I lay on the bed in the back bedroom of our family cottage on the shores of Lake Huron in Michigan, two of my grandchildren snuggled beside me as I read. The sun was gone and the summer night finally cooled. I could hear my phone ring in the other room. Dave brought it to me; “It’s Libby”, he said.
“Hello!” There was a pause on the other end. Then her voice shook.
“When are you coming home?”
And that was the beginning of the end. The moment where my mind takes me to the first step on the journey to my mother’s death.
My mother was 88 years old. One should not be surprised by any sad turn of events at that age. And yet she had baffled so many doctors in the past that we had just become accustomed to her tenacity. As one dear friend said in a text to me: We became complacent and thought she would live forever.
I began to pack; my heart throbbing, tears flowing. I listened to Timo sobbing in the family room as his mom explained we would be leaving the beach, and his cousins, days earlier than we had planned. His mind tried to grasp that their kid’s Beach Olympic competitions would have to give way, but his 9 year old heart struggled to accept it. The cousins with plane tickets would get to stay, but we had to leave. It’s hard to be little. Because Sarah’s baby was just a few weeks old, we had driven from Utah to Michigan in the van. So we had the power to change our travel plans. Everyone else had flown. We would leave at sunup.
My emotions jumped from sorrow to anger to gratitude and back to sorrow. Mom had been fighting a cold when we had left a week before. We stopped by on our way out; said a prayer together. I kissed her on the forehead and told her to get better. A few days later my sisters took her to the hospital. After a day or two she came home and we anticipated the healing would commence. But it did not, and once again they returned to the hospital where she danced in and out of lucidity. My brother John and sister Ann Marie had come to visit while we were out of town. They had planned to help Libby clean out the storage room in the basement. Instead, they spent their time at Mom’s bedside, playing music, telling stories, laughing with Mom when she was herself, praying and trusting when she was not. All of us love her, and all of us own her as our mother, but no one felt more deeply the threat of impending doom than my sister Libby. For the past several years Libby has cared for our mom 24/7. Every shower, every meal, every pill, every time she needed to go to the bathroom. Daily drives in the car, walks in her wheelchair, pretty sweaters and dangling earrings on the Sabbath, warm blankets over her lap in front of the fire. Libby was the face of God to her…to all of us. And so the sorrow at the prospect of losing our mother was deepened knowing how it would affect my best friend, my sister, my Libby. The thing about being close-knit, upon the death of someone in that circle, is that everyone else in that sphere of love is aching too. So while one deals with her own loss, she also aches for those she loves who have lost as well. I could feel it coming and it frightened me.
I threw things in a haphazard fashion into our bags. At some point I snapped at Dave, slammed the door, and then I crumpled in sobs on the bed. Six year old Parker tiptoed into the room and laid down on the bed beside me. He just laid there, his little arm stretched up over my shoulder. He looked into my eyes. I watched him follow the trail of tears as they fell on my pillow. His hand began to pat my back, and then his own eyes filled up and overflowed. I pulled him in closer against my chest. His back tightened, trying to hold his emotion, and then let loose in a sobbing sigh. We laid there, we two, alone on that twin bed in the cottage, looking into each other’s sorrowful eyes, wordless. I will love him forever for that moment alone. Eventually he rolled over and faced the wall, my arm still slung over his waist. He wept without reservation, facing that blank wall. I think he needed to be alone in the depth. I whispered in his ear. “Are you alright my friend?” He rolled his head up toward my face, his shoulders rising and falling in unrhythmic fits, like his chest refused to move until it could take no more and then it filled with a rush of air and an audible moan. “I don’t want Gram to die.” He hurled himself back over in my direction and thrust his arms around my neck.
“Neither do I, Buddy.”
We embraced each other until sleep overtook both of us. Not for long. Just long enough to seal our hearts for the coming journey.
We drove through the day and the night and back into the day, westward with the sun. A soft summer rain fell upon us as we wove through the states. Dave and I dropped the kids off at home and went straight to the hospital. Mom was resting when I arrived. When I worked my way from the door to her bed her eyes fluttered open. I felt like Marmee, arriving at Beth’s bedside in that scene from Little Women, rushing to be with her, hoping there was some magic in the reunion that might revive her.
“Hi Cor.” Mom smiled, the sides of her rising cheeks shifting the plastic oxygen line as her eyes sparkled up at me. I bent over and kissed her, breathed her, inhaled her with a slow deep breath.
We would not know until weeks later that we had already begun. Our feet were planted on the road of a sacred journey; unfamiliar and holy.