I never knew my life would change over the course of four days in a hospital room in Peoria Illinois. It had only been a little over a week since I spoke to my mother. She told me her cancer had come back. We had expected this, but there was something different in the sound of her voice as the words fell from her lips. There was a sadness I had never heard before. Immediately, my heart began to break. It was her birthday. Fast forward ten days and I was in Illinois by her bedside watching her die. Looking back, it was a tunnel that I went through only to come out the other end a completely different person. A better person. As always, my mother made me a better man.
My mother and I had a difficult relationship. I wasn’t an easy kid to raise or an easy person to love. For most of my life I felt this aloneness that almost consumed me at times. It certainly made for many a sleepless night. I had been estranged from my siblings for many years and my father was non-communicative at best. Even though I had great friends and lived a full and happy life, it was undermined by an aloneness that I kept well hidden from the world. Most people see me as a cheerful extrovert who lives his life like an open book. What they don’t know is that I’m more of an introvert who keeps most of his stories to himself.
Last Tuesday morning, I woke up ready to make my trip to Peoria to join my estranged siblings at my mother’s side. Then my brother Mike called to tell me she wasn’t doing very well and she may not live the few hours it would take me to get to her side. My heart dropped into my stomach. Everything blurred through my tears. I couldn’t even conjure the thought that I may never see my mother again. My brother called again to tell me they could resuscitate her if she passed, but it was my call. Basically, my mother’s life was in my hands. Never in a million years did I think I would have such a painfully difficult choice to make. Never in a million years did I think it would be such an easy choice to make. When God calls you home, let no man stand in your way. When God was ready for her, I would step aside and let her go. Even if it meant I would never see my mother again. My brothers reassured me that they would have made the same decision.
I set my cell phone down on my bed and walked out into the dining room where a few of my friends had gathered to see me off. I didn’t have any words. I looked down at my suitcase on the floor and bent down to finish packing when I realized in all my sorrow I had forgotten how to operate the zipper. Not being one to show my emotions, I was trying desperately hard to figure out how to zip my suitcase as the tears welled up in my eyes and I knew that I would soon collapse. My friend Kate, knelt down next to me and very quietly put her hand on mine and helped me find the zipper and close the suitcase. I stood up and quickly walked past her out onto my deck. Never had my entire being been so gripped by sadness and never had I been this out of control of my emotions.
My roommate Russ and I had pretty much avoided each other all morning. One of the things that makes us such good friends in that our friendship is very natural and organic. We don’t push each other, we don’t pry and we allow each other to just be. We had never dealt with something like this and it was hard to face each other. Two men who don’t express their feelings now burdened with something much bigger than us both. It wasn’t until I went to say goodbye to him that I felt just how much he cared about me. I gave him a big hug and thanked him through my tears. He held me really tight and told me he loved me. After, he turned and walked away so I wouldn’t see him cry. I knew then he was the best friend I could ever have and probably a better one than I deserved.
The flights from Maine to Illinois were uneventful at best and I was able to keep my emotions at bay. I’m not one for crying in public. When I arrived in Peoria, my cousin Nellie picked me up and drove me to the hospital. My younger brother greeted me in the lobby and we made our way up to room 714 in the Hamilton wing. Hamilton 714 would be my dwelling place for the next four days. I rushed into the room and saw a frail old woman lying in a bed breathing heavy. She resembled my mother, but only much older and with curly gray hair. A sharp contrast to the strong and beautiful woman that was my mother.
I knelt by her side and took her hand. I felt like someone had their fist gripped around my heart. She opened her eyes and looked at me. It took her a few seconds to focus on me. Then she said, “Billy, you’re here.” I nodded through my tears and reassured her that I was here, we were all here, and we would stay by her side until the end of time. I cried so hard I thought I would collapse. Then I stood up and it was the first time that I really saw my brothers and my sister in the room. I hadn’t spoken to any of them in more than a few years. At that moment, all that was bad between us went away. They were here and they had their arms open for me. We were a family again. The prodigal son had come home.
That night, after talking to one of our aunt’s on the phone, they told us that it would be a good idea for the four of us to stay with her. They told us to gather around her and pray and give her permission to go. Then we were to each say our individual goodbyes. That was Tuesday night. We shut her hospital door and gathered around her. My sister led us in prayer. Then we each told her we loved her and gave her permission to go be with God. We told funny stories, we talked about everything from our favorite “mom” meals to some our favorite memories over the years. Then my brothers and I left my sister in the room to bid her farewell.
