Life’s defining moments come from the unknown, sailing past expectations, catching one unaware, in awe. Out of time or, in looking back on the moment, awareness that time moved at a different pace from daily life.
I have had several such moments where I could feel the flow of the event shift the riverbed of my life. Ever after the flow of me irrevocably altered, ready to live my life, yet not the same life as before. A life transmuted.
Twenty years ago, such a defining moment occurred in my life. At first, an event I wanted desperately to avoid, repulse, reverse. Yet as I stepped into its flow, I was cleansed of my resistance and I found myself embraced by the event’s inevitable motion. Not about choice, simply about my presence and my willingness to be present. A gift. An unexpected point of growth. Me, never to be the same, sadly, happily, both forced and by choice.
Twenty years ago, my Mother passed on and I was there as loving witness.
The motion started with my Father who called me on a Friday evening to say that my Mother had collapsed at an evening meeting and now laid in a hospital ICU. A brain aneurysm. Unconscious not expected to live through the night. Shock surely, though at the time all I felt was that I had to get to her side as quickly as I could.
Everything organizational about me kicked in. On the phone arranging red-eye flights, directing husband and daughter to pack, throwing clothes for myself into a suitcase, numb. I called my father relaying flight information. Then we jump in the car for the two-hour drive to the airport, catching one of the last flights out from Sea-Tac, headed to Tulsa by 8am the next morning. My sister catching the same flight and our third sister arriving in Tulsa from Texas about the same time.
My frustration was not going immediately to the hospital to be with Moma. But Dad wanted to talk, to go over events at home. A distressing tale. Mom in charge of a large event at church, standing at the front of a 200-person dinner, introducing the next program feature, stumbling in her speech. Dad thinking she was overcome with emotion, her falling on the hard concrete floor. He less than 8 feet away, the first to her, four or five other physicians quickly there and an ambulance within ten minutes to take her to the hospital only five minutes away. Unconscious from the moment she fell. To love someone for forty years and for that to be the last exchange is heartbreaking.
Finally, we did go to the hospital and spoke to two doctors. The young one, my age and someone with whom I had gone to school. The older one, a long-time friend of my father. The hospital my father’s, one where we had visited often when we were younger while my physician father finished surgery rounds on Sunday after church. The prognosis was simple: very unlikely that her brain stem would not quit collapsing. She was on a breathing machine because there was still brain activity. And most likely soon, though no clear idea of exactly when, her brain would stop and under the laws of the State of Oklahoma be declared dead.
I felt her calling to me. I felt an unbearable need to go to her, hold her hand, sit with her, keep her company as her body finished. My father was horrified, physically tried to keep me from her room. I understood what he needed, and I understood what I needed, and I knew our needs were not the same. I pulled away, dismayed but clear in my aim: her side. I am her oldest. I carry her name. In that moment, I had to go to her and be with her. To keep her company, for both of us. I felt generations of women lifting me up, supporting, letting me know my place in this unexpected, unwanted flow. I knew she would not be her in her lovely, light-filled presence. She would be in process, preparing for whatever awaited. In defiance of my father’s wishes, I found her room.
A typical ICU room with all the noisy machinery, her chest rising and falling in rhythm with the noise. I found a chair and brought it to her bedside. I focused on her face and grasped her hand, “Moma, I’m here.” The noise ceased, and the machinery disappeared. Now, just her and me. I started talking, telling her of my journey, telling her about my week and the books I was reading, about her granddaughter. I don’t know how long I sat there that day. I didn’t want to leave. I think someone came and got me. I know I slept hard and dreamless, still numb.
Waking the next day, Sunday, I got dressed and went to her office. I gathered books, some I knew she was currently reading either because we had spoken of them or because I could see her bookmarks. I found her bible, I got the Sunday comics and returned to the hospital. I read to her, I discussed what we read, I asked her for her thoughts. I sat in silence, oblivious to the constant machine noise. It was Sunday and together we communed in spirit because she was my Mom and I was her daughter. Nothing else mattered. She had loved me before I was even fully formed, deeply, without reserve. Like generations before us both, we were in communion together, both witness to life’s inevitability. I felt I needed to keep my heart intact and at peace so that she might find her way painlessly and peacefully. Honor, respect, love, in deep thankfulness for all she had ever done for me or shared with me. My Mother, my love, my connection to the world. She was passing her mantle to me and I needed time to prepare to hold that weight as well as she.
I don’t remember how long I was there, but I know I was at the hospital Monday and Tuesday as well. I do remember a few people coming, especially an old friend of mine, a woman who had been my mentor. She came to be sure of me and support me. I was so happy and relieved to have her presence. We sat and talked and from time to time included Mom in our conversation.
Wednesday morning, I awoke suddenly and knew I had to get to the hospital immediately. When I entered her room, she felt different. I took her hand, “Moma, I love you! What can I do for you?”
I heard her respond, “Sweetheart, I have something to do but I can’t if you are holding my hand. Please sit in the corner. You’ll know when to return.”
I moved my chair and began my witness duty from further away. Very soon my mentor friend appeared saying she just knew she had to come at this moment. And another friend of my Mom’s appeared feeling the same call. Together we sat vigil, relating our favorite Marlene stories to each other.
Suddenly I felt bubbles rising within the room and through me. Surprised because I had heard of this experience. Bubbles of ecstasy. I flew to her side and took her hand and felt more bubbles and a vision appeared of a large gate, opening. Through the gate I could see my mom’s mother and her aunt. I could see other friends of my Mom’s, people I hadn’t thought of in years. All waiting for her. Moma entered the vision, squeezed my hand and said, “I will love you always.” And I watched her walk through the gate, turning once to blow me a kiss. And the bubbles intensified, flowing through me with love and beauty and joyful release. Held in the arms of her mother and friends, the gates closed. The bubbles ceased, and my consciousness returned to the room, to find the machinery whining and beeping, ICU staff gathering, her doctor laying his hand on my shoulder, my friends saying, “Cheryl, I’m so sorry, she’s gone.”
Part of me was in utter shock. Yes, she was gone. My head and my heart were certain because I had witnessed her crossing. A truly miraculous gift. Her last gift, but not the last of her. I could still feel the bubbles and see the happy faces greeting her.
Every day since I have thought of her and this experience and our life together. Somehow her passing was a moment of awe-filled awareness and learning for me. Symbolic of everything she was and has been to and for me. A never-ending present of presence, lovingly offered, freely gifted to me from her. Mantle passed. Now accepted with every hope that I may be worthy. My life joyfully, irrevocably changed. Me shifted, uplifted.
She was Marlene Frances and I am Cheryl Marlene, named by her and for her. I love you always, Moma. Thank you for this amazing gift of life in your passing. I feel you by my side in this moment and always will.
Life given, life received, forever altered, forever love. Amen.