An excerpt from Lisa Pullen Kent’s book: “Death, Rock Me Asleep”
O death, rock me asleep,
Bring me to quiet rest,
Let me pass my weary guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.
Anne Boleyn, 1536
My mother taught me the world is a scary place, a vast and menacing storm-tossed sea, and in its massive darkness, she could not be my anchor. But only because she herself had been lost and afraid. Young, abused, alone, she waited for someone to save her, and when no one came, she drifted through life untethered by a haunted childhood. Never rooted, she could not ground her children.
My mother was not my anchor, but she was the buoy I clung to, bobbing and floating, both of us subject to perilous winds and powerful rip tides. When the gales surged, she grit her teeth and cursed the sky. Pulled by the forces of nature, she fought for tenuous purchase, clutching again and again for solid earth until the next gust knocked her loose. In free fall, I reached for her and came away empty, but the strength of her ferocious love kept me from sinking into the blackest depths.
My mother was difficult. Controlling. ”Don’t call me stubborn,” she’d say with a lift of her chin. It wasn’t until afterward that I understood: Tenacity wasn’t her downfall, it was her salvation. In death, she found liberation that could not be taken from her. She laid her broken body down, soft and still vital to me, but no longer capable of moving her through the days. She laid down her weary head, the short-circuiting neurons in her brain finally quieting, the lifelong companion of multiple sclerosis her captor no more.
We sang to her as she slipped from her body, unbirthed, and when her breathing stalled, an ocean of silence swelled between each ragged inhalation. Her heart pounded with the effort of dying, receding like waves at low tide until it beat no more and she was still.
My mother died at home on a Saturday in the late morning, peacefully, just as she planned. She died on her own terms, just as she lived. When she decided it was time, my mother simply let go. Unknotted, she drifted away from the raging tempest, leaving me unmoored.
❖ ❖ ❖
I’m in the shower when it happens, retreating from the death vigil for a few stolen minutes. I’m also running away from my father who arrived earlier that morning with my brother. I had stepped out the back door of the second-floor apartment to call my husband. Seated on a flimsy wooden chair, I folded in on myself, crossing my arms and legs, cradling my cell phone to my ear, a lifeline to an ordinary Saturday two thousand miles away.
“How are you?” he asked, wrapping me in the familiar timbre of his faint Midwestern dialect. The morning air was cool, the sun, gentle, not yet scorching. I lifted my face to the rays filtering softly through the branches of an evergreen.
“I needed to hear your voice,” I said.
“So, your mom–?” He left the sentence unfinished.
“The same,” I sighed. “It was so close last night. She was actually gone. But my brother wasn’t here and . . . she just, well, she rallied. I really believe she came back just for him.”
I take in the concrete balcony overlooking the parking lot of Mom’s multi-unit retirement complex. Filled with plants and flowers, she has transformed the stark patio into a garden oasis. Her strawberries, not quite ripe, are red enough to attract a hummingbird, its tiny wings pulsing rapid-fire, hovering in midair. My eyes followed as it darted away and caught the movement of a car pulling through the circular driveway. After it parked in a visitor’s spot, two men emerged. I heard the doors shut behind them. Then recognition shattered my brief respite.
“Shit! Dad and Steve just drove up.” I stood quickly and hid behind a bird feeder. I wasn’t ready to be seen yet, to force a friendly wave. The shock of my father flying in yesterday and making a completely unexpected appearance still reverberated. The migraine I’d nursed for days pounded behind my eyes. I dug my fingers into the taut muscles of my neck as I watched them walk toward the entrance, my brother, a full head taller than my father.
“Your brother must have called him,” my husband speculated.
“Oh, definitely,” I agreed. Were Dad to show up on his own, he wouldn’t be riding with Stephen in Mom’s 1999 white Impala. No, our father would have rented a luxury upgrade, humbling the smattering of older cars in the lot. Probably a Buick. My father is a Chevy man.
“I have to go in,” I said reluctantly, but the heavy inertia of my body kept me rooted. I listened as the door opened and closed, voices murmured, paper bags rustled. In resignation, I said goodbye and got up.
The apartment hung with the clean, masculine scent of my father’s cologne. Small-framed and lean, he wore a crisp button-up shirt, Wrangler jeans with a turquoise belt buckle, and leather cowboy boots. Dad’s signature look—part Colorado rancher, part Scottsdale entrepreneur, speaks of wealth. But the humble Oregon farm boy still exists beneath the affluent exterior.
“Good morning, Charmaine,” he said, handing me an overstuffed breakfast burrito of bacon, egg and cheese, calling me by my middle name. Suddenly, I longed to crawl into his lap, breathe in Old Spice and starch, and surrender to the safety of his arms.
But the feeling didn’t last. Maybe it was cut short by the surreal juxtaposition of my father, divorced from my mother for over forty years, sitting in her chair, the one she’d bought from Goodwill and patched with duct-tape.
