By Julie Pesano
Dizzy with denial, I walked into the Florida hospice room to see her hooked up to an oxygen mask and multiple IV’s, wearing a pale blue gown, and holding my sister’s hand. Her body was swollen. Her face gaunt and pale. Her white roots showing under her thick black hair. This couldn’t be her, I thought. This couldn’t be the vibrant real estate agent, president of her HOA, and part-time caretaker of her granddaughter. This couldn’t be the woman who single-handedly raised three kids and lived in Spain, Greece, and Portugal.
This couldn’t be my mom.
She collapsed on June 23rd. A rush to the emergency room followed by a slew of diagnoses. “Blood clots in her lungs” they said. “Complications brought on by leukemia,” they said. “Cardiac failure,” they said. “There’s nothing more we can do.” Five weeks later, my sister, aunt, and I were all flying from separate parts of the country to be by her side.
We weren’t supposed to be flying to Florida. We were supposed to be flying to Europe to celebrate Mom’s 75th birthday and her life-long love of adventure and travel. A trip where we would spoon jam on scones in the Cotswold’s, smell the roses blooming in the Tuileries Garden in Paris, breathe in the crisp air of the Swiss Alps. But instead of traveling across the globe, our whole world had contracted into this single rectangular room.
“Mama-love,” I choked back tears, “how are you doing?” I gently hugged her shoulders and stroked her hair. She muffled a barely audible “Ok” through the permanent plastic barrier that kept me from seeing her half smile but that also kept her alive.
“I brought some pictures,” I said, “to make the room feel more like home.” I pulled out framed photos of Mom swimming with dolphins with her granddaughter, of the family dressed in Christmas red in front of wreath-ringed doors, of Mom hugging my sister on her wedding day. I carefully placed them on the credenza in front of her bed alongside the bouquets of pastel roses, lilies, and lilacs, alongside the cards filled with love and well wishes, the mylar balloon beginning to lose its air.
My sister, who had arrived a day earlier, showed me around the rest of the room. A hospital-grade bathroom with guardrails and emergency strings. Cedar side tables with books on hospice care and the dying process. Muted mauve armchairs and a sofa bed for one of us to sleep in each night. A picture window with a view on a manicured courtyard. The room was freezing to combat the low-grade fever Mom was running. The air smelled of hand sanitizer and hot soup.
My mom lifted her mask for a moment so we could hear her. “It’s not quite the hotel on the Ile Saint-Louis, is it?”
My sister had brought some pictures as well. Scooping stacks of photos from a plastic shopping bag, she said, “Maybe we can walk down memory lane.” We slid chairs on either side of her bed and held up one image at a time.
A black and white snapshot of 1960’s bouffant hair and Cleopatra eyeliner transported us to Mom’s study abroad year in Colombia. “I had a handsome boyfriend…. Rafael…. I felt so bad for the poor servant boy, so I gave him my camera.”
“Oh, I love this one,” I said. Mom was poised in a taffeta ball gown and tiara, dancing with the prom king. “I wasn’t the most popular girl in school, but I was the friendliest,” she said.
“Here’s us in Spain,” my sister added. My twin brother, sister, and I were dressed in polka dotted Flamenco outfits. I must have been three years old, my sister eight. Mom moved us there when she got divorced, living frugally for two years on Dad’s alimony. “Remember when we tried to cook a Thanksgiving turkey in the kitchen sink?”
We continued to pore over years and years of moments in time. Of my mom winning blue ribbons for horse jumping, of our leaping in autumn leaves in New Hampshire, of our building sandcastles in Cape Cod. We held up the Eiffel tower, pulled stringy Swiss fondue, hauled a designated family “food bag” on the Eurostar. A blurry, swirling, whirlwind of a lifetime of memories.
After a couple of days, Mom’s pain became more intense, so the hospice doctor increased her medication. We tried to make her as comfortable as possible. I played calming spa music and my sister gave her a pedicure. We dabbed her favorite lavender essential oil on her wrists and temples. We ordered soothing foods that she could easily tolerate. Chicken noodle soup, chocolate ice cream, chamomile tea.
One afternoon, she asked for applesauce. I placed a towel on her chest like a bib, spooned the applesauce towards her mouth, and lifted her mask. Her lips were dry from the oxygen as she cupped the spoon with her mouth. Her eyes were wide like a little child. She looked up at me, so innocent, so helpless. Before I had time to tear up, she said, “You give really skimpy bites.”
“Sorry, the applesauce is kinda runny and it’s sliding in your mouth before your lips get around the spoon.”
I flashbacked to a trip we had taken to Austria where we ordered their famous apple strudel. Mom wanted it with eis, ice cream, but they brought it in a vanilla cream sauce. She motioned to send it back and my twenty-something self-consciousness asked her not to make a fuss. As I spooned applesauce in Mom’s mouth, I wished I had let her send that strudel back. She deserved exactly what she wanted.
One morning, a new nurse walked in and introduced herself with the loveliest English accent. “My name is Ellen. How are we doing today, my love?” her sing-song voice hovered over Mom as she held her hand. “I brought you some olive oil to help with those dry lips.” Ellen lifted Mom’s mask and blotted the oil on her like she was applying fancy lip gloss at a cosmetic store.
“Wow, I get the royal treatment here,” Mom said.
“Anything for you, my love,” Ellen replied.
I inquired where Ellen was from, and when she told us Oxfordshire, my mom proudly beamed, “Julie studied in Oxford.”
