Mother’s Last Gift
by John Carter
My mother is dying. Terminal emphysema, heart disease and life’s relentless accumulation of years have robbed her of most of the things that made her life worth living. I have watched, wondering what possible purpose could be served by this prolonged torture, this painful, heartbreaking process. I have reminded myself that life’s lessons are often learned – and character is forged – in adversity. But what could God possibly be trying to teach my mother? She can’t remember a visit five minutes after it’s over. How can she possibly be learning anything from this ordeal?
When I told my oldest sister about this doubt, she said, “Maybe it’s not what she’s learning, but what we’re learning.”
Who knows the thoughts of those very close to death? Where does the mind go when it leaves this plane of existence? I have hoped that as the body dies, the spirit soars. That as the veil between this life and the next grows gossamer-thin, we glimpse Heaven drawing near. But is this just wishful thinking? Where does my mother go, and what has she seen there? Watching her die, as I did my father, turns my thoughts back to the lessons I learned from both of them.
My father was a good man, and I loved him dearly. But when I think of the contrast in what my mother and father taught me, I think about a speech from an old movie called I Never Sang for My Father. It reminds me that fathers can be hard. They prepare a young man for life. For the abusive boss, the dishonest partner and the unfaithful friend. Mothers are soft and loving. Their lessons are about family, acceptance, and unconditional love. While my father taught me about becoming a man, my mother kept the child in me alive.
So now, after a lifetime of sacrifices … of meals and laundry. Of the thankless, often-isolated life of the mundane. Of a life measured only in the service of her family … now come the hospital beds. The breathing treatments. The diapers. The loss of mind, memory, and dignity. This is mother’s last gift. The cross she bears to teach her children one final lesson. After twenty years of growing apart, of different paths chosen, of forgotten kindnesses and nurtured slights, her sons and daughters are forced to come together. To do the right thing. To care for her.
Her lesson is this – that we are destined to be different. We will disagree. We will probably always drive each other crazy. But we will always be a family. A family that she and my father devoted their lives to building. And we can no more abandon that than we could abandon her. As I sit by her hospital bed on this rainy afternoon, she doesn’t even know that I’m here. But I believe some part of her, deep inside, knows. Knows that her grandchildren – living in an age that treats family, like everything else, as a disposable commodity – need to be shown that love can turn selfish people into selfless people.
My mother has never had a forceful personality. My father could have brought us together with a few words. Left alone after his death, my mother’s only option was to lay herself down, to die a prolonged, horrible death that has made her children cooperate in caring for her. In the midst of this hell, when she is lucid, she says, “I am so lucky. I don’t hurt anywhere. If I could just catch my breath.” She reminds me of the Coleman Barks translations of Jallaludin Rumi’s poems. I am certain that my mother never read Rumi, but they both taught me that Life is not about grief. Life is primarily a joy. And when I write – one of the most joyful things in my life – it is my mother’s voice, my best voice, that I see on the page.
Mother, now I know. Your youngest – and slowest to learn – has learned this lesson. Your baby – who you did spoil – now asks for one thing more.
Wherever you are now, Mamma, wherever your spirit has flown … listen. Early this morning I dreamed of you. I was a little boy again, tagging along after you like I always did. I was playing in our yard on Culloden Road as you hung laundry on the clothesline. All the dream colors were incredibly vivid – the grass a deep, rich green. The sky cerulean. Only you were in black and white. You were young. It was you from the black and white photo I have of you when you were about 16. In the middle of pinning a shirt to the clothesline, you stopped. For just a second, a look of concern flashed across your face. I knew that you heard something I could not hear, some music or someone calling from far away. Then you turned towards me. The look of concern was completely gone, replaced by absolute peace. For one final moment (and that’s exactly what it felt like – a final moment), you showed me the first thing I ever saw in this world – your beautiful smile. And then (aren’t dreams bizarre?), you just flew away – up into that blue sky. My little boy self felt a moment of panic, and then … peace. The peace I felt as your little “mamma’s boy.” Before the world taught me the hard lessons I have been forced to learn. The lessons that have changed me into whatever kind of man it is that I’ve become.
And then I woke up, and I knew.
Fly mamma. I love you, and your absence will leave a hole in my life that can never be filled. But you’ve given enough. And the reward you have waited for – and taught me about my whole life – is one heartbeat, one final breath away. You have taught your children all we need to go on. To pass on the most important lessons.
I originally wrote those words months ago, when my mother was in the hospital, and before her brief stay in a nursing home and her death early this morning. Although we prayed for a quick end to her suffering, this wish was not to be granted.
But how can I be bitter? I have just said goodbye to a woman who told me over and over again my entire life that I should trust in the Lord. I feel strangely at peace. I know now that my mother wrote these words through me, and that I have left them dormant these long months, waiting for today, when I will deliver them to my sisters and brother.
For my mother, the adventure has just begun.
There is a gathering tonight.
on the far shore,
they come together
waiting to welcome her.
They wait, with love and praise,
withheld until now.
With giant strides he crosses an amber field,
a black dog romping by his side.
Sister, aunts, uncles, friends.
The Lord’s congregation waits.
As she leaves our small circle of love
and moves toward theirs,
to lead her to the One.
Healer of them all.
One day soon
they will gather for me,
and I will see her again, as she is now,
for the very first time.