By Vivian Montgomery
I was on the cell phone during my mother’s last breath. I was on the cell phone. A conversation with a funeral home director can’t quite qualify as chatting, but I remember it that way, I was chatting, it was easy-going and on the surface, unhurried despite my having said earlier in the conversation “There’s not much time.” I was arranging things for the aftermath, unaware that the aftermath was forming itself in those small seconds between one question about procedure and another about cost. My father came in, flushed, and said, “Her breathing is getting shallow, it’s time,” and I said “I’ve gotta go.” Like a bus was arriving, like another call was coming in, like something was burning on the stove.
We ran down the hall and there was my sister already bent over my mother’s face, already sobbing. To describe those moments — the crying, the disbelief, the shuffling about – where would that get any of us? We imagine such things, but can’t imagine them either, and sentences won’t get us any farther. Here’s something: in hospice, they ring a delicate bell when someone dies. I had been there continuously for four nights and had heard it ring a few times. Other people’s bodies, other people’s vacancies. I described this the day before to my sister, who had been going home each night to drink, to get some relief. And she, who wants her demands met even before she’s made them, snapped at the hospice nurse “Ring the bell! Are you going to ring the fucking bell?” Scurrying, a frenzied response to something that can never be different from what it is.
Then we were calm. Sitting around the bed, bringing my son in to see Grandma’s body, removing her wedding ring, putting it on my father’s pinky, photographing his hand, photographing her face. Liz, our oldest-friend-turned-hospital-chaplain, came in and we drank some wine, toasting my mother, laughing, gasping for air. Then the males left, three restrained generations, not cut out for ritual or for prolonged contact with flesh growing cold. I wonder now whether I was as cut out for it as I thought at the time, given how haunted my fingers remain by the feel of her skin as we washed it.
She was so firm, even though parts of her body had started to break down days earlier from lack of necessary nutrients. Her scars were pronounced, a topographic map of heart disease and uterine cancer. Liz read the 23rd psalm and I said Kaddish haltingly. It had been years and the words were like nursery rhyme nonsense syllables. Let’s be straight – I knew Kaddish, my sister did not, and I needed to stake that claim, no matter how ineptly.
I finished, “V’im’ru, Amein” and turned my head toward her face. My mother’s eyes. They had turned black, like holes. She had had a severe thyroid condition from 35 years back, her eyes had protruded, the fluid’s pressure so great, it had changed her bone structure and they never receded. For decades, she had bravely suffered the physical and emotional toll of having exposed, enlarged eyes, un-closeable. Now they had given up the ghost. They were through. Their exposure to the elements as her system shut down had transformed them into absence and darkness, no longer needing to be used, no longer trying to please. Brutally, this image is what I’m left with in my own mind’s eye. There are times when I see them closer than I could have when I leaned in to her that day, as though each eye is the black center of a whirlpool drawing me down and through.
I had not left the building for five days. Hospice had become my culture, where priorities and purpose were crystal clear, and nobody’s motives could be questioned. I didn’t know these people, yet they held me and stroked my hair. Quiet volunteers brought stew and cornbread, others crocheted shawls and throws for our comfort. When we passed in the hallway and asked, “How’s it going?” it was obvious what it meant.
After we left my mother’s body to be packed up, taken away, the hospital revolving door tossed us out to a November sky bluer than any I had ever seen. The sun was something new and startling. We walked to a nearby restaurant where the hostess asked, “How’s it going?” and I just stared at her blankly, not knowing how to answer.
Copyright 2021 Montgomery