When Mother Was Dying - Grief, Death and Dying
I. The Attic - Grief
While mother lay dying, I find him in the attic scrubbing the floor. Ancient wood, bare and unpainted like it has been for over 100 years. The immensity of the room engulfs us - the Sistine ceiling and relic-like beams exposed and full of knots.
From the window in the dormers I can still see forever over all the roof tops in the neighborhood to the narrow street below where life seems yet another century away.
He dunks a tattered rag into a bucket full of black water. Water black from years of soot – over 40 years of our soot and the soot of former owners. Black from the replacement of numerous roofs, asbestos, bat droppings and the dirty feet of children who played for countless hours in the heat of summer and cold of winter up here on top of the world, on top of our world.
No one has ever scrubbed the attic. He scrubs because there is nothing left to clean down there and up here he finds solace. Down there the hospital bed holds his love of 54 years – my mother.
“We dreamed of growing very old here,” he tells me once and today I read his mind. He does not want to live without her. I cry silent, uncontrollable tears as I trace my sister's initials etched forever down low in the wall in one corner where we used to play dolls. And I long for the crowded crazy days of yesteryear. Ten of us roaming, living, laughing under this roof and under the love of these two people.
Done scrubbing – he looks tired and stumbles a little as he maneuvers the steep stairs. I follow with the dirty bucket. Solemnly. Obediently. Like a good daughter. I turn and look back. The immense room is fresh with the smell of oil soap and memories. The water dirty and black sloshes in bucket – and I cannot see the bottom. We cannot see the bottom – the end. It is hidden from us.
II. The Apology - Dying
And while she knows that suffering is imminent, her somewhat tough exterior cracks and she cannot help but to think first of her ten children. Has she done enough for us? Has she hurt us? Is there any reason that she needs to pull each of us aside and make sure our relationship with her is solid and resentment free?
She sits in the kitchen when she talks to me. The living room when she talks to a brother and various other rooms around the big old house where she has diapered, rocked and raised us, her babies. It was important to her at the end of her life to make sure she has fulfilled her divine calling - motherhood. And in one final effort, she seeks reconciliation for any shortfalls that she in her humanity may have committed.
We cry, we hug and we reassure her through this process knowing the end is nearer still. After all, healthy people seldom say they are sorry unless they are sure of the crime committed.
I am heartbroken as I sit across the table from her where she sits eating dinner spilling food on the large bib we tie around her neck. I get up and wipe her face. And just one last time, I want to feel her strength.
III. Holy Ground - Death
“Hello, darling,” she says from the bed where they tell us it will be just hours now.It is my last chance to look into her eyes and only one is open.She closes it and I never see her look at me again.
I have approached her bed gingerly, quietly removing my shoes.I feel like Moses on ‘holy ground’ frightened, not knowing what to expect. We are now at God’s mercy.There is a quiet reverence among us.We keep a vigil and in the end, it is quick as my brother, his hand on her wrist feels her pulse tick to a halt.We sit and watch the blood drain from her regal face until the hospice nurse and then the mortician arrive.It is a strange and beautiful moment.
My brothers lift her body in a bag and carry her to a waiting hearse.Her youngest child wails a soulful and powerful version of “Amazing Grace” on his harmonica as they descend the stairs of the large house to her final waiting ride.
I will later read a poem in her favorite book of poetry:
The Queen is taking a drive to-day,
They have hung with purple the carriage-way,
They have dressed with purple the royal track
Where the Queen goes forth and never comes back
Though in royal splendour she drives through town,
Her robes are simple, she wears no crown:
…And crowned with the love she has left behind
In the hidden depths of each mourner's mind.
Bow low your heads--lift your hearts on high -
The Queen in silence is driving by!
We bury our ‘Queen” - our mother on an August day tossing upon her grave fistfuls of dirt and white roses staying to make sure the grave digger lays her body perfectly. And I think of her laying down there in her coral suit going out of this life in her usual manner - fashionable and lovely.
And my father never scrubs the attic floor again.
Selections from The Queen's Last Ride by: Ella Wheeler Wilcox (Written on the day of Queen Victoria's funeral)