Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Heaven Can't Wait V

[From a book of 23 essays called "Heaven", edited by Roger Ferlo, Seabury Books, April, 2007. See link to Church Publishing.]

My mother solved her problem with death by having the definitive fall, fracturing so many bones that she was caved in on one side. They could not be set as she was too fragile to risk the slightest intervention. She was in the hospital a couple of weeks, then demanded to go home. Twenty-four hours later she was back with drug-resistant pneumonia.

I bought scrubs and a cot and moved into her room.

She was lightly comatose, parched with a high fever. There was little to be done: cold cloths for her forehead, swabs to keep her mouth moist. She sucked hard on the swabs.

The second night, her fever broke, but she was awakened by pain. In her final two years she had become paranoid and after her fall had refused painkillers on the grounds that they might further weaken her failing heart.

Diffidently, I suggested that, nonetheless, a little morphine might be a good idea. She looked at me suspiciously as if she thought I might be trying to do her in, then agreed.

The bolus hurt her; she was skin and bones. I asked the nurse to put her on a drip.

The third night she seemed to rally. She was sometimes unconscious, sometimes wide awake. "Don't waste your money on skin creams," she admonished in one lucid interval, "they don't work!"

In another, her eyes flew open: "I'm getting better!" she announced in a tone of voice that brooked no contradiction.

And as an afterthought: "I've always hoped you'd change your mind, get married and have some grandchildren. It's not too late!"

Denial dies hard. I was fifty-eight years old and seventeen years beyond a hysterectomy.

The fourth night she lapsed again into a light coma. The struggle between flesh and spirit seemed to be building to unbearable levels. In the small hours of the morning she appeared stuck, unable to accept fully that she was dying, unable to let go.

As I sat there helpless before her agony, an incongruous memory appeared. I had once borrowed a pullover sweater she hadn't worn for a dozen years and which, because of her arthritis, she could never wear again. I'd found it during a visit when I was helping her look deep in her walk-in closet for a pair of shoes. With great reluctance she let me take it. About a month later she made an agitated phone call to ask me if I had the sweater and to please send it back immediately.

This memory prodded another: the question and answer in the car seven years earlier. I gathered all my courage and leaned tentatively toward her, careful not to touch.

"Mother," I said as gently as I could, "Mother, it's all right to let go into love."

Her body gave a great start as if she were trying to sit up to stare me down, to negate my words.

Softly the melodies she had once loved to hear her husband sing began to spin from my lips. Psalms we had read at her mother's dying emerged from the ever-flowing stream to sing the dawn. Slowly her body began to relax. The strain left her face. She was going to a garden party through the jaws of death.

* * *

But now a different struggle began, one more pitiful by far than the first. It lasted the next twelve hours. She had consented to die, but her physiology was so conditioned to never let go that it fought her will and her desire for every breath and every heartbeat.

During her final hours she was no longer responsive. Her eyes were half-open, unblinking. Slowly the inexorable pattern established itself, breathing that lingered and lagged and stopped and started again after successively longer pauses. Her pulse lurched in her throat, then, after an impossible gap, throbbed again.

Suddenly, on the last beat, her face became fully conscious, alive, sentient; her features contorted with excruciating pain and effort—and in the same fleeting instant, collapsed.

In the end, it seems, the only way she could let go was to break her heart.

Heaven can't wait.


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