All My Valuables Walk On Two Feet
Gathered around her bed we sang every Christmas song we knew; it was as if my dying mother had become everyone’s mother.
Ten days after my father’s memorial service, my mother entered the hospital. My brother David had dropped by her house on his way to work and found her sitting on the living room couch, unable to breathe, a symptom of congestive heart failure. She was admitted to the cardiac-care unit at the hospital where my father and grandfather had worked and where my brother George had followed in their footsteps as a doctor.
When Drew was born, my mother had shown up at the door of our apartment with a suitcase in each hand. I hadn’t been expecting her. Every inch of my body was trembling from exhaustion, and I was overjoyed to see her. “I’m not leaving you until you’re ready for me to go,” she said, stepping into the apartment.
That’s exactly what I was drawn to do for her now. I sat down with Dave and the boys. “I don’t want to have any regrets,” I explained. “I want to be with her, however long I can be helpful.” It didn’t take any convincing. The next morning, I moved back into my childhood home with two suitcases of my own.
By night I slept in my old bedroom, then woke up early each morning to drive to my mother’s bedside. Her hours were occupied by performing small acts of gratitude. She asked me to bring blank thank-you cards. Her handwriting was getting shakier, but she persevered in writing dozens of notes to loved ones, telling each personally what they meant to her. When a nurse advised us to take home any valuables my mother may have brought to the hospital so they would be secure, my mom responded with a laugh, “All of my valuables walk on two feet.”
After my mother had spent a week in the hospital, social workers from the palliative-care and hospice teams came to sit with us. Her heart was failing, and she frequently coughed up an alarming amount of pink foamy mucus. It was clear that we had exhausted all of the treatments to forestall her condition and that she wasn’t going to get better. While I knew that I had entered the world of hospice to prepare myself for my parents’ eventual deaths, I felt blindsided by this moment of truth.
“My goal is to go home,” she told the social workers weakly.
“We can make that happen quickly while giving you support to be as comfortable as possible,” one of them replied. My entire family knew that hospice didn’t mean “giving up on someone.” Rather, we saw it as the most realistic, compassionate care available.
My brothers and I got to work setting up a hospital bed in my mother’s living room, overlooking a mountain in the distance. It was the sunniest, most cheerful room of her house. We barely had time to move my father’s things from the room where he had spent so many days. Now we were setting up a place where we knew my mother would eventually draw her last breath. My friend Julie brought over a magnificent poinsettia, and we arranged my mother’s little porcelain manger scene in the window where she could see it easily, for the holidays were approaching.
We had all hoped my mother would feel somewhat rejuvenated at home, free from the middle-of-the-night monitoring and medicine and the all-hours broadcasts over the hospital paging system. But there was to be no such relief. Excruciating pain wracked her body, and I was suddenly thrust into the thick of caregiving. An aide and I would shift my mother every few hours to prevent bedsores, and she would cry out in agony. I rubbed her back and cleaned up after her when she vomited. I learned to monitor her oxygen tank. A home-hospice nurse taught me how to administer morphine and other sedatives under my mother’s tongue from a box of color-coded medicines that they left in our refrigerator—blue syringe, yellow syringe, pink syringe, green syringe, each with a different purpose. In the face of her devastating anguish, I could see no silver lining, no virtue.
I had never seen a hospice patient in such agony. The doctors and nurses assigned to her care were observing her constantly, making sure they hadn’t missed any underlying cause. It seemed so unfair that my mother, who had lived a life of kindness and service to others, had drawn this unlucky card. One aide came up with an explanation no one else mentioned. “It’s called terminal agitation, sweetheart,” she said gently. “I bet everyone is telling you that your mama is dying from a broken heart after your daddy died. But maybe she wanted to live.”
I considered her words. My mother, without a doubt, wanted to live. She wanted to plant a Japanese maple tree in her yard in my father’s memory, visit the shore with her grandchildren, and go back to volunteering in the local nursing home. She had plans, and death wasn’t part of them. No wonder she was agitated.
When my mother had finally fallen asleep after one particularly bad episode, I put on a winter coat and told the aide I would be back soon. I walked across the street to the cemetery where I had spent countless hours as a kid. The cemetery was a benevolent place for our family; with its wide lawns and sunken markers, it was no surprise that visitors often mistook it for a park. “It’s a wonderful place to live,” my mother had always said of our home. “We have quiet neighbors.”
My feet crunched on the frosted ground heading up the hill into the trees to the spot where the cemetery’s staff discarded withering flowers. I took off my gloves and dialed my friend Dana, who had been checking in with me every day.
“Go ahead and cry,” she said. “You don’t need to explain anything at all. Wail if you want to. I’m here for you.”
That did it. Being validated by Dana in every aspect of this journey, including the darkest moments, was a gift beyond measure. I started shaking, then crying. I rooted around for a tissue in my pocket but couldn’t find one. The boys would call this ugly crying.
