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Sara Whitman Headshot

To Say Goodbye, Again, to my Dying Mother

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This morning, a carpenter working to replace a door on my house called out to me. I was in the basement and walked upstairs.

"My mother just died," he said. He was stunned. He knew she was sick but the call slammed him.

"Go," I said. "Don't worry about this stuff -- just go."

In a moment, I was back to last September when my mother was dying. I saw her two days before she died. We were angry at each other. Fighting. I had received the call -- this was it.

Go now or never.

I walked in to her room and started to cry. She was curled up in a ball on the bed -- fetal position as much as her swollen belly would allow. I lay down and put my forehead up against hers. She reached up her hand and touched my face and said, "Oh, it's not that bad."

Sweet and soft, her voice made me melt. I cried harder. I can't let go. I can't.

And then she was mean.

I helped her up for a smoke. Got her some wine. Sat behind her and rubbed her back, held her in my arms.

"Are you going to get through this?"

"I am, Mom."

"Doesn't seem like you are going to be all right. Seems like you're never going to be all right."

"Yes, Mom. I will. I'll be okay."

"Doesn't seem like it."

A long pause. Another drag off of the cigarette. She stops to look at her hand. It is unfamiliar in its present state. She had such beautiful hands once. Now they are red and white, bruised and swollen.

"This is a nice room," she said. "I like being in this room."

"It's very beautiful," I agreed. I wonder if she knows who she is talking to. Where she is.

All the time I'm holding her, rubbing her back.

"I love you, Mom."

She took another drag of her cigarette. Slowly raised the wine glass up to her lips. It is clear swallowing is almost impossible. She says nothing.

"I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry I hurt you."

Another long drag of the cigarette.

"You're not one to say that," she said.

In a second, I am reminded of how selfish I am.

After one more long, painful sip of wine, I help her get back down.

Lying down, I tell her I'm sorry. Again. Tell her I love her.

Again.

"You really hurt me," she said.

"I know," I said. I'm still rubbing her back.

"I'm sorry you drove so long but I'm going back to sleep now."

"I just wanted to say goodbye, Mom. And let you know I love you."

Her eyes closed.

I stayed a while, rubbing her back. I got up to leave.

I cried in the living room for a while. I'm really saying goodbye. Really saying goodbye. And she won't say she loves me. Not once. I feel myself wanting to go in and ask her if she loves me. Do you love me, Mom? And it feels so pathetic and sad. Am I going to hear the words? One last time?

I went back in and wanted desperately to hear the words I love you, Sara. I wanted to hear it so much. I wanted to beg for it.

I didn't.

I sat on the bed and she opened her eyes briefly.

"You're doing what Granddaddy did, aren't you?"

My grandfather, her father, starved himself to death. Refused liquids. Took a long, painful week to die. She held his hand the whole way.

"No," she said. "I really can't eat."

"Well, you've never been much of an eater," I say, smiling.

She doesn't respond.

"It's okay not to eat, mom. It's okay to let go. Just let go."

She doesn't respond. I'm not sure if she's asleep again. I lean over and kiss her forehead. "Goodbye. I love you."

She opens her eyes wide and I think I'll hear something and she says, "Keep the door open, please. I hate being shut in here."

And closed her eyes again. I sat for a long moment. Looked at her. Held her hand.

I left.

A moment of kindness. A brief, amazing moment. I've lived my whole life for those moments. When she loved me in such a wonderful way. With clarity. And then it would be gone.

Even through the war of our relationship, I had to say goodbye. Almost a year later, a stunned look on the face of a man I hardly know brought it all back again.

It made me feel like I needed to say it one more time. Maybe I'll always need to say it.

I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry I hurt you so much.

Goodbye.

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