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.
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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.