"Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace."
We all sat vigil that night, keeping watch over my precious mother. My brother, my sister, my dad and me. We decided to take shifts so that my mom would not be alone. We knew that the moment was near, and we didn't want her making the transition without us. My dad had fallen asleep on the couch, with my dog Angie sleeping on his chest. The eye shades my sister bought my dad for Christmas shielded his vision from the sadness going on around him. He needed to sleep. We told him we'd wake him up if my mom's condition changed. Her breathing had slowed, as the hospice worker said it would. Her mouth had been open most of the night -- along with her eyes. As the moment drew nearer, her mouth began to close, making it appear that her breathing wasn't as labored as it had been for the past few hours the evening before.
My sister took the first shift. She sat silently holding my mom's hand and filling her with positive energy. She spoke to my mom and just sat still with her. At midnight I took over. It was officially Christmas Eve. My favorite day of the year.
During my shift, I turned on an Internet radio station and played my mom Christmas carols through my phone. I laid the phone down on her pillow, next to her ear, and ran my hands through her hair singing Silent Night and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. When my mom was still lucid, I put in a request that she make her exit on Christmas Eve. I felt a holy connection to that day and felt that my mom leaving on that day would represent something truly spiritual. She did not disappoint.
I continued to talk to her. The hospice nurse told us that even when all other systems in the body fail, the hearing is the last to go. Even if the person can no longer communicate, they can hear up until the end. I'm not sure how they know this if the patient can no longer communicate, but maybe it's the same research that tells scientists that flies can't focus or that dogs feel jealousy. It's fact that needs to be trusted.
So I talked. And played music. And told her I held more love in my heart for her than I did for any other person that ever lived. I thanked her for being the best mother a child could ever ask for. I told her I would see her again one day and that I would call upon her often after she was gone. I found three of her favorite songs online: Bette Midler's, The Wind Beneath My Wings; Lawrence Welk's, The Anniversary Song (a song played at my parent's wedding); and The Battle Hymn Of The Republic. Yes, The Battle Hymn Of The Republic. It had always been one of her favorites. She used to sing it to me as a lullaby when I was a baby. It was only fitting that I played it for her lullaby as she drifted off to her final sleep.
My brother was at the helm for the third and final shift. It was almost 2:00 a.m. and it was clear that my mom was in the process of making her transition. Knowing it would be happening at any moment, I tapped my dad on the shoulder and told him to wake up. "It's happening," I said, as he struggled to remove the eye shades from his face. I hated to be the one to tell my dad that the love of his life was about to leave him. I wish I could have let him sleep through it all, but we all needed to be present for my mom at this time. I ran through the kitchen and down the hall to the bedroom where my sister had gone to sleep after her shift had ended a few hours earlier. Coincidentally, or ironically, or as the result of my mom's spiritual influence, my sister had set her alarm for 2:00 a.m. Her alarm went off the minute I stepped into her room. As she reached over to the nightstand to turn it off, I peeked my head into the room and said, "It's time. Hurry." She bolted out of bed and the two of us quickly made our way back down the hallway and into the family room where my brother and dad were keeping watch over my mom.
My sister and I took our places at her bedside. My brother was holding her right hand, my father, on the opposite side of the bed, was holding her left. I sat at the foot of the bed and had my hand on her leg. My sister sat across from me, also with her hands on my mom.
We all watched as the blankets over my mom would rise and fall with each fading breath. One breath. Two breaths. Three breaths. Four breaths. My mom's breathing was slowing to about one breath every 15 seconds. Five breaths, and... another breath never followed. She was gone. My brother called the time of death. 2:06 a.m. My mom's hands that had been cold for days were suddenly filled with warmth. It was as if her spirit just left her body and exited out her fingertips. Floating like a feather being licked by the wind around the room, enveloping those who loved her so much. Her spirit. My mom's spirit. God, my mom was so spirited. I couldn't believe that her soul -- her essence -- would be doing anything less than dancing around the room, comforting us, wrapping us up in its beauty, giving us one final hug before retreating to the skies. Soaring into Heaven. Perhaps led by the gentleman who had appeared at the foot of her bed a few days earlier. To be there with my mother at this sacred time of her life, was the greatest gift I have ever received. We -- her family -- were her ushers. Taking her hand and escorting her from this world to the next. Her children. Her husband. Handing her off to her angel guides as her final breath left her body. It was truly a religious experience. I couldn't help but wonder if my first breath was as soul-stirring to my mother as her last breath was to me.
My dad was slumped over my mom's body, 64 years of tears flowing from his eyes. My brother was holding her hand, saying the Lord's Prayer. My sister, full of her usual grace, wiped tears from her face and began doing what she did best: working out the next step, the details. She called the hospice who called the funeral director and then she began cleaning up the living room. She started to wash bedding and towels, making it easier for the rest of us, because none of us could have done what my sister did that night.
I simply sat for a moment, assessed the situation, and looked at my mom one last time before the funeral home employees would come to take her away and make her look unrecognizable. I then went into my bedroom with Angie, closed the door and silently sobbed myself to sleep. I didn't run wailing into the street as I suspected I would. I didn't throw myself over my mom's body, unwilling to let go. I didn't refuse to release her hand or beg her to take another breath. No. I said my goodbyes and went to bed. I thought that if I didn't make a big deal about it, that she really wouldn't be gone. That I'd come into the living room in the morning and there she would be, lying in bed, laughing, telling us to take some cookies home. I just needed to walk away like it was any other day and I was simply saying goodnight and going into my room. I didn't want to be there when the funeral directors carted her out. I was afraid they would put her in a plastic bag and I'd have to see that. My mom didn't belong in a plastic bag. She belonged under a blanket, cared for like she was when she was alive. I didn't want her treated any differently in death. I have no idea what they did to her when they took her body out. I did not look.
I didn't see the men in the suits with the slicked-back hair carry my mom out the door. I didn't need to know that part of the story. I needed to sleep. And that's what I did. Knowing that tomorrow morning would be the first morning in 49 years, three months and 24 days that I'd wake up without a mother in my life.
Excerpted from the forthcoming book: 14 Days - A Memoir by Lisa Goich-Andreadis.
For more information and excerpts, visit www.14daysamemoir.com