To Die Smiling

I spend so much time thinking about my mother’s passing; how it could have gone differently, how she looked, how she smelled, how it all sounded. I remember the drumming in my ears of my own heartbreak when she stopped breathing. I remember sizzling yellow overhead lights and yellowed skin, bloodied lips and scabbed nostrils. I see her carotid artery pulsing through her neck; she was so frail I could see her body fighting through her skin. Her once-voluminous hair was matted all around her face, bangs fallen to the sides like wilted flowers. Her death itself was so anti-climactic and quick and so final, that although the end of a chapter, was not the saddest part of the story.

When I think about those two weeks of  pain and torture and confusion,  I no longer cry. I no longer weep over death, and I no longer fear it. Death itself is one of the only things that we as humans have in common besides breathing, and seeing someone die made me fear it less. What I fear now, is suffering. I fear that uncertainty when you are suffering and do not know if you will wake up again. I fear not knowing if your last words will, in fact, be your last. I fear saying something and never being able to touch back upon it.

Towards the end of her life, my mom said very little. She never wanted to discuss her addiction, she never wanted me to help, and it was hard to try and speak on anything else when the elephant in the room was the person who raised me. I remember so vividly sitting in wicker chairs on the deck, the summer sun on the creek, saying nothing with her. The world around us spoke from the grass to the trees to the ospreys in the sky and she and I shared between us a silence that deafened them. I knew she was sick. She knew she was sick. She knew that I knew, and neither of us had to say it. I watched the water while she slowly dragged at her cigarette, using her free hand to lift a glass of ice water to her lips, bracelets dangling off her wrists and ice cubes clanking the crystal like wind chimes in the dead of August. She put her glass down and, without breaking eye contact with the shore, reached across and grabbed my hand in hers. We said nothing as I maintained a steady gaze on the world before me, and we agreed in our silence that we knew.

A month later, I stood in the darkness of the ICU, looking at her while she looked around wildly, incoherent and afraid.

“Please stay with me, just in case.”

I said nothing back. I couldn’t say anything back. I stood frozen in the doorway while her bottom lip quivered in fear and she called out, the nurse telling me I couldn’t stay past 8:30 PM. “I love you.”

I love you. I love you. I love you. I don’t know if she ever heard me say it that night, because she was so beyond a steady stream of consciousness. I was escorted out of ICU. She slipped into a coma alone, in the dark, sometime in the night. And I made sure I stayed with her until she drew her last breath beside me.

I think of the fear and the uncertainty. I think of how, in that moment, I saw how much she didn’t want to die, and that her last words to me were of a helpless child, finally asking for my aid her after months of defiance and silence. When I think of her death I no longer cry, yet when I think of her last words, I fight to control myself. I do not want my last words to be those of fear – I do not want last words at all. I want my last exchange to be like the silent embrace she and I shared on the deck in August. I want to look up at my loved one, and smile. I want them to know. I want them to smile back.

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