When I was a little girl, I lived in silent fear of losing my mother the way she lost hers. That fear became excessive when I reached the age of seven, the same age she was when her mother fell down the basement stairs and hit her head.
I watched Mama like a hawk, terrified that she would meet the same fate. I offered to go to the basement to get whatever she needed to the point of making a pest of myself. Finally, she got annoyed and asked, “What the heck is going on?”
My bottom lip quivered as tears welled up, clouding my blue eyes.
“I’m afraid you’re going to fall.”
It didn’t seem to register with her why I was afraid.
“I’ve been going up and down these steps for nearly twenty years, and I’ve never fallen, so you need to stop worrying about me.”
“But what if you fall and hit your head and don’t wake up like your Mama? What if you die like she did when you were my age? What if I lose you?”
I watched as her irritation softened and understanding spread across her face.
“Listen, I’m not planning on going anywhere, so you can stop worrying. Our stairs have a sturdy handrail that your father installed himself. I’m not ready to die yet, sweetie. Not for a very long time. But I promise you, when I’m ready to leave this earth, I’ll let you know.”
“Yes! Now, let me get the laundry done.”
Her promise reassured me. I stopped worrying and never gave it much thought after that.
Years passed, and I forgot all about the worry that had been so intense as a young girl. Mama and I had a rocky relationship when I was a teenager and in my very early twenties. A well-meaning friend suggested I resolve my differences with my mother in case anything, God forbid, should ever happen to her, and we’d miss our chance to reconcile.
Suddenly, the promise popped back into my head.
“I’m not worried. My mother told me when I was little that she’d let me know when she was ready to die. We still have time.”
My friend wrinkled her nose and said, “That’s not really a thing. People don’t know when they are actually gonna die.”
I shrugged. For some reason, I chose to believe my mom over this logic. I can’t really say why. Just a gut feeling, I suppose.
My mother was the first to offer an olive branch at my wedding, one I gladly accepted. I was tired of being at odds with each other and was more than ready to be friends now that I was a grown, married woman.
Over the years, she was always just a phone call away with sage advice. I’d call her occasionally, and sometimes she would call me. It wasn’t a regular thing; we didn’t feel the need to talk every day, just when one of us had something to say.
Time passed, and I enjoyed knowing I could pick up the phone any time, but I never felt pressured. There were enough of us kids that she never lacked for conversation with one of us.
More time passed, and it became evident that her memory was slipping. We’d laugh about having senior moments and not worrying too much because getting a little forgetful at her age was normal.
Eventually, one of my cousins pointed out that my Mama’s affect had become very flat. Her facial expressions were minimal, and she wasn’t as interested in conversations anymore. My siblings and I were sort of in denial. Mama seemed fine to us. Sure, she was aging and forgetful, but she was still Mama.
Until she wasn’t.
My Dad asked if I would go with them to her eye doctor's appointment, which I was happy to do. After talking with the doctor, it became clear that my mother had been previously diagnosed with macular degeneration and had never bothered to let us know. At this time, I also learned that she was no longer doing her crossword puzzles or reading the newspaper.
“Why didn’t you tell us, Mama?” I asked, dumbfounded. “We could have bought larger print material. We could have…”
“Because I’m just not interested in those things anymore,” she interrupted.
I felt my heart jump into my throat.
Things continued to go downhill from there. Next came the diagnoses of Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s Disease. She started to forget more and more and had difficulty with tremors. Over time, she needed round-the-clock care, and my siblings and I did what we could to help my father keep her at home. Thank goodness there were so many of us!
Visits with mom became stressful as she became belligerent, and speech became hard. She refused to eat anything besides frozen yogurt. When we could no longer provide enough care, we had to move her to a nursing home, and it became clear that she would never go home.
One evening I was with her and was feeding her dinner. Occasionally I got a bit of food on the spoon disguised with soft-serve ice cream until she got wise to me and spat the food out. Afterward, she was tired and lay down. I crawled into her bed and lay down with her. I spooned my mother and told her that I loved her. She lifted her head off the pillow, looked back at me, and said, “I know you.”
“I know you too, mom.”
I stayed until she fell asleep and wondered if she was ready to go.
The following Sunday, we moved her to the hospice wing, and all of us kids went to say goodbye, except one of my sisters.
We each got time alone with her, and I went last – on purpose.
I remember it like yesterday, although she has been gone fifteen years.
“Hey, mom, I just wanted to let you know it's okay if you’re ready to go. You don’t have to be strong anymore. I love you, and I don’t want you to suffer.”
She spoke not a word, but a single tear rolled down her cheek.
On Wednesday, the last of my siblings went to visit. Mama was barely coherent, but she squeezed my sister’s hand. We were told it could be any time now.
Late that night, at 11:34 p.m., I felt a deep sense of loneliness and sadness I’d never experienced. I called my husband, who was working out of state, because I needed to hear a comforting voice. It helped a little, but I still felt melancholy after the call. Unable to sleep, I sat in bed and tried to read, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I must have eventually dozed off because I was startled awake by my phone ringing a little after 1:00 a.m. It was one of my sisters, calling to let me know that our beloved Mama had passed.
“What was the time of her death?” I asked.
“Well, they are marking it as 12:01 a.m. because that is when they went to check on her. They believe she passed about 20-30 minutes before that but have to call time of death when they took her pulse and found her gone.”
“She died at 11:34 p.m.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because she promised me she'd let me know when she was ready to leave earth.”
The loneliness I’d felt was her way of letting me know she was ready to go. Although my heart hurt to know that Mama was gone, I had to smile. She’d kept her promise all those years later.