That is what we called her: Mummy. As in, “can you take Mummy to her doctor appointment?” Or, “Mummy picked up a hitchhiker but she said it was okay because he was like, eighty.” We never called her Mom or Mommy, even when we were little kids. Sometime we said Mum, if we were talking to her as opposed to about her. Sometimes Ma, pronounced “Mah” and not “Maw.” My mother was not a “Maw.”
Here’s what happened. I saw her the day before she died, on a Wednesday. I could tell she wasn’t doing well but I did not realize she had less than 24 hours to live. She was in a wheelchair in the hall because she kept getting up and falling and this was their way of keeping an eye on her. I got my dad, from his side of the nursing home, and took him over to see her. Neither of them acknowledged the other. My dad was pretty silent that day and so was my mother. I tried to feed her some pureed peaches but after one spoonful, she shook her head and turned away. “No,” she said. That was the last word my mother ever said to me.
The next morning, a nurse called to tell me that my mother wasn’t doing well, and that I might want to get there.
“What does that mean, exactly?” I asked. “Should I call other people? Should they hurry?”
“Well, there’s no way to know, exactly,” said the nurse. “It could be hours. It could be days.”
“Could it be weeks?”
“No,” she said. “It will not be weeks.”
I got there at 9:55 in the morning, which I remember because Betty, my mother’s roommate, was getting ready to leave for a doctor appointment. “I don’t think she’s doing very well,” Betty told me, sadly. Someone had drawn the curtain between their two beds and when I looked, I saw that no, she wasn’t doing very well at all.
Betty’s daughter-in-law arrived to pick her up, and they left. I sat down in a chair near my mother’s bed and looked at her. She was asleep and never did wake up. I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt like I should hold her hand, but then that didn’t seem like something we would do. As a family, we tended more toward laughing at horrible things than gazing lovingly at each other while holding hands. In the end, I did what I always do: I got out my book and started to read.
My mother’s breathing was very visible. It was almost a gasp, every time, with four to five seconds in between each one. Every minute or so I’d look up at her, watching. She’d breathe. I’d count. She’d breathe again. Sometimes, when I looked up, it seemed like forever before she breathed again. My heart would clench up but then, gasp, there it was.
I didn’t know what I would do, if it really was days. Does a person just sit here? Camp out? Does a person change their clothes, in this situation? Brush their teeth? Would my mother just go on like this, gasping every five seconds, indefinitely? Did she know I was there? Did she know anything?
Her eyes were a little bit open and they looked completely blank. Not there. Still, I said some things to her anyway. I wanted her to know that she wasn’t all by herself and that I loved her. My mother inspired lots of feelings in lots of people and in my case, some of those feelings were sometimes murderous. But she also inspired a lot of laughter. Once, she told me she’d been feeding my dad lots of brown rice. Health food, for the man whose body was in tiptop shape while his mind was deteriorating to nothing. Not that I wanted him to die. But, there didn’t seem to be much point in feeding him super foods.
“So, yeah, I don’t get it,” I told her at the time. “Are we really trying to make Daddy more healthy? I mean, is that really, you know – necessary?”
“Oh! No,” my mother said. “No, I’m not trying to make him more healthy. I saw on the news that they’ve been finding arsenic in brown rice.”
“Oh, my God,” I said, and she laughed. Quite heartily.
“You do realize,” I told her, “That if you tell this to anyone else you will probably go to prison.”
She laughed and laughed. So did I. This was my mother.
She died somewhere between 11:20 and 11:25 that morning. I looked up, waited for her to breathe. I counted the seconds. She didn’t breathe. I stood up, put my hand on her chest, over her heart. There was nothing.
Later, my sister and niece and nephew and some aunts had come, and something funny happened. Something kind of inappropriate that I knew no one there would find amusing but that I equally knew my mother would. Oh, Mummy will think this is hilarious, I thought. And then remembered, we were all there because Mummy wasn’t.
Still, I’m hoping that somewhere on some plane of pure energy, she was laughing and laughing.
Even though I know she’s probably a little bit mad that I didn’t hold her hand. I don’t blame her. I think now, and will think forever, that I really, really should have held her hand.