My sister came out a few moments later and I went into her room. I knelt at her side and I told her I loved her. I kissed her forehead and I told her that I forgive her. We had our own issues and I knew it was important for her to know that I forgave her. I wished her peace and love and a safe journey to heaven. I thanked her for all that she instilled in me and I told her the angels would be coming for her soon. Then my entire body began to tingle. Then to my utter surprise, she opened her eyes wide and a smile found its way onto her face. She wasn’t looking at me and she didn’t notice me. She seemed to be staring at something above her bed. She sat straight up and reached out her hands. She was trying to grasp whatever she was looking at. Her facial expression was that of pure joy. I have no doubt in my mind that she was staring at an angel hovering above her bed. I rushed out of the room to get my siblings and they came back in to see her reaching for the angel. We thought that she would pass, but she just calmly laid back down and went to sleep. We were in awe of what we had just witnessed. If one of us had been without faith, that moment would have restored it. Even though we didn’t get to see the angel, we got to see my mother as she looked at the angel. The angel that would stay in her room until it was her time to go.
We stayed up with her the rest of the night. At one point near morning, I found myself curled up in a ball on the floor in the corner near her bed. My brother Mike was half asleep in the chair next to her bed. My sister Jackie was curled up on the mini couch and my brother Tim was asleep on the tiny cot. This is how we would live for the rest of the week. Sleeping in shifts on the cots in the room, always making sure that one of us was at her side. The tears would come and go and the minutes would melt into hours and time would pass without us.
Different relatives came and went over the course of the four days. Each of them giving us some of their strength. The emails and phone calls came in from the four corners of the country. Each one promising prayers, thoughts and well wishes. Each one, giving us just a little bit more strength to get by. God knows we couldn’t have gotten through it on our own. The outpouring of love and support was a true testament to the lives that had been touched by my mother.
On Friday, the fourth day, we found out that my brother Tim and my sister Jackie had to fly home to tend to their own families. My mother was still sleeping in her bed and the vigil they had stood would come to an end before she passed. The four of us, once again, gathered around her bed so they could say goodbye. My sister, the new matriarch of the family stood over her dying mother. The sound of her sobs broke my already broken heart more. She collapsed onto my mother’s chest in a heap of sobs as she said goodbye. It was the single most difficult moment of my entire life as I watched my sister lay there with her head resting on my mother’s chest. Then she composed herself and stood up and left the room. I thought I would collapse and at one point, I realized I hadn’t taken a breath in what seemed like an eternity. It was the closest I’ve ever come to fainting in my entire life.
And then there were two.
My brother Mike and I were the only two left. I have never been more afraid in my entire life. At 39 years old, I felt like I was a little boy. After all the relatives bid their farewells that evening, my brother and I set up the room for our nightly vigil. I put my cot on the right side of her bed so that I could lay down and hold her hand. Mike sat perched in his chair on the left side of her bed. She had her two youngest boys at her side where we would stay until she took her very last breath.
Somehow nine o’clock became ten o’clock and then eleven became twelve. The nurses came into the room and asked if they could clean her up and change her gown. We said yes. I watched my mother’s face as they moved her around and she didn’t respond. In my head I thought, “You’re not in there.” After the nurses left, we resumed our positions on either side of her. Another sleepless night would become another sleepless day.
About twelve-thirty, my brother Mike called his best friend in Arizona. While he was talking to him, I noticed something in my mother’s breathing had changed. I quietly got up next to her and began timing her breaths. They were getting further apart. I told my brother he needed to come to her bed. I knew it wouldn’t be long. He hung up his phone and held her hand. We both prayed and we told her we loved her. We thanked her for a good life full of good lessons and we gave her permission to go.
At twelve-forty-nine, her bottom jaw lowered as she took a deep breath. She exhaled and laid there for about ten seconds. Then she took another deep breath. She laid there for about 10 seconds. Then she took her final breath and she was gone. It was awe inspiring. I couldn’t move. I just watched my mother die. Then a wave of emotion overcame my brother and I and we both fell onto her chest sobbing. And then we fell silent. He left the room so I could be with her. I didn’t say much to her. It had all been said. I just told her I was happy she had finally found peace. I left the room and let my brother bid his farewell.
We told the nurses and they came in and confirmed for us that she had passed. She died at twelve-fifty a.m. on August second. My brother made the necessary calls to get the phone tree started. As we gathered up her things and packed our bags, my heart sank at the thought of going to a hotel that night. Then my brother’s cell phone rang. It was our stepdad Lynne. He told us to come to his house.
When we got in the car, I called my sister. She already knew our mother had passed, but I thought it was important for her to know every detail of her last minutes. I wanted her to understand how peaceful it was and how amazingly profound it was. After I described it to her she said, “Billy, you’re the writer in the family. Promise me you’ll write this all down.” I assured her I would do just that.
We drove the forty or so miles to hour stepdad’s house where he greeted us with hugs and gratitude. He had been married to my mother for fourteen years and treated her like nothing short of a queen the entire time. He lived his life to make her smile. Even though he married her when I was in my twenties, I still considered him my stepdad. Mike and I stayed up with Lynne until sunrise. We drank some beer and whiskey and traded stories throughout the night. Then at five thirty a.m., for the first time in four days, I laid down to sleep.