The blanket was soft and forgiving. It fell over her like a shroud, covering her frail flesh with its warmth, trying against fate to keep out the cold. I tucked my shoulders over the curve in my guitar, cinching the music gently against my heart as I observed the scene before me: my friend Pat, lying silent under the blanket, her snowy hair whisped against her pillow. On her right side, curled into the space on the bed beside her, was her youngest daughter, Nicole. And on her other side, in a chair, her knees pressed into the side of the mattress, was her oldest, Vicki. Pat’s arms lay quietly outstretched beside her, like Christ calling us to himself in the paintings we see in church. Each daughter held one of her mother’s hands, gently and desperately caressing and kissing them. While I played my instrument, as quietly and reverently as I know how to play and sing, Pat’s only son, Desmond stepped into the room. He had come to see her in one of the few hours he had at home between his work travels. He was weary from lack of sleep, and he exhaled his love for her as he wept, letting go of old regrets, and inhaling the evident love that permeated the room. I sat at Pat’s feet, on a piano stool, stroking the strings of my guitar, praying that I would not break the sacredness of that space. It was a divine triangle, Nicole and Vicki and Des, with their mother shooting through the center of it. I knew the holiness, and the honor of being present.
It was Valentine’s Day. Dave and I had shared a simple meal and were driving to the movie theatre to catch a show. But as we drove I felt that gnawing scratch of my spirit, the one I used to ignore before I became steeped in age. “I feel like I should go sing for Pat,” I whispered to Dave. “Would you be ok if I texted Nicole to see if it would help?” David knows what matters most. I love him for no reason at all, but I admire him for his holy vision.
A human circle of love had huddled around Pat for days that led to weeks, knowing that she was working her way to the gate between life and death. We had been on such a journey with my mother, and to us the music never ceased. But silence is not a good friend of long awaitings, and I worried for the sisters who were so vigilantly seated beside their mother, day and night. I sent a text, offering a little gentle music, if it might help. And the answer came back; “Please.”
When you sit in a darkened room, in a quiet space, with the focus being absolutely centered on one person, you can find out an awful lot you hadn’t known. Pat was an Idaho girl, raised on a dry farm, with a passel of kids and never ending chores to be done. She loved her family, and her home. Tender little memories swirled around the room. My sister Libby and I had spent a good bit of time there, over the journey of hospice. Games, and stories, and songs of childhood. And then Des and Vicki would get to talking about their adventures as kids, and as teenagers; concerts attended, trips taken, memories of little sayings their mom used to repeat. We call up the happy when someone is dying, and it was a joyful waiting. But I knew that among all these sweet memories were wounded hearts and heavy burdens. Pat’s heart had been given, and then broken, then given and broken again.
Pat had thought she was past having children when she found she was pregnant with Nicole. Vicki and Des were grown and gone, and Nicole became the child of her grown up heart; her reason for coming home from work each day, her joy and delight. Vicki told of the first time Nikki came to see her and her family, to stay all on her own. She was dressed in a new button up coat, with a matching hat. Nicole came into the frenetic space of a household full of little children and sat on the edge of the couch, her back straight, her hands on her knees.
“Nicole, take off your coat and come play,” Vicki told her.
“Oh no, I’ll just wait here until Mom comes back to get me.”
Vicki says she sat there for hours. I’m not sure how long. But I am sweetly haunted by the image of that young girl waiting for her own true love to return and rescue her.
Our mothers are our first loves. We need them, some of us more desperately than others. Then we grow, if we are lucky enough to keep them here on earth with us, we begin to recognize how desperately they need us, too. Pat adored her children, her grandchildren, and the greats. On her nightstands were drawings and cards and sweet little tokens of love from those who have trickled down through her. She was surrounded by that love to her dying breath.
There, on that Valentines night, We sang and talked in whispers for a few hours, each of us watching for Pat’s chest to rise and fall. Pat was dignified, even in her passage from life. No fuss, just quiet graceful breathing.
Nicole remembered a little song her grandfather Denton had taught her as a child:
Oh playmate, come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three
Climb up my apple tree
Slide down my rain barrel
Onto my cellar floor
And we’ll be jolly friends
Since I had played a hand clapping game to this song as a girl, I began to play along. All three of us sang it, giggling quietly when it was over, and I began singing an alternative version from my own childhood:
Oh enemy, come out and fight with me….
Then... a silent pause. Nicole looked up at Vicki.
“I don’t think she’s breathing.”
Vicki repeated the words, like a second witness. We huddled there in disbelief, which gave way to an unlikely conglomeration of emotions; sorrow, joy, fear, faith….they all danced together around us there in that room. We touched and cried and whispered, speaking to her, knowing without any doubt that she could hear us from wherever it is she had gone.
She did it! She did that thing we all fear as children, the fear that really never leaves us even when our faith is complete. Like she stood on the edge of that tall high dive at the Lava Hot Springs of her youth, closed her eyes and jumped!
Pat always did have her own timeline. When she was done with socializing, she just left. No big scene - attention grabbing was not her style. But when she was ready to go, she left. On her own terms, in her own time. Her family says they would be at family gatherings … weddings, baptisms, barbeque's. One minute Mom was there, and the next someone noticed she was gone. She made her way home when she was ready.
And so it was. She saw her daughters singing the songs of their childhood. She had received a kiss from her boy. They were well, though sorrowful at the prospect of loss. And when there was a little laughter, and she knew they were happy, she decided to duck out, to make the quiet exit. No fanfare. Not even a gasp. Just a silent exhale and she was heaven-bound.
The three of us sat on the bed surrounding her body, still warm with the last of life, and recognized the shift in the energy in the room. A sweet emptiness, like the angels opened a window and drew her in. Nicole stroked her hair and commented, “I’m so grateful she died on Valentines Day.” It surprised me that she would say this. Most people would bemoan the prospect of always remembering a tragedy on a holiday. But both she and Vicki thought it perfectly fitting that she would leave them on this particular day, with the whispering of love echoing over and over in that beautiful room, like she wanted to jump on up there so she could blow kisses down from Heaven.
I agree. Pat Denton left us with an abundant harvest of love. We will feast on it for a very long time, all the way through eternity.