Every other day I visit my parents at their new apartment just down the road from us. My routine is pretty much the same. After putting away any groceries, dry cleaning or health care products I have brought, I take my mother’s face in my hands and kiss her on the forehead. Then I walk over to where Dad is reading and peck him too. Finally I pull up a seat next to mom’s wheelchair and take her hand in mine. I almost always plan to discuss some important thing with her (her obituary, her funeral arrangements, her impending trip to Heaven) but I always chicken out. Instead we discuss the kids, the weather or what Rachel Ray is cooking that day.
Her grip on my hand, and this life, becomes like a vice the longer I sit there. When it is time to go I have to pry her fingers from mine. While I tell myself that it’s her nerves, damaged by cancer, that prevent her fingers from releasing me, I wonder if her clutch is controlled by something much deeper.
I don’t think that Mom, despite her daily pain and loss of dignity, wants to leave this life. Bound to a wheelchair, unable to feed herself at times, annoyed with the new necessary evils of this paraplegic existence, she grits her teeth and goes through her days; she seems to will herself to the next.
I have to imagine she has seen Death, standing now just inside their apartment door, waiting for her. How could she not? It has been pursuing her for months now.
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I hear It try to sooth her, to say, “It is not so scary, there are others waiting for you, come dance with me and I will take you to see them. To be with God.”
Some days I see It hover right over her shoulder at breakfast, or beside her while she sleeps, her ragged-breath heaving in an out to its own rhythm that appears to say, “Not today…not today…not today.”
I saw It even yesterday morning, as my father busied himself with Valentine’s Day wishes, trying to woo her to come eat with promises of Chocolate pancakes in the dining room. It was standing there, in the still background, wanting to dance her right out of this world. She wouldn’t go though. She is not ready for this, the final dance of life.
Instead - steel will filling her rigid, useless body - she simply pushed Death and my father out the door, saying she was waiting for her nurse from Hospice to shower her. “Go have breakfast without me.”
Not today. Not today. Not today.
I can’t say I blame her. As much as I want to see her free and “at peace”, I am in my own avoidance mode.
You see, Death not only courts her, It courts me. It takes me in Its arms and whispers in my ear, as It propels me, gently but firmly - It is leading, not I - across these difficult days. It tells me the things I should do and say to my mother to give her ease, to let her pass from this life to the next. But still I evade It, because I cannot face It.
I cannot tell her, “It is okay to let go Mom,” because that would mean I was betraying her, and her iron will to live.
I cannot bring up past hurts and forgive her because that would mean I was saying she was not a good mother.
I cannot ask her for forgiveness because that would mean admitting that I have not been the best daughter.
I cannot ask her what she wants to wear for her funeral, what she wants sang, or said, or done, because that would mean she is dying.
I want the easy way out. The coward’s way. The sharp-slap-to-the-senses-midnight-call announcing finally and unceremoniously, “She has gone.” I have wanted this for her - and for me - since her diagnosis a year and a half ago.
But as is often the case, we plan but our plans are not what are served up in this life.
I know in the end I shall grow from this tough time. I know my heart climbs to new heights each minute it is not breaking.
I know she will gain from this too. To waltz just a few more times around the floor with her life’s love. To spend some time with one of her daughters – and her daughter’s daughters – before leaving.
And so Death waits. For her. For me.