I qualified the comment, explaining it was just a semester for a sabbatical project and told Ellen about all of Mom’s family trips to England. How she had helped raise money for me to study in Cambridge for a term in graduate school. How she economically organized a tour through England for the whole family beforehand. How she finagled free flights and crammed the four of us into quirky bed-and-breakfasts. How she packed giant jars of peanut butter to eat cheap lunches on the go. How she stuffed breakfast buffet buns in her purse for later that day.
“We were supposed to take a family trip to England again this summer and this time include Mom’s 13-year-old granddaughter,” I said. Mom had been so excited to show her the thatched-roofed cottages and fields of fluffed-up sheep. To tour Harry Potter’s Oxford dining hall and drink high tea like Alice in Wonderland. I told Ellen that her accent made us feel like we were already there.
My Aunt Jane arrived late on a Monday night and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Jane was a retired nurse, Mom’s big sister, and the family caretaker. She had walked her mother, father, and husband through the end of their lives, so we turned to her for medical and emotional advice and understanding.
Her arrival was just in time as Mom’s sharp mind was beginning to deteriorate along with her body. Mom’s eyes would be closed, seemingly half asleep, but she would ask, “When is Jane coming? I don’t want to miss the party.” Some days she would grab at the air or draw figure eights with her finger. “Did we ever go to Egypt? I thought we went to Cairo, Egypt.” Jane said that patients often see people in the room who aren’t there. “What is Aunt Madeleine doing in the corner?” Mom asked. Aunt Madeleine had passed 30 years ago.
“How will I go home?” she whispered to me one day.
“How will you go home? Oh, well, we could get you a wheelchair, or we could roll you in the hospital bed.” I tried to comfort her into thinking she could go back to her Florida condo again.
“And then what?” she asked.
I started to wonder if she was really asking how she would die, how she would go to the next world, how she would take this final trip. Throughout my life, my mom and I had lots of conversations about life after death, heaven, and reincarnation. We had read books on near death experiences and attended workshops on communicating with lost loved ones. Both of us believed her spirit would live on, but when faced with the logistics and stark reality of it, our faith wavered. The truth was that I didn’t know. We had traveled the globe, but I didn’t know how to take this journey. I didn’t know how to help my mom die.
“It’s soon,” the nurse said. “Give her some space.”
Late on a Friday evening, my aunt and I were the last visitors. We moved from Mom’s bedside to the sofa and talked quietly as Mom slept. I asked Jane questions about losing her husband two years earlier, I asked her about grief and letting go, I asked her about our grandparents and great grandparents, about all the people who had died in our family, who knew how to do this completely foreign and yet universal act. I held on to every word, holding on to my aunt as a last lifeline to my mom.
It was getting late, and Jane said she wanted to stay that night. She couldn’t leave her little sister. I hugged her tight and thanked her and then kissed my mom on the forehead and told her I’d see her soon.
On the drive back to Mom’s condo, a sudden, strange sense of lightness washed over me. Like a relief or a weight lifted off my chest and shoulders. Thirty minutes later, I got a call from Jane.
“Your mom just passed.”
My sister, brother, and I returned to say our goodbyes. Ellen greeted us at the door and gave us a hug and her condolences.
“I’m so grateful you were the one on call tonight,” I said. Somehow it seemed right that Mom was watched over by a European guide.
The room was dim and silent, no oxygen machine whirring, no spa music playing. Mom’s mask had finally been removed from her face and her mouth hung open. Her skin was alabaster white and completely cold. After some tears and embraces, I didn’t know what we were supposed to do. My aunt began diligently packing up all of Mom’s things. But I wanted some ritual, some reverence, some ceremony to mark this profound experience. I had heard about a flower petal ceremony to honor the body of the dead, so I took a pink rose from one of the bouquets and began to sprinkle petals on Mom’s body. My sister decided to do the same. Quietly, gently, we adorned her arms, her legs, her chest, all around her bed, blessing and thanking this body. This body that made my school lunches, that held my hand during heartbreak, that walked me through Europe. This body that had given me life.
I closed my eyes and felt my mom in the whole room. She wasn’t in her body anymore, that was clear. Her body looked like a shell, a snakeskin. Instead, I felt Mom all around in the thick air. A smoky, misty, dense kind of air. Every time I opened my eyes to look at Mom, I heard in my head, This isn’t real, I’m not that body. I closed my eyes again and felt her presence more powerfully. She felt expansive, flooding every corner of that hospice room. She felt everywhere.
Everywhere, I kept hearing in my head. I suddenly thought, Mom’s final journey didn’t take her to London, Paris, or Zurich. It took her Everywhere.
When we left, I felt her walking out with us, through the parking lot, into the car, across town, and into her home. I felt her walking through the doorway with us, past her hallway pictures of Greece and Egypt, past the map of the world, where she pinned all the places she had ever been and ever wanted to go.
I felt her helping us clean out her house, helping us find the courage to let go of her clothes, her shoes, her beloved Birkenstock sandals, worn out from years of walking abroad. To let go of the piles of signed postcards, marked calendars, and travel itineraries. To let go of unfilled dreams, broken promises, and heightened expectations. To let go of all the ways I had known her.
The only thing I kept was a teal colored keychain that I found hidden in her bedroom drawer. A simple sign in bold block letters that read, “Adventure Calls.” A mystical message reminding me of her grand new adventure to another world. Of my new adventure connecting to her in a new way. Of all our new adventures, together.
Julie Pesano is an English Instructor at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, where she blends her passion for literature, travel, writing, and study abroad. She has taught composition and literature courses in Paris and London, and has also written literary tours of Great Britain, Northern California, and Paris. She has been published on GeoEx.com and won numerous awards, including Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing and First Prize for The Travel Writing and Photography Conference. Her writing, teaching, and publications can be found at juliepesano.com.