I accepted the proffered burrito. “Thanks for bringing so much food, Dad,” I said, nodding toward the kitchen, his generosity evidenced by the pile of breakfast tacos and several large Styrofoam cups of orange juice crowding the small Formica countertop. Stephen stood with his broad back to me, silently peeling the foil from his food.
Leaning forward, Dad rested his elbows on his thighs and said, “I want to talk to you.” The urge to turn and run flooded my throat with salt water, but he had me cornered in the small living room. Perched on the worn upholstered ottoman, I swallowed my apprehension along with large bites of egg and tortilla.
“Lis, I don’t think you girls have tried hard enough with your mom,” he said in his churchman’s voice, a calm, gently persuasive cadence with a subtly condescending lilt. My eyes darted around the room, looking for an out. But I was trapped on the spot. I felt like an errant child, not a middle-aged mother of four. My father’s regular, but well-meaning admonitions are fueled by his sense of responsibility as a patriarch to impart wisdom to his grown children. Advice on what we should and shouldn’t do. And today, he extended that advice to my mother.
Impassioned, he continued, “You can’t let her do this. You need to be the one to take control.” His voice was velvet, but his message clear: I know what’s best. For everyone. Never mind that my parents’ lives have diverged radically for nearly half a lifetime, requiring us to tumultuously traverse the chasm between. How curious that now, in this last possible moment, their paths have again converged.
I swallowed and wiped my hands on a napkin, pausing to find control. “Yes, we’ve talked to her, Dad. For years.” I stood up from the stool, suddenly impatient and edgy. “She is dying. She’s literally in a coma,” I said, pointing in the direction of her room. “Besides, we’ve been over and over this.”
In my hasty exit, I tripped over the bulky footrest, trying to squeeze past an antique end table, nearly upending a vase of wilting roses. “It’s what she wants,” I added emphatically over my shoulder. I can only stand up to my father for so long before I must retreat.
Dad twisted in his chair, his voice following me the few short steps to the kitchen. “I don’t want to see this come between you girls and your brother.”
Steve was no longer at the counter. Through the open door to the bedroom, Mom lay, her head thrown back, mouth slack and open. He sat by the bed, his tall posture stooped, head hung down, her hand swallowed between both of his.
“Please.” Dad softened. “I’m worried.”
“I am too, Dad.” I said, grabbing one of the large OJs and taking a long drag on the straw. With a surge of courage, I turned back to face him. “But this is Mom’s choice. As difficult as this is, I support her decision. I have to.”
Exhaustion extinguished my patience for this tired conversation begun years ago and argued from every side countless times. There was no time left for negotiation. My sister, Heidi, strode purposefully out of Mom’s room. “I just gave her a dose of morphine,” she said, picking up the medical log to record the time.
Sensing an escape route, I said, “Hey, Heid. I’m gonna jump in the shower, ‘kay?” Tag.You’re it. And with only a little guilt, I left my sister to deal with our father.
❖ ❖ ❖
The bathroom is my refuge. I shut the door with a soft click. Reaching through the shower curtain, I start the water, then unbutton my pants and let them slip to the floor in a heap. I lift the shirt over my head, groaning with the effort, and add it to the pile. I stand, trance-like, detached, staring at the clothes I’ve worn for the last two days. Steam fills the small bathroom. My mind stalls, like the spinning color wheel on a bogged down Mac. I feel a catch as I orient.
I’m in Portland. At Mom’s. It’s Saturday. But why haven’t I changed clothes? With the sharpening focus of a camera lens, the answer comes. Because Mom died last night. She stopped breathing for four minutes. But my brother was absent, so she powered back from the brink. The rest of the night we stayed close, expecting her to slip away at any moment.
The water is ready. I step under the nozzle and lean my throbbing head back, sick with the hangover of a sleepless night and the fatty bacon in my stomach. The water runs soothingly over my swollen eyelids. Turning the dial to hot, I tuck chin to chest and let the steady stream pelt my back.
Didn’t she always say she would “walk into the woods?” That she would never become a “body without a brain?” In the face of chronic disease and imminent cognitive impairment, my strong-willed mother had no intention of aging into a hunched, decrepit, addled old lady. She would exercise her options while she still could, Goddamnit.
For years it remained a poetic notion, slipping unnoticed into the wilderness, like a Native American elder whose time has come. Choosing when one’s life should end sounded reasonable. Metaphorically at least.
Realistically, the method was the X factor. Carbon monoxide? Slit wrists in the tub? Car wreck or downward plunge off a bridge? Mom was not interested in violence or pain. Ix-nay on the un-gay. No, pills were the likely candidate. A sweet drifting off to sleep. Still, the logistics were messy and none of us were keen on giving her idea oxygen. About a year ago, though, she told us of her plan: VSED, the Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking. With the support of a palliative care physician and hospice services, patients who are decisionally capable may choose to end their suffering. Upon ceasing all intake, the patient becomes severely dehydrated. The body progresses to organ failure and ultimately death. I was shocked, but not surprised. I’d known one day she would say enough is enough. A few months ago, she set the start date, though finding a mutually opportune window for four siblings with jobs and families presented challenges. That date was last Sunday. Now it’s Saturday, the seventh day.
