I didn’t sleep late on July 4, 2005. Instead, I awoke early, showered, and put on navy shorts and a red-and-white striped top in celebration of America’s birthday. I ate a bowl of cereal, and then packed a bag with magazines, bottled water, 2 CDs of patriotic songs and greatest church hymns, and my rosary. I kissed my husband goodbye and said I’d call him later with an update. I double-checked to make sure I had my mobile phone in my purse. And then I headed for the nursing home where my Mother lay dying. I knew it would be a long day and not the usual kind of holiday.
When I arrived at the nursing home, the hospice caregiver in Mom’s room greeted me and said that Mom was still hanging on but that she did not think Mom would last much longer. I knew in my head that this was true, but my heart didn’t want to believe what I heard. I had been sitting daily vigil at Mom’s bedside for several weeks, taking turns with my siblings, and had witnessed firsthand Mom’s gradual decline. I’d shed many tears and even spent one very late night at Mom’s bedside, singing softly into her ear all her favorite classic and contemporary hymns from a hymnal I borrowed from my parish church.
On this sunny July 4, I listened to the daily update from the hospice nurse, then called my husband and said I would be spending all day at the nursing home and that he should come over later. I took a CD out of my bag and snapped it into the portable CD player I had placed on the windowsill above Mom’s head. I hit the play button to start the music and then bent over Mom’s bed and spoke into her ear, “It’s July 4, your favorite holiday. Can you hear the Sousa marches playing? I brought the music just for you.” She didn’t stir, and I wondered if she could hear me. I hoped so.
For six weeks, the hospice team had been helping us to look for and understand the physical signs of dying while preparing us for the inevitable death to come. While taking care of Mom in her last days, the team took care of our family too, speaking kindly and gently at all times and telling us the truth about what was happening to Mom’s body as it shut down after 92 years.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon, I prayed the rosary and nibbled on some snacks and tried to read but couldn’t. At 4 p.m., the hospice nurse told me that Mom’s blood pressure was dropping and that I should call my siblings. I did and each said he or she would come immediately. The nursing home chaplain came in the room to pray. By 5 p.m., Mom’s blood pressure dropped very low and her heart rate slowed way down. My four siblings and their spouses and children began arriving, and we gathered in Mom’s room and in the hallway lounge, taking turns sitting with Mom.
I switched the CD of Americana tunes to one of sacred hymns, all inspirational and quiet songs that Mom would easily recognize. Her favorite hymn, “Pange Lingua,” played and a few tears rolled down my cheeks. As we entered the supper hour, my sister sent her husband home to gather what food he could grab from their refrigerator. In a half hour he returned with bread, sliced ham, mustard, pickles, chips and cookies, paper plates and napkins. Our family, always great eaters, laid out the food atop Mom’s bed, near her feet, and we made sandwiches and passed them around to each other.
When we finished eating, we continued our vigil through the evening hours and then around 8:30 p.m., Mom’s blood pressure plummeted and her breathing became labored. We knew the end of her life was very near.
I prayed a silent prayer to ask the Lord to give me the courage and right words to ask my siblings and in-laws to gather round Mom’s bed and pray. I felt a great rush of inner strength, and said to my brothers and sisters, “Let’s pray with Mom as she takes her last breaths. Let each of us place our hands on Mom’s body so that she knows all her children are with her as she leaves this life and enters new life.”
We prayed together the Our Father, Hail Mary and the Memorare—Mom’s favorite prayer that the occupational therapist had placed on a sheet of paper and taped to the wall above Mom’s head. My older sister spoke into Mom’s ear, “We’re all here Mom and we have our hands on you, and it’s OK for you to go now. We love you and always will.”
Just as the evening light darkened and fireworks began to pop, Mom took her last breaths. We watched in awe and wonder as Sister Death arrived. When Mom’s final gasp of life ended, we stood silently around her bed, our hands still on her body—ten pairs of hands whose touch said “We love you.”
We were fortunate, yes, blessed children to have a mother who loved us unconditionally and who affirmed us at every turn. She lived a good and long life, one devoted to God, husband and family.
Our final meal with Mom, at her bedside and on her favorite holiday, will always remain for our family the July 4 picnic to remember.