Grief lives in our house. Among the furniture, between the windows and the walls, it sits, thick and unmoving. Grief rides heavy on my chest. I can’t get a good, deep breath these days. It weighs down my husband’s shoulders and molds his features. Grief seeps into our nights of restless sleep and dreams of forgetting, of waking, and then remembering.
We lie on our bed listening to the falling rain. Wet, fat drops pelt the windowpane and punctuate the silence. He curls up behind me, concave where I am round; our bodies fit together, pieces of a puzzle. In the stillness, the edges between us dissolve. I fade into him, absorbing his substance. A crack of thunder sounds. I inhale sharply to pull the air into my lungs. He draws a deep breath in through an open mouth, his chest heaving. With a sigh, it rushes out. Together we breathe our mourning. There is comfort in our solidarity and we close our eyes to accept the brief respite.
It occurs to me that my father-in-law will never hold his wife this way again.
If anyone could cure cancer with sheer will and devotion, it would be him. He will not leave her side. He sits, he stands, he paces. He drinks coffee and more coffee. He questions the doctors and the nurses and the therapists. He hopes against all odds. He isn’t ready.
He sleeps in a recliner pulled up next to the hospital bed. He covers her hand with his and they talk in the dead of night, recounting their fifty years of shared memories. He helps her try to hang on and when it becomes clear she cannot, she helps him try to let go.
Until a year ago, the only loved ones I’d lost were my grandparents who had lived full lives into their 80’s. I still miss them dearly and lament their passing, but tragic death, to those young and taken too soon, by illness or accident had not yet entered my experience. Within a span of a few months, loss hit hard, lodging painfully in my sternum. Three deaths. My friend from childhood, my brother’s son, my sister’s husband. And now, my husband’s mother.
I can’t bear it, but somehow I must stay present to witness. This is the gift I can give my family by marriage. I am wife, I am daughter-in-law, I am sister-in-law. But my own crisis is significant. I am losing a mother, too.
I was twenty-eight when I met her. Newly divorced and unable to travel to my own family far away, I faced my first Christmas without my young children. My closest girlfriend insisted on taking me home to the bosom of her Midwestern family. Depression had me in its clutches. Morose and self-absorbed, I tried to decline. I wanted to retreat from the world at large and immerse myself in desolation, but she wouldn’t have it and dragged me across the country to Missouri.
I had never been anywhere east of Colorado, and all I knew were the clichés I’d heard. Friendly, kind and generous, the stereotypes of folks from the heartland held true, but more than that, these people radiated joy that spread to all within reach. Misery didn’t stand a chance when infected with their sunny optimism. In a noisy house full of activity, my senses were barraged: the smell of delicious food, the comfort of homey Christmas decor and quaint antiques, the resonance of children’s voices playing and adults laughing and talking all at the same time. My future mother-in-law welcomed me to her home, without conditions, without judgment. She simply loved me for being myself, a self she barely knew, but loved because her daughter loved me. I’d landed in a Norman Rockwell painting and it felt like being wrapped in a warm blanket after coming in from the cold.
I was teased for my wild hair and tie-dyed shirt and Arizona ‘accent.’ I gave as good as I got, though, imitating my future father-in-law’s Missouri dialect. “Well, now, you gotta take and go on past the ray-road tracks, that-a-way you’ll run right into that rest-runt. I tell you what, have they got great Eye-talian food. Jim-in-ey!”
We gathered around the large table as plates of turkey and ham and stuffing and potatoes were passed. I listened to stories from the past, each memory more outrageous, each teller louder than the last, boistesrous laughter erupting between the words that flew back and forth. We played board games until midnight and imbibed in PaPa’s famous punch, a delicious concoction of fruit juice, soda and what I’m fairly certain was an entire bottle of Southern Comfort. And on Christmas morning, when presents were doled out, I was handed more than one with my name on the tag. Gifts bought for me. And not just any gifts. How this woman knew exactly what I would love I will never know. The startling gesture touched me deeply. Can you fall in love with someone instantly? How about a whole family? They had me at “Welcome to Missouruh.”
My connection to her continued through the darkest time of my life. I felt doubly blessed to have my own mother to soothe my heartache and another mother figure who healed me unknowingly, simply by being herself. More visits and conversations allowed me to observe her ways, her smiling consistency and unflinching positive outlook, her effervescent energy. I came to know her well, and as they say, to know her, is to love her.
Three years later, as much a surprise to me as to everyone else, I discovered the love of my life right there in this family. Her only son, the brother of my best friend, proposed to me and I became a legal in-law, but I was already hers. I grew in devotion to her like Ruth to Naomi. “Whither thou goest, I will go.” She loved my children, and not just the Kent babies that came later, but those she inherited, my big kids, scooping them up and adding them to her brood like they’d been there all along, too. We were family.