My brother, vehemently opposed, wasn’t sure he would stay. After writing an indignant letter to her doctor threatening legal action, Mom’s hospice services were suspended. Risk management required intervention: a psychological evaluation of Mom’s competency and a family counseling session.
By Monday, her status was restored, but she’d already begun. At peace with her decision, she was more serene than I’d seen her in years. My mother was doing this, with or without comfort medications.
I’d thought Stephen’s rage was quelled, especially since he was still here. But now, I see his angst still roiling beneath the surface. In a last-ditch effort to save Mom from herself, he’s called in the cavalry.
“Steve’s been telling me he thinks your mom’s delirium is due to the morphine and not dehydration,” my dad said yesterday.
This was shortly after my sisters and I found Mom on all fours, wedged between the wall and the bed, looking for her shoes. “It’s time to go,” she’d said urgently. When the initial blind-siding cleared, my father’s true intent dawned. He was here as reinforcement, attempting to validate my brother’s claim that Mom is too sedated to make a conscious choice.
“No. We’re not giving her too much,” I said shakily. “We’re giving her the prescribed dosage, the amount to keep her comfortable.” My defensiveness flared. “Plus, I asked Mom this morning if she wanted to change her mind. I asked her yesterday, too. She said no both times.” As it turned out, the point was moot. Shortly after Dad’s arrival, Mom began actively dying.
I soak the heat into my bones and an image from last night swims before my closed eyes. Mom roused, opening her eyes and looking directly into mine. Her sudden, undeniable presence took my breath like a jolt of ice water. She lifted her head and kissed me on the lips as she had since childhood whenever we parted.
“Goodbye, honey,” she said in a hushed voice, then laid her head on the pillow and fell back to sleep. The quiet finality left me stunned. Those were her last words. She sank into a coma and the death rattle began.
I slowly massage my scalp, digging my fingertips in to counter the pressure pulsing beneath my skull. Drawing out the time, I try to momentarily forget what’s happening in the next room.
There’s a light knock on the door.
“Come in,” I say.
“Come out,” Heidi answers.
“Okay. In a minute,” I call. But I linger, unwilling to leave my sanctuary just yet. Heidi returns, this time cracking the door. She presses her nose and mouth into the opening and sing-songs to me. “Come ou-out.”
The realization comes in a flash and I gasp. Frantic now, I wrap my towel snugly under my arms and open the door to see my sister walking away. She turns the tight corner to Mom’s room and I follow.
The light is dim, the blinds closed against the August heat. A single candle glows. The air-conditioner hums and the flame flickers in its wake. There’s a palpable hush, a tangible absence. The horrible rattle has stopped.
“Is she–?” I ask. “Is this–?” I stutter, unable to get the words out.
Heidi and our baby sister, Sarah flank Mom. I readjust the towel tighter and when I lean in to look at her motionless face, my wet hair drips on the bedspread. Dehydration has leached succulence from her face. Her thin skin is stretched taut over her gaunt cheekbones. She’s not breathing. I reach out and place two fingers against her throat. Nothing.
I’ve missed her last heartbeat and I am distraught. Perhaps because my own heart began its unceasing drum-beat within her body, I needed to feel, my hand on her chest, the physical cessation of hers. An existential transfer.
“We don’t really know when it happened,” Heidi says. “No one was with her.” Sarah weeps without a sound. Her lovely face, so like Mom’s, crumples in surrender. Copious tears wet her cheeks. Twenty years younger than me, at thirty-two she is far too young to lose her mother.
“I left to get her medicine,” she says. “When I came back–“ her voice trails off. I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for people to die when they’re alone. But I’m crestfallen, like the hostess at a party whose guest slips quietly out the back door. It’s called ghosting. The Irish goodbye.
Stifled grief gathers like rain in a storm cloud. The burgeoning sorrow will swell until it reaches a tipping point, but for now, we just sit. We hold our breath in solidarity and wait. We won’t call it. Not yet.
It’s been ten minutes, maybe more and she hasn’t breathed. When the wave breaks, it is on the shore of the collective knowledge that she is gone. Pulled under by the rip tide, we wail. Bereft, we are washed to sea.
Only then do I realize; my brother is not in the room.
❖ ❖ ❖
Excerpt from Lisa Kent’s book: “Death, Rock Me Asleep”
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, fitness instructor, and passionate lover of people. Her writings muse on the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. Lisa is the recipient of the 2020 Betty Gabehart Prize for nonfiction, awarded by the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Columbia Tribune, and COMO Living Magazine. She lives in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and the youngest of their four children who has Down syndrome.
You can find her at www.LisaPullenKent.com.