I never thought the first piece I would write that went to print would be my mama’s obituary. Somehow, I think she would have liked that, especially since I’ve learned a lot from her about telling a story. Our conversations were always in depth and with much detail, leaving nothing out, and now that Mama is no longer here to listen to my side of the story, I wrote this, as a type of catharsis, of what happened in the days before the obituary went to print.
One morning after Sunday school back in February, I looked down at my phone and saw a missed phone call and a text from my oldest sister, with the ominous message, “call me emergency.” The fear I had at that moment, the dread that only bad news would precipitate a message like that, caused my hands to shake even more than usual while I hurried to get to a window for a better signal, and I clumsily swiped and pressed the phone’s screen to connect me to her. Her voice came over the line with a rush of words that I barely could comprehend. Our mama had fallen somehow the evening before while reaching for a bag of cookies my aunt had brought and our dad had just walked past her and into the bathroom when he heard her fall and he got her off the floor and into a chair and he thought she was okay at first but then an ambulance had to come to the house and get her ……. Everything she was telling me was going into my head and whirling around, but making no sense. All I could do at that point was frantically motion to my husband across the room to come to me. We rushed to tell our son we were leaving him to go to the hospital 40 miles away where Mama was, and our family would be waiting on results from a CT scan to see if she had had a stroke.
What a long ride to the hospital! My mind was frantically trying to recall when I had last spoken to Mama – when was it? Today was Sunday, so did I talk to her Thursday? Or was it Tuesday? We had gone to see them all the Sunday before, something we didn’t normally do. Typically I visited once a week on Tuesdays, to get groceries and fill Mama’s pill dispenser, but we had gone to visit seven days before and we took care of those things then. I wrapped my arms around myself and tried not to panic as each long minute ticked past. All I could cling to was knowing I had seen her just seven days before and surely this wasn’t going to be as bad as everyone thought. I had seen her just seven days before.
What a relief once we got there – she didn’t seem so bad as I had thought she would be. Her left side wasn’t moving, but maybe that could recover after she had time to heal, with the right therapy. Her eyes weren’t open completely, but she was trying, you could see the fluttering of her eyelashes. She was speaking some in response to questions. Mama knew me, even if she wasn’t seeing me, because when she heard my voice, she spoke my name. She asked about my son, her grandson, and if he had gotten his scholarship. I had intended to call her after I got home from church that afternoon. I was going to tell her all about the Scholar Recognition Day we had attended the day before at the college where Jacob will be a freshman in the fall. We had talked about it, several times, in our last couple of visits and in that last phone call, whenever it was. Just a day before, I had posted a picture online of him with his award and I knew she must have seen it. I told her yes, he indeed had gotten the scholarship and heaved a big sigh. What a relief – she remembered everything still! My blood immediately chilled when she asked, “Where is he going to school?” Later, her “good” right hand searched and searched for something on her bed. Over and over I asked, “What are you looking for, Mama?” “My remote.” Later, “My phone.” These were the two things she kept within reach at the house. Dreading what I knew she would say, I leaned over her and gently asked, “Mama, where are you, do you know?” She replied, in a weak but firm voice, “I’m at home.” I knew then that things were never going to be the same again, and it was a moment that made me want to sit down and cry, just as I had as a child when Mama told me something I didn’t want to hear.
What a long ride back home! We had to leave after only 4 hours, to beat the winter storm that was due to arrive that evening. My two sisters would stay with her a few days and then I would return and take their place. That was the plan, at least. The mostly balmy winter we had had suddenly turned to ice and sleet and snow. I can’t remember what happened, in what sequence; all I remember is I had to go to an appointment in Little Rock the next day, and drove home from it with snow swirling on the roadways. Once I arrived home, the storm hit, and I was unable to leave home again. I thought I would make it back to the hospital by Tuesday afternoon and waited for the thaw to arrive. Meanwhile, an emergency of their own forced my oldest sister and her husband to have to leave, and our other sister was there alone with our dad to take care of Mama. I could have, and should have, left my home that day when everything thawed, but I didn’t. I had a doctor’s appointment on Thursday that unfortunately, I could not put off any longer. I couldn’t risk getting snowed in again, so I stayed home. By the time I finally was able to return Thursday after seeing the doctor, everything had changed.
Mama was asleep, or whatever you call it when someone has had a stroke and can’t be roused. She slept and slept while others around her talked and talked. Finally, after everyone had gone, Mama came to somewhat, and spoke our names and seemed to be somewhere in there where we couldn’t quite reach her. I spent that night with her, alone, watching her from my bed. Each little sound she made, I sprang up to check on her. Nurses came in and out, checking on her and reassuring me, and through it all, I felt like I was on the outer edges of a dream. Somehow I was awake, but I had to be dreaming it all because none of it felt quite real. Each time, I would climb back into the guest bed, pulling the covers over me, and looking across to Mama’s bed, so I could watch the rise and fall of her sheets as she breathed; dreading that they would stop moving, and I would be helpless to do anything. It was a dreadful, long, nerve-wracking night.
