My mother began to receive hospice care a little over a week ago. As with the cruelty of the disease, while her body remains surprisingly functional, the fingers of dementia have pinched and plucked within her brain so that she is with us one moment, seized with anxiety the next, all the while unable to articulate a desperation those of us in the present can only imagine to understand.
As the sedatives lull her deeply to sleep and the scheduled doses of morphine ease the gripping pain of stiff joints and the beginnings of muscle wastage, we, her children, take turns sitting with her, stroking her forehead, murmuring our gratitude and love, at times finding a way to snuggle in close, watching the slow rise and fall of her chest from the confines of a brown metal hospital bed, starkly at odds with the comforting familiarity of her room.
There, on the walls, are the expansive testaments of but one of her gifts: the remarkable portrait of her mother, poised and handsome in rich folds of pale blue silk, russet hair piled as was the style of that Victorian era, the watercolor of the blazing autumnal oaks behind a white-washed church in that peculiar, tawny light of October, the austere oil of the Norman church at the end of the village in Suffolk, where the remains of her brother and sister-in-law rest.
These examples, executed from an array of paint brushes once held precisely in her hand, this hand I now press against my face, are as alien to her as the hospice chaplain that introduces herself and within a few minutes, tells me it’s important to tell my mother “it’s OK to go.”
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“We’ve had that conversation,” I reply.
“And don’t hesitate to ask her forgiveness or tell her you forgive her about anything that might be between you.”
“There is nothing to forgive.”
Leaving my mother peacefully secure and in the attentive hands of the staff dedicated to her care later that night, I drove the short distance home, unwilling for the comfort of the radio, wanting only for the headlights to cut down the gravel drive of the farm. Parking the truck in front of the house, I followed the familiar routine of walking into the barn for bed-check before falling into my own.
I was greeted by my 23-year-old, Fozzy, whom I’ve had since before he was 6. My beloved old fellow, always the first to pop his head over the stall door in welcome, was unsteady, swaying, lurching to the right.
Neurological. And a death sentence.
Dr. Freer arrived within minutes. Paul helped me support my horse as we walked, falteringly, desperate to prevent him from collapsing onto the concrete aisle. In the grass, before the pasture gate, the initial sedative was administered, amid hurried whispers of love and soothing, but as soon as the drug began to take effect, Fozzy, desperate to fight the fiat of stupor, refused to stand obediently and accept his fate – the second shot which would crumple him to the ground – and he began to spin, staggering, obliging me to let go of the lead rope and all of us to step backwards to safety.
In the end, left alone beneath a three-quarter moon and splintered stars, I lay against the warm body of my horse, comforted by his familiar scent and cradled next his graceful neck. I stared heavenwards. Was he glancing down at himself, as reports of people brought back from the hereafter describe, before galloping away into the universe? I raised a hand and waved slowly, just in case.
I had already given into heaving sobs, earlier. Now there was nothing but a dull numbness; the moment after a punch when you know you’ve lost your breath.
This, I thought, this is the moment a bit of grit begins to form over the heart. This is the time when its vulnerability loses its soft and delicate skin, like that of a spring leaf, to be replaced by something dry and unyielding, affixing firmly in place so that death now becomes matter-of-fact, saying, “There’s no point in falling apart, my girl. There will be quite a bit of this in your future and you must roll up your sleeves and get on with things.”
Yes, yes, I thought, rising and covering Fozzy with his winter blanket before turning to walk to the house, but not yet.
I have my mother’s hand to hold in the morning.