I was sitting next to my mother’s bed, keeping watch during the last hours before she died. I’d been a hospital chaplain for a few years, long enough to know what I said to other people, now having to tell them to myself.
I don’t have any way to prove what I’m about to suggest.
I mean, technically, I could research it (and may sometime I’ll figure it out). I think, however, that even if this isn’t technically true, it is emotionally helpful in this moment.
You know that feeling you have when you are on the edge of awake and asleep? Maybe you were asleep, and you surface a tiny bit and you are aware that there is someone in the room. You can’t move, you can’t talk, you can’t actually understand exactly what they are saying, but you are aware that someone is there.
I wonder if that’s what’s happening in those last hours or minutes of life. The machine is breathing for her. He’s breathing on his own, with slow, unaware, breaths. But somewhere, way in the background, there is the tiniest awareness of the world outside their body.
If that is what’s happening, a feeling like being barely awake, it would make sense to talk, rather than asking questions.
And to thank the person. And to tell good stories.
Or actually any stories that result in the kind of laughter you’d want to hear on that edge of awake and asleep. The laughter of the people who love you talking about loving you.
And it would make sense to not spend all your time staring. To not spend the whole time yelling your loved one to wake up, to not leave, to keep breathing.
During those moments of quiet presence or comfortable story telling or occasional laughter, both you and your loved one are making transitions. They are falling asleep. You are preparing for what’s next, without them.
(And, for the record, you can go to the bathroom if you need to.)
I talked to my mom. I actually sang, quietly, a Swedish hymn that she sang to me. I told her stories about what I was doing, about what we were doing.
I texted with my sisters who were not able to be present. I talked with them on the phone. I let them talk to her, too.
And I sat quietly, keeping watch, bearing witness.
Just before five in the morning, she opened her eyes and looked up. The eyes that had been closed all night, an awareness of something she’d not had. And then, just after five, her breathing slowed and stopped.
I waited a bit, just to be sure. A few minutes.
And then I found the nurse.
“She’s gone,” I said.