It’s been seven years since my mom passed away. I was lucky enough to say goodbye—sort of. In March of 2011 she got a really bad cold that lingered. Her cough got worse, and I got more anxious. Being 2,000 miles away was difficult but this made it worse. I was helpless. She played it cool but that cough said something else. As I made one of my frequent lunch calls to get advice on my choice of kindergarten my my son, she said her sister had come to visit and was taking her to the hospital.
Shock, worry, gratefulness got all mixed up in my head and heart at this news. My aunt is a nurse. She heard what I heard—a cough that screamed, “get help now.” So off to the hospital they went, and my dad met them there after driving an hour from work.
I knew this day would come. I’d known it since I was twelve when my mom was diagnosed with liver disease after her OBGYN saw her very enlarged and mottled liver during her hysterectomy to help ease the brutal pain of endometriosis. My mom rarely drank alcohol. How could this be? We never found out.
I lived with the fear that mom would progressively get sicker and eventually die if she didn’t have a liver transplant. But it would take years. So, there was hope. But there was fear. Every time she called or my dad called (which was rare), I would answer the phone holding my breath and preparing for The News.
So, it wasn’t a shock that she was going to the hospital some twenty-years after her diagnosis. But the call I got that night was a shock. It wasn’t liver disease that put her in the hospital. Nope. It was stage four lung cancer. My mom never smoked. How could this be? We never found out.
I hoped on a plane without looking back. I arrived to meet my sister, brother, and lots of family. And once again there was hope. It turned out that he also had a gall bladder stone. After a “routine” operation that went terribly wrong, in which the wire basket meant to collect the stone fell off the scope and landed somewhere in her body, they got the basket but not the stone. So, she was left recovering from a failed surgery, lungs filling daily with cancerous fluid, and a liver too sick to function.
Needless-to-say, the doctor that had given us hope that she would recover and beat the lung cancer was never allowed to see my mom again. We regrouped and begged her new doctor to give us the real story. “Keep her comfortable. Say your goodbyes.” That’s what he said. And that’s what we did.
My mom was one of eleven. Every single of on her brothers and sisters left their homes and jobs and came one-by-one to her side to say good-bye. For several days she had a stream of loved ones, come to her bedside at the hospital. It was profound. She found the strength to be alone with each person and give them encouragement to live their life to the fullest. Everyone left her room knowing how much she loved them.
She wouldn’t make it on the cruise her sisters were planning, so the cruise came to her room. In just hours, we transformed the room into a party ship with Hawaiian leis, sunglasses, bright pink wine glasses, h'ordeuvres and lots of laughter. It was bittersweet, but it kept us all going. We just wanted more time.
But we’d only get a few more days. Mom decided to go home and have hospice care. And so, the party moved to the house I grew up in on a small dead-end street that once again felt like a universe all its own. We made the dinning room her place to hold court. It looked out to the backyard and patio where a large group hung out cooking jambalaya and crawfish (yes, this is in Louisiana) and shrimp. The room was large enough to hold forty or so people. She was never alone.
And over the next two days she slowly faded into herself, and then it was time to say good-bye. The room full of people gathered around her bed holding hands. Two of my cousins began to sing, the priest said a prayer, followed by my dad and one of her brothers. She took her last breath as we gripped one another’s hands for support and to show our love. It was the most beautiful and sad moment of my life. She left this world surrounded by love and beauty. And I’m grateful for this extraordinary experience.
Even though I said the words “goodbye” that day, my heart didn’t. As I celebrate her life seven years since she left us, my heart is still saying hello.