Over more than twenty years and across hundreds of miles, we shared happy, contented times, and the inevitable tough times brought us closer still. But, this? This is beyond tough. The worst has happened: Mom is the heart of this family and losing her is unthinkable.
When the call comes it is unexpected and triggers a panic we try, and fail, to suppress.
Steven’s sister, my best friend, Traci says, “You need to come. Now.”
With palpable urgency we throw things in suitcases, cancel appointments, and take the girls out of school, making the interminable drive to St. Louis at 80 mph. Reeling from shock, we don’t speak, but in our racing thoughts, we reach for anything to steady the lurching shift that’s thrown the world out of sync. Mom was okay just last week when they sent her home to recover from an arduous stem cell transplant. Even if she had a ways to go, she was definitely on the mend. But, now we know. The transplant didn’t work. Her body did not respond the way we’d hoped. For fourteen months the cancer attacked her viciously, resisting treatment after treatment, sometimes with near-fatal reactions. How unfair, how goddamned cruel, that now, after all she’s endured—transfusions, surgeries, hospitalizations, procedures that should have granted, if not a cure, at least more time, how devastating that she is left with this abrupt, horrifying end. She is only 69. As she said, “I was supposed to have more time.”
The reality hits when we reach the hospital. She is going where none of us can follow. Nearly everyone has come and Mom is surrounded by the ones who love her most, all three of her kids, middle-aged now with kids and grandkids of their own, her brother and sister, six of her eight grandchildren, and friends who have traversed the decades. Disbelief rocks us as we grope for meaning in this brutal certainty.
Compelled by prescience, though exhausted, she will not rest until everyone has been seen, the wrenching goodbyes a sacred ritual.
Special permission is granted to our young daughters to visit and when they enter shyly, she touches and kisses them. With heroic effort, between wheezing breaths, she helps them understand what’s happening.
“Remember when MeMe said everyone has a time? It wasn’t time before but, well, it looks like it’s MeMe’s time now.” Her frail voice breaks and she pauses. “But it will be okay. Somehow it will be okay.”
They bend over her, careful to avoid the central line and oxygen cannula, for the last hug they will have. And after they’ve left, she weeps for the first and only time, utterly bereft, inconsolable.
Later, her girlfriend of more than forty years braces for their final farewell, putting a smile on her face before walking through the door.
“Hey, gal. Whatcha doin’?” she says in a casual tone.
“Well,” Mom says, weakly, barely audible. “Looks like I’m kicking it over.”
Bantering constantly, regardless of the situation, that is what they do. It’s how they say, “I don’t know what I would have done without you this year,” and “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you for the rest of my life.” They part not with ‘goodbye,’ but ‘see ya later.’ It’s not until Mom’s beloved friend is down the hall and around the corner that she finally lets go, collapsing into her husband’s waiting arms.
I’ve waited my turn, respectful of the pecking order. But I need to see her. I need her to know how I feel, but there are no words to convey everything she means to me. For Good from Wicked plays in my mind along with the memory of sitting next to her at a live production of the Broadway musical—my birthday present to her—as lyrical voices resonated in the acoustical glory of the Fox Theatre. If I dared, I would sing to her,
I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn, and we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
It well may be, that we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part, so much of me is made from what
I learned from you
You’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart
Because I knew you . . . I’ve been changed for good
Instead, I sit quietly by her bed, willing my love into her awareness as she lies sleeping. Suddenly, she opens her eyes and sees me. All that’s between us shimmers in the air. “I love you, Lisa Kent,” she says intensely. The blessing washes over me. “I love you, Linda Kent.” Tears are in my voice. She knows. She knows.
Her goodbyes complete, the dying process begins in earnest. As pneumonia rages, her heart races and her breathing becomes torturous as her body fights for each inhalation. A sip of water to a parched mouth, soothing balm to cracked lips, a cloth to a fevered head, these only ease her suffering briefly.
“Rest now, Mom,” her oldest daughter, Lori says. “Just go to sleep. We’ll be right here.”
But in between fretful sleeping and waking, she struggles to tell us one more thing. Barely able to form the words, she manages to utter, “I want us to stay a family.”
She’s worried that without her we will drift apart, let conflict come between us. She is adamant, and rightly so that we respect her wishes.
“I want you to love each other and be happy.”
“We will, Mom,” we say in unison.
“Promise?” she pleads. She must know we will take care of each other before she can let go.
The nurses move around us now as we keep vigil. Confined to a hospital room, a waiting room and a hotel room, perspective shifts radically and the minutes and hours lose meaning. Has it been three days or a week? A surreal bending of space and time becomes our existence; there is no longer a world outside this place.
