My mom had been dying for so long, I couldn’t tell what dying meant anymore. Everything the nurse had told us to watch out for had already happened, sometimes more than once: the purpling of the feet, which showed that her heart was not pumping effectively enough to get her blood to her toes; the inability to swallow, which meant either that her muscles had finally stopped responding to her brain (thanks to end-stage brain disease) or that the stroke’s damage to her brain stem was more profound than we thought; the on and off breathing that was so terrifyingly unnatural, where she would heave air into her lungs and then just not for a long minute after.
We watched and I tried to imagine holding my breath that long. It was hard, it gave me a throbbing in my migraine spot, where the ice pick enters my cheekbone. But she wasn’t holding her breath: her body was merely performing the smallest possible act to keep itself alive. Negative air pressure, positive air pressure. Gasp. Wait. Gasp. She was dying. She was dying for weeks at a time.
Watching my mother die was an exercise in measuring the depth of my guilt. Not that I’d been anything less than a dutiful daughter: I was a good, maybe a great daughter, in fact. But every day I woke up half-hoping she had died in the night, and every hour I spent by her bedside, I half-hoped she would let a breath be her last.
After nearly a decade of increasing dementia and physical disability, my mother had passed into a state that was so close to being dead that she seemed, in the worst moments, to be undead. Her face was gaunt. Her eyes and mouth had stopped closing, locked into place by her refusing muscles. Her knees were permanently bent, so the home aide and I arranged pillows to support her legs in their right angles. When the hospice nurse came, every other day, she would help flip those legs to the other side, to keep bedsores from forming.
The small signs of personhood that my mom had showed before her stroke–the flicker of a smile, the widening of her eyes, the twitching of her fingers when you held her hand–were gone. She didn’t react as I released droplets of morphine into her mouth to dissolve under the tongue, though she did gasp more quietly afterward. (How many times did I think of dropping that blessed liquid into my own mouth? What could it harm? Somehow, I never did.) She was gone, except for that gasp and that heartbeat. My brothers had said their goodbyes, on my advice, days before. I said goodbye every day, believing each time that it was real. And then we would face another day, more morphine.
bottled light drops
in your mouth.
Clock wheeled by pain,
hours drawn into a syringe.
You don’t need
how to swallow:
we are past
our daily bodies.
You’re allowed to die.
(The only prayer
I freely make.)
Someone had the idea that, since she had been raised Catholic, my mom might appreciate some kind of last rites. Forget the divorce and remarriage and no doubt countless other un-Catholic things: dementia had erased so much of her memory, why not roll back to the little girl in the white dress at First Communion? So a chaplain came and performed the rites, or the closest Protestant equivalent of them, as my stepfather Dick, the live-in home care aide, and I watched.
I don’t believe in God, but I am a poet. I’m a sucker for words and symbols, which means that rituals get me. Rituals, in fact, are why I questioned my church in the first place: if reading “Annabel Lee” out loud could make me shiver more than reciting the Nicene Creed, how could I tell what I believed? Do I believe in the only Son, eternally begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made? Well. I believe in anapestic tetrameter. I believe in complex rhyme schemes.
And I believe in refrain and apostrophe, so I was not prepared for the way I would feel when these words were recited over my undead mother.
God the Father,
Have mercy on thy servant.
God the Son,
Have mercy on thy servant.
God the Holy Spirit,
Have mercy on thy servant.
Holy Trinity, one God,
Have mercy on thy servant.
I’ve looked these words up to write this–they blur in my memory. “Have mercy on thy servant” echoed in my head. I said “amen” to something. I shook some reverend’s hand. I excused myself to cry in the downstairs bathroom, the only place I let myself cry. If I let myself cry upstairs, where Mom was, I would never be able to put the pillows under her too-cold knees or position the eyedropper over her tongue. I cried downstairs, and then I went back up to help with whatever it was that needed doing. I snuck off to the back deck to have a cigarette. (I don’t smoke, except when I do. When my mom was undead, I smoked.) I thought about what to eat for dinner. I watched TV with the aide.
And then Mom died. Dick was on the phone with my stepbrother, and he looked over and the gasping had stopped. He ran out and said “I think it happened,” and I typed “oh god it happened” into the chat window with my best friend because my body didn’t even know how to get up, how to disengage. Then we all sprang up and ran into the room and waited for my mom to gasp again, like we had every day for weeks, only she didn’t. And she didn’t. Dick called the emergency hospice number and said “I think my wife just died,” and then we sat down to wait for the nurse, who would declare time of death, like a royal crier.
I brushed my mom’s silver hair for the last time. The only way I could understand that she was dead and no longer undead is that she didn’t flinch, even in the tiniest way, when I hit a tangle in her hair. I apologized anyway. I kissed her forehead, and it wasn’t cold like I thought it would be. She’d already been cold. I looked at her eyes staring at nothing, just as they had been an hour before. She was dead, though, because I could do anything I wanted to her hair and she wouldn’t even have a reflex reaction to pain.
After a while, her lips turned a little blue. I kept touching her forehead. In a few hours, that forehead would be sliced open to access her skull, which would be opened so researchers could compare her actual brain damage to the damage that showed up on a new kind of PET scan. We donated her body to science, which needed it. She would have liked that. We all believed in science. And everyone but me believed in God.
I Don’t Believe in Ghosts
But before she died, there was somewhere
my mother went, some realm
other than her bent-over body,
her face blank as an arrowless bow.
I saw her leave her flesh for hours
at a time, take her memories and words
and will to do God knows what (as if He
were not busy
It seemed like cause and effect: she was dying but couldn’t let go, and then she was blessed and told to let go, and she did. More convincing, she couldn’t know about the last rites, not in the way we understand it: she didn’t have language anymore, she didn’t see us in the room. It couldn’t have been a choice made by her brain, so it must have been made by something else. It was more than spooky: it was uncanny. God have mercy on thy servant.
But I’m not that God-fearing person: I’m me. I was raised Christian (Catholic at first, then Lutheran), but even when I was in the midst of youth group and confirmation classes, I didn’t actually believe there was, like, a god. Or a God. Because as compelling as I found the stories about Moses and Naomi and Jesus and the saints and Martin Luther, there were other stories that were even better. There was Annabel Lee. There was Charlotte and Wilbur and Fern. There was Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who. There was Anne and Gilbert. There was Colonel Aureliano Buendía and Remedios the Beauty. There was Lady Lazarus. There was Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, describing the invisible cities of the world with greater conviction than anything I found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There was no god: there were words, and I worshipped them.
I wish I could end this story with some sort of perfect epiphany, some way of making meaning out of my mother’s dying that day. It was a perfect story. The rites were beautiful. Her death was uneventful, compared to the awful events that punctuated her dying years. Her brain took away her language, which was cruel, and the prayers offered her final words, which were merciful. I want to believe it was more, but I don’t. I can’t. God have mercy.
Laura Passin is a writer, professor, and feminist at large. She holds a PhD from Northwestern and an MFA from the University of Oregon. Her writing has recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, Bellevue Literary Review, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Archipelago, and Best New Poets 2013. She also writes a quasi-regular newsletter about feminism, poetry, and pop culture called Postcards from a One-Woman Army. Laura lives in Portland with too many cats.