I recently looked at these photos taken of people before and after their death and it affected me profoundly. I remember my mother’s face at the moment of death and am struck by the similarities, the peace, the last smear of expression, a final thought imprinted in a sideways mouth, a furrowed brow. I’m struck by the completeness of the leaving. Even in photos, you see it.
During her fight to live, my mom and I never talked about her dying. In October, when it’d become clear she wouldn’t leave her bed again, I lay next to her most of the time. We stared out the plate glass window in front of her bed, looked over the bay and she told me she wished she were a bird. A seagull that could take flight, leave the bed and soar away from the duty to keep her dying from us. One afternoon, she would ask that I label her jewelry with my sister’s or my name. It seemed a game then, a faraway prospect, but two weeks later, I gave my mom’s engagement ring to my sister to wear to the funeral, the ring covered by paper, with “Lisa” pencilled on top.
Still, even after the dividing of my mom’s precious things, the “I’m sorry’s” and the toilet that we had to slide under her in bed, the one I cleaned for her as she laughed, surprised I’d actually do it, I believed she’d be able to walk down the stairs again. I envisioned her making her way to the kitchen, weak as if just over a cold, famished and thirsty. As it was, the last thing I remember about those stairs is the mortician carrying her body down them, her leg hitting a wooden post on his way out, and his whispered apology.
Not an hour before, right after she passed away, I crawled into bed and huddled next to her. For some reason, we were alone, and whether that was by design or chance, I don’t know. I sensed her soul leave hours before her body died and I was glad for that, but I wanted to feel some essence of her, to draw it from the shell that lay beside me. She looked peaceful, but I remember having to close her open mouth, left gaping by her last gasps for air.
And now it wasn’t my mom, not anymore. She lay still next to me, in her blue nightgown, red toes and white face. She looked lovely. She really did. Like a doll, but I left her after several minutes. After all, she was gone.
I tried to absorb her again, a day later, at the funeral home, to keep her with me, pull some life, something, anything, a talisman. But the room stayed empty. And I remembered how I felt at the very moment of her death. How life was a gong, a clanging, a ringing, and that when it was over, there was no reverberation, no echo. The gong enveloped by some larger sound wave, a complete extinguishment.
I’ve written before of her dying, but no matter how much I relive it, the memory is a hand that grabs. It’s been more than 10 years since my mom died, but the enormity of her death stays, like a dot of dye dropped into a bowl of water: the dye spreads and settles, but the water is forever colored.
I often wonder if my mom’s death touched me so because of my unresolved feelings, or because I watched her die and you never quite mend from that most hideous and beautiful moment, or because daughters don’t recover from their mother’s deaths. I don’t know. But even now, if I give in, I’m sure I could cry forever.