My husband won’t leave. By her bedside, he quietly holds her hand as she sleeps fitfully, though it’s excruciating for him to watch his mother suffer. She stirs and asks in a panic. “Where is Steven?” though her hand is still encircled in his, their long fingers cut from the same pattern.
“I’m right here, Mom.” He strokes her cheek with the back of his hand. Reassured, she relaxes back into the pillows.
As the hours drag on, each time she wakes, finding herself trapped in a body wrecked by disease, her anxiety mounts. “Unplug me,” she says, though she is not on life support. With courageous acceptance, Mom is ready to go, leaps and bounds ahead of us.
Soon, the sedatives and pain meds help calm her as the separation begins. She drifts somewhere between here and . . . not here. She’s stopped talking, retreating.
Dad sits on the edge of the bed and leans in close. “You are the love of my life,” he whispers. “You’ve fought so hard.” He brings her hand to his lips, bowing his head. Sobs wrack his body. “Wait for me, I’ll be there soon.”
I cannot bear it and turn away from the intensely private moment. My hand covers my mouth and my eyes search for my husband’s. We look to his two sisters and an unspoken message travels between; we surrender to the swelling tide of anguish.
The next morning, Traci pushes the bulky hospital bed and the attached monitors and machines away from the wall and angles it toward the window. The rising sun streams in. Peaceful music plays quietly. Tranquility eases the tension for a blessed moment.
With her last bit of strength, she lifts her heavy eyelids a fraction. With incredible will, she lifts a shaky hand off the bed a mere few inches before dropping it. Through the small slits, her eyes are cloudy and seem unfocused. Yet as we watch, we swear her gaze moves slowly from face to face, tracking, lingering on each one of us. An electrical connection pings back and forth. She is here. But she is going. Soon.
It happens in a whisper. Dad and Lori have left, telling her they’re just going to grab some lunch. Kissing her forehead, he says, “I’ll be right back. See you in a minute.”
Steven, Traci and I, continue our watch in silence, together, but apart. Sitting in a chair, I rest my head in my hand and start to sleep, to dream. For days now, her fight to breathe has become increasingly urgent. The loud, rhythmic sound churns, a biological instinct for self-preservation. It’s become the background noise, a soundtrack to dying. As I drift further, something pulls my awareness back, as if I’ve been tapped on the shoulder. The lack of the repetitive churning sound slowly enters my consciousness. Then, abruptly, I wake up. Watching, I see her take a quieter breath. Then nothing. Awareness descends synchronously on us all and we spring to the bedside.
We wait and there’s another breath, easier this time. A pause. A softer breath, almost a sigh. A longer pause. Then another breath . . . that becomes . . . her last.
Traci sobs and cradles her mother in her arms. Steven lays his cheek next to hers. I run for the nurse and hear my husband cry, “You were the best mother I could ever ask for. I love you so much.” Down the hall I hear Traci wail like a child.“You held me when I came into the world and I will hold you as you leave.”
The nurse confirms it is happening and removes the oxygen mask. His hand on her chest, my husband feels her heart stop. We all feel it when she lightly, elegantly lifts from her body and glides away.
An ephemeral gap in the storm appears suddenly, allowing brilliant light to bleed through the wooden blinds and warm my face for a moment before dark clouds converge, a pall returning. I roll over to face my husband. Eyes closed, he is motionless, yet within, I can feel his disquiet. I sense the vibrations of pain coursing through his body. His mother has died. And where did she go? I can’t find her and it frightens me. She is gone, slipping the surly bonds of earth despite our desperate longing for her to stay. I know she no longer suffers. I believe she’s with the angels now, yet the cavernous void in her absence can’t be quantified.
I cup his cheek and smooth his brow. He opens his eyes to look at me and I see . . . her eyes. He has his mother’s eyes. I see her in his cheekbones. And in his smile. He has her generous nature and tender heart, too. And brilliant mind. And love of cooking. I’m acutely aware how he came from her.
My spirit soars with this epiphany. My babies, they came from their father, who came from her. Like Russian stacking dolls, they too, are part of her, shaped by her influence, molded in her image. She lives on within them; everything she was and everywhere she was from.
From small towns and familiar neighbors and grandma next door. From gas at 21 cents a gallon and no indoor bathroom and a washing machine hooked up on the back porch. She was from the chill on a fall morning in Kansas as leaves blew along cracked sidewalks, and from laundry hung on the line to dry in the spring sunshine. From playing board games inside on snowy days and riding bikes outside until dark.
