But also our gratitude. Nature, too, should have mixed feelings.
We are now past the forty-eight hour mark. My mother has not been conscious or responsive since our arrival. She has been unable to swallow for three days. They say she has seven to ten days at the most from the time she stopped taking in fluids, but they also say she might leave us in the next twenty minutes as well.
My mother has plenty of reasons to want to leave. She believes, as do those of us who love her, that the finishing line for her race is the borders of heaven. And in the crowd, cheering her arrival, are her parents, and her husband Darrell, and beloved siblings – Clinton, Golia, and Kenny. And many others too numerous to count. I imagine them saying, “What took you so long, Nita? You’ve kept us waiting.”
This is what I say to her, too, as she lays here, mouth agape, breathing shallowly, using up her last energy just trying to get enough oxygen to keep her fingers from turning blue. “You go now, mom.” we say. “You go home now. It’s okay, we will be fine. You don’t need to take care of us – or anyone – any more. You go.”
Because that’s what she has spent her life doing – taking care of people. She was as far from our present “demand your rights and fulfill yourself” culture as a person could be. She was happy if you were happy. And that “you” included me and my two brothers. We look down on her now from framed formal photos of the three of us sitting on a studio bench, dressed up, looking blandly at the camera. There are three sets of these photos, all in the same frame, at ages ranging from childhood to early manhood. “I have three sons,” she’d tell everyone who came into her nursing home room, “Steve, Dan, and Mark.” Everyone who worked at Prince of Peace knew us—at least knew the photos and my mother’s pride in us.
Unfortunately, maybe five years ago, she knew only the photos, she didn’t know us. I would make the five hour drive and she would be kind to me, but she didn’t really know why this old man was visiting her. And staying too long, interrupting her nap time.
I first realized she didn’t know me when, after I been with her for a few hours, she said, “Now who are you again?”
“I’m Dan, mom.”
“Well you’re not my Dan. My Dan has three inches of thick brown hair.”
Ouch, mom. Did you have to say it that way? It was maybe the only painful thing my mom has ever said to me, and of course she didn’t mean it to be painful. She was simply stating a fact.
So my mom hasn’t known the present me for a number of years. But God has always known us both, from before anything was counted in years or eons. And he knows when she will give up on trying to stay with us. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe longer than anyone expects.
I said I am watching my mother die. But that’s not accurate either. Actually my wife Jayne and I are participating in her death. We are helping her die, as best we can.
Yesterday I played her a recording of my father singing. In her unconsciousness, she seemed to react, but perhaps her twitches were just a coincidence. Earlier today, after Jayne and I sang to her and read from the Bible, she opened her eyes. We want to think that expressed a growing awareness, but the hospice booklet by her bedside says not necessarily so. Her eyes were unfocused, she did not respond to our requests to raise her eyebrows, and after a bit she closed them again.
I think she is too far into her final race to pay heed to those back at the starting line. She is somewhere beyond this world, but not yet in the next.
The regular staff here at Prince of Peace have been dropping by. They touch her head and tell us they have love her, too. I don’t think it’s just polite words. For you see, even after losing her memory, her calculating reason, her ability to navigate the world, she remained the woman who was happy when you were happy. She was positive and kind and still a servant. She tried taking care of other residents, and, in her own way, she also took care of the staff. They wanted us to know that losing Nita was a loss for them, as well.
A nurse has just come into the room to give mom another dose of morphine, and has asked us to leave for a few minutes. We do leave—now briefly, but soon a longer leaving. Soon she leaves us for a final time, until, in fact, it is our turn to leave.
For soon Jayne and I will have no living parents. There will no “roof” over our heads. We will be the roof. We will be the most ancient ones. (Interestingly enough, I’m not fond of being thought old, but I don’t mind being thought ancient. I love ancient places and ideas and am happy to be associated with them.)
This mix of feelings is not crushing. I do not generally offer my emotions for public viewing, but I am happy to announce my melancholy on this occasion. Melancholy is one of the more pleasant emotions–a warm and sweetly sad feeling. It is, in itself, a mixed emotion—more complex than heartbreak or despair. My mother is leaving us, she is going to join those who she herself once shepherded into eternity. She is going home – a good and faithful servant – to a well-earned celebration.
Just now we decide to recruit some better singers. We use YouTube to find Carrie Underwood singing “Softly and Tenderly.” (My mom wouldn’t know who Carrie Underwood is, but they love the same song.) The refrain is perfect:
Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
And it asks the right question for mom: “Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading?” Pleading for her – for us – to join him.
I want to say, “She’s coming, Jesus.” But she’s not quite there yet. The hospice nurse says, “she has a ways to go.” She’s on the final lap. The cloud of witnesses is applauding her. So are we, here in her hospice room. I look at her now. Her eyes are shut. Her breathing is labored. She can see the finish line. She is almost home.
May the same be someday true for us all.
Postscript: A few hours after the writing of the above, she made it home.