Between words, I stammered out my truth. How my mother looked more like a skeleton than a living person. That she was screaming out in pain, gasping for air, and calling out imploringly to God. I felt like I was seeing a new side to death, and my fury was rising. “I’m pissed off at the so-called angel of death, who seems to have lost directions to my town, even though he was here a couple of months ago for my father.”
When Dana and I hung up and I returned to the house twenty minutes later, my mother was still sound asleep. I took a warm shower and turned on my laptop for the first time in a week. There were messages from family and friends, with offerings from the heart. Christians and Jews prayed for my mother and our family. A Hindu friend led an aarti ceremony, lighting oil candles and offering prayers for her well-being. There were Buddhist chants and gifts of poetry by Rumi. Generous Bear did a sacred pipe ceremony for our family and the professionals caring for my mom. It was as if my mother had become everyone’s mother.
On the afternoon that the hospice nurse told us that Mom likely had one day to live, Dave and I spoke to the boys. They had seen her the week before, on Thanksgiving, and presented her with homemade cards telling her how much she meant to them. But it didn’t seem like enough. I remembered a friend from Guinea once telling me of his village’s tradition: “We hide the moment of death from the young people. Everyone comes and sits at the bedside.”
We offered the option to the boys. “Think about this carefully — the decision is up to you, and there’s no right or wrong thing to do. Nana is not responding anymore, but maybe she can still hear us. If you want to come sit with us until the end, we will be by your side.” They both said yes.
When they arrived, though, I was afraid we had made a mistake. The boys took one look at her body, now about eighty pounds. The angular bones under her skin seemed to take over the familiar face we had known. She was not conscious of their presence, at least outwardly. Both boys started to cry silently. I shot Dave a worried look. Drew walked out of the room, and Dave followed him. A few minutes later they rejoined us, and we all pulled up chairs around the bed and held hands. Assuming my mother could hear us, we recounted our favorite moments with her and my dad. And when whoever was talking stopped, we sat silently until someone else was moved to speak. Throughout the day we were joined by her best friend — Marisa’s mother —a nd her sister, my brothers and their families, and the minister from her church. The boys witnessed adults get choked up and hug one another and kiss a dying woman and comb her hair and adjust her blankets. We learn to say goodbye by listening and watching, I thought. By bearing witness.
That night, my brothers slept on the living room floor, near my mother’s bed, wanting to be attentive to her every need. Dave, the boys, and I crawled into my parents’ bed, asking my brothers to awaken us if anything changed. My body was drained from weeks of poor sleep, and I felt a soft reassurance in lying close to my family, so full of health and energy.
The next morning, the hospice nurse arrived to check my mother’s vitals. She was amazed that she had made it through the night. If this were truly my mother’s last hour on earth, what would she want, I wondered. I went up to the attic and rooted around for the little circular candle holder my mother used to mark the Sundays leading up to Christmas. It was my mother’s favorite ritual of the year, when we sat together as a family, lighting candles, singing, and reading passages from the Bible. We were a couple of days shy of the first official Sunday of the holiday season, but I couldn’t see it being a mistake to start early. I called everyone around my mother’s bed. We sang every Christmas song we knew — my Jewish kids and husband, an atheist, and a few who weren’t sure what they believed.
The moment before we lit the candles, we remembered that there was a tank of oxygen in the room and we put the matches away. We didn’t need the light — light was present in that room like I had never witnessed before. It came in the form of pure, clear love. It was our love for my mother and for my father too. It expressed itself in a glowing warmth that we could palpably feel between all of us gathered. It was present in every honest gesture, every tear, every bit of laughter. There was so much love in that room that it began to gently undo the twisted knots of pain that had come before it.
An hour after our makeshift service, my mother drew her final breath. At long last, she looked at peace. Slowly, I rose to do what I had witnessed many times over on the hospice floor. I took petals from an arrangement of flowers on the mantelpiece and scattered them gently on the sheet that covered her body. My brother George tucked a small picture of his daughter, who was away at college, among the petals so she could be near my mom too, like all of the other grandchildren who came trickling in.
Several weeks after my mother died, a large rectangular box arrived at our door. I could see that it was from my friend Lisa in North Carolina, who had been holding space for the loss that had been unfolding in my family, through calls and messages.
I opened it carefully with the kitchen scissors and pulled out a large framed painting. It was a scene of three children playing in a garden, which Lisa had asked her children’s art teacher to paint for me. A girl with long blond braids, as I had as a child, was jumping rope. One boy was sitting in the grass with his back against the trunk of a tree; the other was swinging from a rope swing. In the distance, on a dock overlooking a lake, sat an elderly couple, watching the setting sun.
Across the bottom of the painting were my mother’s words: All of my valuables walk on two feet.
Excerpted from Heartwood: The Art Of Living With The End In Mind. Copyright ©2021 by Barbara Becker. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron books, a division of Macmillan publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.