She was from an absent father and an unstable mother. From a younger brother and sister to look after and from growing up too quickly. From babysitting at ten and working at Tasty Freeze at thirteen for $.75 an hour. From a dance club out of town in an old warehouse and cherry vodka and Jan and Dean and Ricky Nelson.
From an office job at Pittsburg State and a handsome fraternity boy from the university. From young love they said would never last. From a little white house and domesticated bliss and round babies that bounced on her knee. She was from washing dishes and washing out diapers. From friends who became family and raised each other’s kids, who made their own fun on a Saturday night when money was tight.
From the Kool-aid house where everyone wanted to hang out with the mom they wished was theirs. She was from “I’m gonna come down there and spank some butts!” and “Get outta that, dinner’s almost ready,” and “Be home by midnight and don’t drink and drive.” She was from “You can be whatever you want to be,” and “I’m so proud of you.” She was from motherhood first and everything else second.
She was from crockpots and homemade macaroni and cheese and chocolate cake and Christmas braid. From birthdays and Easters and Valentine’s Days cards with cash inside. From shopping year-round and finding the perfect gift for the perfect person. She was from boundless generosity.
She was from cross-stitched samplers and Precious Moments figurines and Longaberger baskets. From Christmas trees in the living room and in the family room and in the kitchen and in the bedroom, decorated with ornaments that aged with her children, each marked with the date and holding the memory of that time. She was from Santas: on the hutch, the shelf, the table and the stairs. Old World Santas, Black Santas, country Santas and ceramic Santas. She was from Santa himself (played by PaPa) coming in through the back door on Christmas Eve with presents for the little ones. She was from trash bags of torn and crumpled wrapping paper and delicious aromas and bellies too stuffed to move.
She was from a house bursting with laughter and life and noise, from her dream of a large family come true. From shouts of “MeMe!” followed by torpedo hugs around the waist. From special weekends and movies in the living room and Barbies and arts and crafts and baking cookies. She was from beautiful hands and gentle touches and soft hugs. From open arms for everyone who crossed her threshold. She was from acceptance and judging no one.
She was from hard work and dedication. From eye-glasses and fittings and appointments and patients and co-workers who loved her, from knowing everyone in town. She was from rising before the sun and falling asleep in front of the TV.
She was from retirement and Grandparent’s Day at elementary school and dance recitals and choir concerts and softball games. She was from best friends and vacations in the Smoky Mountains and Tybee Island and Santa Fe. From two couples, best friends, traveling the country and shopping at the Lake. From coffee on Saturday mornings and growing old together.
She was from signature perfume and Pandora charms and Land’s End sweaters and scarves from L.L. Bean. From new recipes and new bedspreads and new rugs. From gardens and bird-feeders. She was from Mid-West Living and O Magazine. From bookshelves and bookshelves of books. From Kindles and laptops. She was from photos on Facebook and photos hung on every wall.
She was from spending her entire adult life as wife to her husband, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. From forgiveness and steady calm in stormy seas. She was from dignity and grace and long-suffering.
She was from pink ball caps skewed to the side to cover her balding head and Relay for Life and incredible courage in the fight for her life. From comforting others even at the end of her own journey. She was from “Everything’s going to be all right,” and “I love you so much,” and “I’m ready to go.” She was from pure love.*
Memories and impressions of my mother-in-law flood my senses. The sting of death remains, but losing her is impossible: she’s here. My breath rushes in and I’m filled with the Essence of Her Presence. I exhale . . . then begin to weep. My husband’s arms lock around me quick and tight. Even in his own grief, he understands the depth of mine. He will hold me as long as it takes.
Grief lives in our house, but so does joy. The world without her will never be the same, but the sun will come up and the days will go by. The children will keep growing and a new life will join the family when our grandson is born in a few months as we more to come as we remain a family. We will laugh and celebrate and dream. And when remembrance overwhelms us, we will cry and rail and grieve again. There is no escape. We are powerless to circumvent mourning. I can’t bear it, but somehow I will, by leaning into the grief and feeling it in my bones, by going about living our robust lives and by knowing that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Mom wants us to be happy. She told us that in her dying wishes. She loved the song, You’ll Be in My Heart, by Phil Collins from the movie, Tarzan, which serendipitously came out the year our daughter, Sydney, was born with Down syndrome. The lyrics speak of the protective and nurturing nature of a maternal figure. I think she wants us to know she’s still here, loving us, mothering us. And I believe if we listen, if we just look over our shoulders, we will always find her.
You’ll be in my heart
Always, I’ll be with you
Just look over your shoulder
Just look over your shoulder
Just look over your shoulder
I’ll be there always”
I love you, Mom.
*Format taken from the poem Where I’m From by George Ella Lyons.