Waiting for someone to die gives you time to think.
My mother was unconscious, lying in her bed at the St Benedicts Nursing Home in St Cloud, lost to the world of morphine. Lost to us, taking turns to stroke her hand, brush her hair, rub lotion into her heels.
I told her it was okay to go. That we loved her. Said thanks.
I breathed with her. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out.
I thought about her parents, who’d lived to more advanced ages than any of their 10 children.
I thought about how in my younger life I’d had little affection for my Grandma Lena.
It was only when my mother was dying that I thought about how my grandparents’ first two children, young daughters, had died within months of each other.
How she had recently had twins, my mother and her brother Jerry, plus another little boy, and was in the early stages of pregnancy when her second daughter died.
How maybe after such loss she couldn’t bring herself to love any other child or grandchild that much again.
A few times a year my grandparents visited the cemetery on the edge of town where so many other family members are buried.
“She’d stand beside the grave of those little girls and sob and sob,” Mom said.
I couldn’t picture my flinty Grandma showing any emotion, except towards my grandfather. Throughout their 70+ year marriage, she sat right next to him on the bench seat of their car, until bucket seats became the norm and this was no longer possible.
I hadn’t spared it much thought. Until now.
I held my mother’s hand and thought about how she’d cared for her parents until her father’s death, and then her mother’s at 100 in the same nursing home where she herself would soon die.
I thought about how I’d never been to the little girls’ grave and wondered why.
I thought about how much my mother adored her parents, about our own sometimes turgid mother-daughter relationship, about how glad I was that we’d had time to mend bridges, heal, forgive.
I thought about the little niece who wouldn’t go into my mother’s room at St Ben’s because there was a shadowy child next to the bed (there was no child).
I thought about all of it looking out of the window, past the glittering Mississippi to the flat burnt horizon of a Minnesota afternoon.
I held my mother’s hand and heard the last word she spoke, in a satisfied tone, as though someone she’d been expecting and looked forward to seeing had finally arrived (although she didn’t die until two days later).
It’s a word I turn over often in my mind and think about.
I listen again to the tone in her voice when she said it.
Photo JacoBlund, istock