The morning came early, considering I had slept maybe an hour. The day shift nurses and staff came in to check her vitals, which made me get up out of bed for the last time. During the day on that Friday, visitors came and went. Mama responded to our voices but grew quieter and quieter as the day wore on and a fever began. By nightfall, Mama had spoken her last; only I don’t know what it was she said because, at the time, we didn’t know it would be the last thing she said. The nurses gave her medicine to bring the fever down, which also made her go into a deep sleep. We also didn’t know it at the time, but the deep sleep she had slipped into was to be one from which she never would awaken. My brothers, my sister, and I would be there at her side for hours, talking; until one by one, they left, slipping through the door into the quiet hallway, and leaving Mama and me to spend what would be our last night together. I leaned over her bed, smoothed back her hair gently, and kissed her forehead, telling her, “I love you, Mama,” before going to my bed. This time, I would sleep deeply, but awaken each hour to the sound of her breathing loudly and tortuously. The nurses once again would come, checking on her, and reassuring me that it was only the medicine causing her to gasp so, that she was only sleeping deeply and not to worry. It was another dreadful, long, nerve-wracking night.
She would sleep in the days to come, and Daddy & I took turns caring for her, once my brother and sister returned to their homes after that weekend. Back and forth I would drive, leaving my home in the mornings to drive 40 minutes to the hospital, where I would sit by Mama’s bedside all day until it was time for Daddy to come back to her room and for me to drive back home in the evenings. Each day, Aunt Doris, Mama’s only surviving sibling, or their cousin, Melrose, was there to sit with Mama and me some of the time. At the beginning of the week, Daddy asked me to write the obituary, telling me, “You don’t have to start on it yet.” But I did, almost immediately, and spent the days I was with her, working on it while I sat at her bedside, listening to her breathing. I would put my paper down hurriedly and jump up to notify the nurses whenever she showed any sign of distress, anxiously wait for them to respond, and once she was calm again, I would pick the paper up and write some more. It was hard to concentrate sometimes with that tension, so once I arrived home in the evenings, I would take the paper and fine tune the details as a grim way to unwind from the day. Aunt Doris and Melrose helped me with details, and together we came up with an obituary I thought Mama would approve. Once I finished it, my siblings were given copies to critique, but pretty much what I had written became the final copy.
On that Wednesday, ten days after that first trip to the hospital, I walked out one last time and drove home, exhausted, shaken, and numb. Mama had had several bad spells over those days, sometimes when I was alone with her and couldn’t get a nurse fast enough, and I didn’t know how much more I could endure. I dragged myself into the house, took my shoes off, climbed on our bed, and tried to shut everything out for awhile. All I wanted was to be able to call my mama, as I always had been able to do; to tell her I had been having some rough days, and to let her sympathetic ear and words of comfort soothe me as only a mama could. Instead, I stared at the ceiling and said my prayers while trying to rest. I had had very little to eat in the days leading up to this one, only eating a tray at the hospital at lunch and what scarce food I could find to eat at our house in the evenings, owing to not being able to grocery shop for nearly two weeks. Suddenly, I was craving pizza. Mama had once loved Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza, so when my husband and our son came home, we ordered the equivalent and they went to get it. Not long after they drove away, the phone rang. The caller ID said “Mama,” which made me pause. It was my dad, who told me he had been on the guest bed in the hospital room, just moments before, reading the newspaper and watching television. He didn’t hear Mama breathing, so he had looked over at her and he said to me, simply, “She was gone.”
Mama was finally at peace. I tried to feel sad, but after having witnessed what she had gone through, it was impossible at that moment. In fact, I felt almost relieved. The grief and mourning would come later. But for the time being, my husband and son returned with our pizza, and we ate in remembrance of Mama, our first meal together as a family in nearly two weeks.
The obituary was in the Sunday paper. It couldn’t have gotten better exposure, and I knew Mama would have liked that. It told as much about her as was possible – but even a paid obituary has its limits. I would have liked to have written more, but at least, the people who had known her only since the essential tremor had limited her could discover that she was more than what had met their eyes. She was once again the teenage girl who won the blue ribbon at the county fair for her double wedding ring quilt. She was the young lady who was Valedictorian of her senior class. She was the mama to five children and always made them a hot breakfast before sending them off to school. She was intelligent, even if she couldn’t always speak up to be heard and understood, and she was generous, and kind, and gentle.
She also had a very dry, deadpan sense of humor. I don’t remember when I first noticed that she and Daddy had had four children in the first eight years of their marriage, and then waited more than six years before having me. I do remember that I asked her, “Mama, was I an accident?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “You all were.” I’ve told that story so many times in the years since, and it never fails to make me laugh. I thank her for that sense of humor, and for passing it along to all of her children. Someday, we will get together and tell our Mama stories, and we will remember good times, with her and as a family, and we will laugh together again.