of lilacs and pillowcases and slow last breaths
the phone rang. through broken words i made out this: “my mom’s gonna die. in the next few days.”
it was my friend susan. it was my friend who has always counted her mother as pretty much her dearest, best-loved friend. except of course for her triplets and her larry. it was my friend who, for months, and especially in the last few weeks, has been inching ever closer to the inconceivable conclusion that i just heard her put to words—sputter, choke through, really—on the other end of the line.
her blessed, tiny mother, the one who, one week away from turning 79, still sold houses, still filled her calendar with lunches and theater and friends upon friends before the cancer, damn cancer, truly demanded center stage, her mother was, at last, unavoidably, in her final holy hours.
moved just the night before into intensive care to try to ease her gasping broken breathing, she was now, they had just decided, being moved out. moved out, said susan, to a room where she would die. untethered. except for the slow drip of morphine, liquid mercy doled out in fractions of a milliliter.
“she’s too brittle to move home,” said susan, who wished for that more than anything.
so did her mother.
“i just want to go home and drink a cold glass of water,” her mother said just the day before, one of the few lucid sentences she spoke the day she couldn’t, for the life of her, catch her breath.
susan, who has stayed dry-eyed and unwobbly through most of this long road, was without words for a heartbeat or two. i heard tears falling. “it’ll be okay. i’ll close the door. it’ll be quiet,” she whispered.
i suddenly saw lilacs.
get lilacs. fill the room. i said the words softly. the words came from my mouth, but really they came from somewhere else. i kept going. make it smell like heaven. get her pillow, a soft pillow. play music. hearing is the last earthly thread to go.
light a candle. no, strike that. oxygen and candles aren’t a good idea. combustion of this sort, you do not need. susan laughed. softly. she has room, bless her, in her heart for laughing.
make a soft nest.
i thought of the womb that carries us into life, the gentle soothing waters. the lub-dub of a mother’s heart. the way it must pound in all-enveloping waves through the almighty contraction that pulses one life through and out of another.
i thought of death. i thought of how i would want to be ushered out in the same soft womb of soothing waters. fill my room with springtime rushing in. lay my cheek on smooth white cotton, french knots and tiny forget-me-nots hand-stitched along the pillowcase’s edge. anoint me with lavender waters. put cold water to my lips. and make it sweet, while you’re at it.
if, that is, we are so blessed to know that we are headed heaven’s way. if we have a little notice. say an hour or a day.
susan whispered yes. yes to hyacinth. yes to going to her mother’s bed, her real one, not the one that’s making do in the ICU, and gathering the pillow that knows the contours of her mother’s cheeks and chin and forehead, the contours, too, of all her mother’s dreams. yes, lastly, to ipod—this is ’007, after all.
since i was already speaking from a place that doesn’t often see the light, i kept on going. there are times in life when all is scraped away, and there is time and room only for the essence. this was such a time.
“susan, death is beautiful. i don’t know if you’ve ever been right there when someone dies. but it will fill you with unimaginable peace. something rushes in the room. you are not afraid. you know that you are not alone. there is something full of grace that holds you.”
susan whispered yes.
and i went off to fill my arms with lilac and hyacinth and the sacred earthly incense that would carry my dear friend’s most blessed mother on her way to heaven.
the phone rang shortly after 3, just after i’d gotten home with hyacinths; too soon for lilacs. it was susan. the hospital had called before she could even get there. her mother died. susan had just gone out to gather hyacinths for her mother’s last slow breaths. “too late,” she said, voice cracking. not so, i pray. their sweet perfume, i’m sure, wrapped over her on her way.
all night i have been listening to the pit-a-pat of rain against the roof, against the panes. is it earth weeping for the loss of yet another dear one? or is it heaven sending healing, blessed waters? shortly before dawn, the rain paused. the pit-a-pat gave way to robin trilling. i live miles north of susan, but i hope she too heard rain give way to robin. i hope she heard the day open up in song.
I hear your empathy for your dear friend Susan and her mother. Words from the wise sage Annie Dillard came to me as I read your words this morning. “I think the dying pray at the last not “please” but thank you” as a guest thanks his host at a door.” May Susan be surrounded by those who offer her hospitality and open arms as she remembers the love of her beautiful mother.
Thank you for a beautiful true post. And slj, for the wonderful quote.
It was orchestrated that Susan not be with her mother physically when she died, as her mother did not want her to see her last breath ( as beautiful as it is sometimes) Instead your friend Susan seemed to be given a greater gift in being SPIRITUALLY with her mother at the time of death as she went to gather hyacinths for her.That way she was with her on a whole different level and the highest levelof Love, when two hearts speak to each other from a distance and know it. Susan, Now you can carry your mother in your pocket, and she will be with you always. My condolences.
HarrietThis Mother’s Day will be the 10th anniversary of my Mom’s death. As shared at her wake, it is no coincidence that a woman who was often called Mrs. Moms by friends of her six children would die on Mother’s Day.And lilacs—such beautiful, purple, soothing fragrance. I have had 5 lilac bushes planted by my church in memory of my Mom. The earliest house I remember—–on the far, far south side of Chicago—-had lilacs guarding the front door.My condolences to Susan.
My condolence to Susan also. When my mother was living with, then dying from, cancer, I looked to friends who had lost their mothers in hopes of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel of sadness. No matter what their responses to my question for guidance were, they always started with a twinge of pain in their faces that arose spontaneously, even if they had lost their mother decades before. It was then that I realized there was no easy way past the sadness. My mother died peacefully of cancer in the fall three years ago while needlepointing before bed. The day of her funeral we got a call from the needlepoint shop that “Sally’s items are ready.” It turned out that she’d made a dozen needlepoint ornaments–one for each daughter, son-in-law and grandchild–and sent them off to be stuffed and finished so she’d have Christmas gifts to give us, even if she couldn’t make it herself. I am choked up now, just thinking about her care for us until the very end. Susan, your mother will always be with you. Guaranteed.
Susan … if you ever look back and read this, know that you have far flung sisters that stand with you, holding you up, sending love your way. I don’t know you, but I can only imagine your sadness in saying goodbye to your dear mother. Please know my prayers are with you.Today, I will call my mother and tell her how wonderful she is and how blessed I am to have her here with me.
blessed susan shone today. today they buried her mama. susan, though, wanted for a moment to “lift the fog of grief, to celebrate her life,” her mother’s life. and ohhhhhhhhh she did, she did. i will let her tell her story. but let me just say that my friend, my wonderful wise lawyerly friend, she showed her stuff today. she was a master up there, telling stories, holding up exhibits 1 and 2. she made us laugh, right along with her. and then she made us gasp, so piercing was the power of the punchline of her story. that susan, she’s a wise one. a funny one. a wonder. she made her mama proud, i am sure. she certainly made me proud. bless each and every one of you who has been holding susan and her mama in your prayers. you are quite a circle, you who pull up to this table. bless you, bless you. each and every one….
Susan – as one who’s mother entered into eternal life some 20 years ago – let me affirm that she remains today – these many years later – still a vivid and daily presence in my life. So, your mother will not depart from your life – her presence will continue for not only you but for all of us who experience and are touched by you. Thank you for bringing her into my life through your experience. Your mother certainly could leave this life confident that her earthly work was fulfilled as she saw the person you have become. What a gift were and are to her.Prayers continue…..
To the Chair Lady and Table Friends,My heartfelt thanks to all of you for your words of inspiration and comfort. It is beyond gratifying that this circle of bloggers has evolved into a support group sharing common experiences from the mundane to the metaphysical. Peace.