I walked into my mom’s room, expecting to see her a bit thinner, but otherwise much the same as she was at my previous visit. The nursing home staff had told me that she’s been refusing to eat, but I had no idea how bad it really was.
What I saw shook me to my roots. She was chalky white, her face drawn and gaunt, eyes deeply sunken, and her body frail. She was slumped to the side, peering at the foot of the bed.
So, this is what dying looks like, I thought to myself.
This is my first experience with the dying process. My dad had died of congestive heart failure when I was 15 years old, but that was different. He was having pain down his left arm on Thursday, was hospitalized, and by Monday he was dead. It was fast, all except for the final hours, which seemed to take forever. Blood clots had entered his lungs and were restricting his breathing capacity. He was fighting suffocation, and then finally, his heart gave out.
About halfway through that ordeal, he called to me. I heard it from the waiting room, and ran down the hall. But a nurse grabbed me and stopped me from going into my dad’s hospital room. My mom had ordered that I not be allowed in. I still don’t know why. So, I never got to see death.
I’m seeing it in my mom’s eyes, and hearing it in her voice. She looks but doesn’t really look, and her tone is flat, as if it’s too much work to express interest or emotion. She’ll give brief answers to questions, but doesn’t ask any of her own.
Before, her favorite question was, “So, how many rugrats have you got?” Then, ten minutes later, she’d ask me again. “So, how many rugrats have you got?” In her dementia, she never could remember how many kids I had or what their names were. But, she listened with interest when I told her their names and ages and showed her pictures of them on my phone.
She didn’t ask me about my rugrats this time.
I brought our dog, Ms. Daisy along with me, and Mom perked up when I put the dog next to her on the bed. She liked to hold Ms. Daisy’s paw – almost as if she was holding the hand of a child. I was grateful for Ms. Daisy’s presence, and so was my mom.
I brought a couple of cheeseburgers, hoping to coax Mom to eat. I ate mine while she, to my astonishment, gobbled hers down. But, how much will that help when she’s refusing to eat otherwise? I left the third cheeseburger on her bed table, so she could eat it later. She probably won’t, but who knows? At least I tried.
I’ve been praying and reading about the dying process. I want to be prepared, spiritually and emotionally, to bid my mother farewell. I want her to be prepared for death, also, and I’ve been praying very hard for that. I’ve been asking God’s grace for both of us in this process. The grace is there, I know. We just have to be open to it and willing to receive it.
I have a little booklet my sister-in-law recommended to me, Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience. When I first started reading it, it all seemed so far away and unlikely. Now, I’m right in the middle of it, not on the pages but in my real life.
My mother is dying.
Death is coming.
No, it’s already begun.
As I sat there across from my mom, trying to make conversation, but mostly babbling nonsense, my whole past came racing at me like an express train. But this train was filled with characters – some loving, some threatening, and others I’d rather not remember at all. They all had the same face – the face of my mom in her various phases of torment over the years.
But the face I was looking at in that nursing home room was none of those.
It was a new face. It was the face of a person leaving the past behind, releasing the torment, and searching for peace. It was the face of someone who’s not really here, but not really there, either. It was the face of my dying mother.
So, this is what dying looks like.
Image: Taylor Leopold, Unsplash