As I made my way past the crowded waiting room, I hoped that I was first to catch the door when the privacy curtain receded. I had enlisted my husband in my plan. He would guard the door while I was inside, so that I could steal time alone with her. Getting time alone with everybody’s favorite patient was challenging, there were always people visiting! As much as I was thankful for their tangible support, I was growing weary of their constant presence. I wanted some of those precious and few moments for myself and I didn’t want to have to shoo someone away so that I could get it.
Precious and few. Those words rang in my head with the urgency of the obnoxious beep a 4 am alarm clock, all too early, and imploring my immediate attention, even in my disoriented state. There was no way of knowing how long we had with her, but we all must have sensed the critical timing because the visitors were always there. They came to her bedside in steady stream, like the flow unconscious thought, one blending seamlessly into the next. Unaware of when they arrived, where they would be on their way to, how long they planned to stay, many with the stunned blank faces of grief. Friends from church and from her neighborhood, friends who shared her hobbies, friends from work, friends who were like family and friends who were also family. On the way home from work, after church, before heading to the store, just because they were in the neighborhood… each one stopping for “just a minute.”
I understood why they came. They were drawn to her light. They were drawn to her strength and peace. They were drawn to her hopeful anticipation of heaven.
So many visitors came to see her while she was sick that she was rarely alone. I was happy that so many people were expressing their love and support of her and the rest of our family, but I would be lying if said I loved having them around all the time. The truth is, I needed some time alone with her, some time to say our goodbyes, because when all of this was over, all of the visitors would go home to their mother, daughter, son, husband or wife and I would not. Even though I had my own family, as a daughter, I would be going it alone. As the clock marched on at merciless pace, I grew anxious. These were my precious and few.
The door opened and as I stepped into her room my husband assumed his post on the other side. I drew a deep breath. My mind was full of questions that I had come to attempt to answer. How do I tell my mother I love her in a way that will satisfy my soul when she is gone? How do I thank her “from the bottom of my heart?” How do I say goodbye?
Inside her room it was finally quiet, nothing to distract us, nothing to intrude.
“Hi Mama,” I said, “Hope you don’t mind, I’m stealin’ some alone time.” She smiled at me with tired eyes, and looking so small and fragile in her hospital bed, as she raised it to a sitting position. It somehow seemed inappropriate when she spoke with such care for me.
“Sure, honey. How are you getting along with all of this?” she asked. “Are you doing all right? Randy? The kids? I know this has got to be such a hard time for you…” Her voice softened with emotion.
With a plan, I pulled a chair away from the side of the bed.
I asked, “Mama, do you think you’d be able to sit up for a little bit, or if you need to you can lie down?”
“I’m fine sitting just like this,” she replied. “What are we doin’?”
As she patiently waited for my reply, I took the pink basin from her bedside table and walked to the sink in silence. Standing at the sink, I filled the little pink basin with warm water and I looked at her reflection in the mirror as she lay in the bed behind me. The woman in the bed, though battle damaged with IV’s, catheters, and bags, was still my beautiful mother. Her head on the pillow, still capped with wonderfully thick short brown hair, her eyes still blue as sapphires. A smile was wide on her face and brimming with hope, and I wondered how she sustained it. Even in her weary body, she sat with poise, straight, with the same beautiful broad shoulders of a swimmer and her hands folded in her lap. A plush pale blue robe draped over her shoulders and one delicately shaped ankle and stockinged foot extended from under the crisp hospital bed sheet providing her famous “vent” to keep her from getting “bed hot.” A trait I have also inherited. With my now full basin of water and a towel, I rejoined her sitting next to her on the bed. The spicy sweet fragrance that came from her, the mother of my childhood, was the smell of her perfume Youth Dew. All the essential elements of “her” were still there.
“Vicki,” she said, “are you going to wash my feet?” How did she know? It seemed the only fitting way to express the love and gratitude I felt for her presence in my life.
“Yes, if that’s all right with you.” I said in a near whisper, and she bowed her head to say yes. She moved both of her feet from under the sheet and I slid off her socks.
On my knees before her I began. The litany of praise for her as my mother, mentor and friend poured from my heart and out my mouth.
The litany of thankfulness for the sacrifices she made to be a stay at home mom instead of putting a career first, to go without a something for her self so that I could have anything from braces to a prom dress. For all the times she would have liked to spend a week away with my Dad and instead sent me on a school or youth group trip. I thanked her for sending me to college and seeing to it that I lived in the dorms even though I could have lived at home. The water and the cloth were now a channel of respect and admiration.
The litany of humility and gratitude for her forgiveness even when I was too stubborn to ask for it, for the times I didn’t respect her as my mother or even as someone who had traveled the road before me, when I was insensitive and selfish. Even for the time that an 18 year old me I told her I wasn’t going to waste my life staying home with my kids like she did, the cleansing and warm restorative water carried the pain between us away and was replaced with a river of peace.
The litany of praise for the wonderful example she was to me as a mother and grandmother, the beautiful example of what a good marriage can be like, the way she strove to live with Christ as her example. All gifts that cannot be given without intention and vision, and I wanted her to know, with my basin beside me, that I was aware of that. I wanted her to know that I admired her authentic faith and her extravagant love. With my water I wanted to honor her and I knew she understood.
It was a gift to be able to, in my own way, get to say goodbye to her in that sacred moment that day, even though she was still with us for more than a month. Watching Cancer scavenge the life out of her physical body was excruciating, but more bearable knowing that nothing between us was left undone. When the night came for us to sing to her heaven’s lullaby, as she stepped to the other side, I knew that there was nothing left incomplete, nothing that had not been washed clean.