Mom Was Always in Charge—Even When She Was Dying
“I won’t be able to make dinner for you this week,” my mother quipped as I bounded into her hospital room and kissed her on the forehead, careful to avoid the oxygen tubes going into her nose. I was supposed to be visiting her on the New Jersey Shore; instead, I was visiting her in intensive care.
Everything happened fast.
Earlier that week, on July 4, my 95-year-old mother was brimming with health, still swimming in the bay with her great-grandkids. When I’d visited in June, she picked me up at the train station herself, still able to get behind the wheel. Together, we went to the beach, sat side by side reading our novels. Whenever I stayed with her, she cooked vegetarian meals for me and I took her to her favorite restaurant in Point Pleasant, where she always ordered broiled flounder with the fries.
Our relationship had been stormy until about 10 years earlier, when she helped me get through the breakup of my 26-year lesbian relationship. When my conservative father died, my mother became more open-minded and independent. Though she could also be bossy and controlling, my devastating gay divorce brought out her nurturing qualities. After my partner dumped me in the spring, I spent most of that summer at my mother’s beach house, the two of us playing Scrabble and going to yard sales. The upside to my relationship trauma is that it brought us closer.
Given the robust state of her health, it was a shock when my sister called on July 8 to say that Mom was in the hospital. She’d been having trouble breathing, she told me, and when her asthma inhaler did not work, my niece drove her to the emergency room. Still, we felt optimistic, especially after the first week, when she was moved out of intensive care. Now the great-grandkids, who adored her and the crazy card games she taught them, could visit her in a semi-private room, instead of sitting dolefully in the waiting area, making cards for “Greaty.”
As for me, I was staying at my mother’s bungalow on East Bay, where she’d lived since 1949. I’d been impressed by how Mom took charge of its restoration after the cottage was flooded by Sandy. She wrangled with insurance agents and insisted the contractors preserve the knotty pine paneling my father had installed. When I walked into her bedroom and saw her floppy beach hat and beach bag ready to go, I burst into tears. I would have continued to cry, except the neighbors kept stopping by to ask about her. Mom was a pioneer in our tight-knit beach community, the local historian. Everyone knew her.
As the second week unfurled, I felt confident she would recover. She even managed to get out of bed and take a few steps. So I went back home to Manhattan, only to return a few days later when Mom’s condition worsened. Her lungs were filling up with fluid and she was struggling to breath. Now when I walked into her room, I saw her gasping for air, wearing an oxygen mask that covered her mouth and nose.
“I know we had our ups and downs over the years,” I said. “I’m sorry for all the conflicts.” My mother could no longer reply.
Yet despite her suffering, Mom was her feisty self, so much so that I refused to believe she was dying, even when my devout Irish Catholic mother demanded to see a priest for Last Rites. While we were waiting, she said, “Put on the TV. It’s time for Jeopardy. I haven’t lost my mind.”
When the priest arrived, my sister and I left the room to give them privacy; then we returned and prayed together: “Hail Mary full of grace.” For the first time, I felt truly scared. What if my mother didn’t make it? I made sure to tell Mom how much I admired the way she’d rebuilt her life after Dad died. No question I get my resilience from her.
By the third week, Mom kept lifting her oxygen mask to say things like, “I love you all very much.” My brother told my mother she had to fight this. My sister and I said it was up to her. Yet awful as it was to watch her gasping for air, we didn’t want to move her into hospice if she wanted to keep fighting. At that point, she’d developed pneumonia, so her condition was critical, but my little great nephew begged, “Don’t pull the plug on Greaty.”
I knew how he felt. Although we’d met with the hospice team, we were uncertain what to do until my mother herself pulled off her mask and announced, “What a way to die. I want this to be over.”
At some point that day, my mother said what would be her last direct words to me: “Your hair looks so curly.” I got the reference: She could never get my hair to hold a curl when I was child. I had been a darling little girl who turned into a rebellious adolescent with a mind of my own, a woman who went from being a hippie to being queer. “I know we had our ups and downs over the years,” I said. “I’m sorry for all the conflicts.” My mother could no longer reply.
That day, we had her moved to hospice, into a private room where we could visit at all hours. She was getting morphine and though she was no longer speaking, she wasn’t gasping either. We all took turns keeping vigil, reading her poetry and praying the Rosary. She had the beads wrapped around her wrist, and reciting familiar prayers from my childhood felt comforting. The mask was gone, replaced by tubes in her nostrils. She looked peaceful.
The next morning, July 26, I was in the room with my two nieces, each of them holding one of my mother’s hands and putting ice on her lips. I was at the foot of the bed with my hand on Mom’s knee. One niece suggested we play music and the other found “Harbor Lights,” my parents’ song, then held her phone to my mother’s ear.
I never realized how sad the lyrics to “Harbor Lights” were until then. The song is about departing on a boat while a loved one stays behind. We were about a minute into the song when one of my nieces said, “I think she’s gone.”
At first, I thought it was ironic that I was the only one of her children at her bedside when my mother actually left this life—me, the outsider middle child who had a rocky relationship with my parents for so long. My older sister was the star, the scholarship winner, best friends with my mother. My younger brother was the baby and the only boy, the little prince who could do no wrong. My brother and sister are married, and both gave my mother her cherished grandchildren.
I was the gay daughter, child-free, and a lapsed Catholic, to boot. Yet all of the hurts and misunderstandings and conflicts were long in the past. I was here, now. And when I told others, including a psychic friend, that I had been with my mother for her last breaths, she said that it was intentional. “She chose to die when you were with her.”
What a gift.
Kate Walter is the author of Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing (Heliotrope Books, 2015). Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in many publications. She teaches personal essay writing at New York University School of Professional Studies.