I don’t know which is harder – not knowing when your mother is going to die, or being entirely aware of the exact moment her last breath will leave her body.
“Anna,” she said, with those bright blue eyes staring into my soul. Piercing. That’s always been Mama. She’s got a line direct to your soul. “Anna, I want you to take me to Oregon.”
I knew what she meant by it, just as sure as I knew the sound of her voice or the feel of her arms wrapped around me. They had been so strong, once. Now, it was like she’d been left in a bath for far too long, until her fingers had pruned and wrinkled and the rest of her body had decided to follow along. The worst part (the best part?) was that Mama was just as sharp as ever. Her body withered, but her mind remained as flexible and whip-smart as it had always been.
“Oregon?” I said softly. “Oregon, Mama?” I could feel the webbing between her fingers as I held her hand, thin and translucent – like tissue paper. She and I both knew what she was asking for. There was a man with a neuromuscular disease who had been on the front page of the local news just the week before. He’d decided to take advantage of Oregon’s DWDA.
Death With Dignity Act.
Mama had been pensive all week – more so than usual, though she waved me away when I asked if anything was wrong. She never had been the type to complain, even after she’d been confined to a bed. Something little piece of me broke every time I looked down at her, bound in thin hotel blankets that couldn’t keep her warm. It was like someone had taken the lark that was her spirit and stuck it in a cage. No matter how it beat its wings against the bars, it would never be free to fly again.
She took a long, shuddering breath, grasping my hand tighter. “Anna. When I say something like that, you can bet your boots I mean it.”
So that was how it came to be. I’d always done what Mama asked, and this time was no different. Oregon she wanted, and so Oregon it would be. Luckily, we didn’t live too far away – I doubt she could have made it from New York instead of Seattle – but the travel was hard on her, anyways. I’d been taking care of her long enough that, sometime along the way, I’d become attuned to her pain. I could tell, just by the tightening of her shoulders or the carefully crafted expression on her face, if it was a bad day.
Chronic. That word derives from the Greek root khronos, meaning “time.” I could never understand what it really meant until I had to come back home for Mama. I was so young, compared to her. The worst analog I could conjure up was an imagined extension of one of my bad migraines for more than a day. I didn’t get it until I saw my Mama, the most driven woman I have ever known, unable to rise from her bed for the hurting of it.
Not just one day – days, then weeks, then months, and suddenly “time” became the simplest and only definition I needed. She would be like this for as long as her heart kept stubbornly beating its rhythm. But the music of her life had turned discordant.
We arrived at the right hospital soon after entering the state itself. She talked to a doctor and got his permission. And she set a time: a week from October 4th, so she could be with me on my fifty-first birthday.
I had chocolate cake with chocolate chips inside and chocolate ganache on top, made perfect by the chocolate sprinkles littered across it like tiny brown stars. Mama wasn’t supposed to have too much sugar, but they said she could eat a little, after I blew out my candles. One big 5 and one big 1, because when you get to be my age you’d go bankrupt if you lit one whole flaming wax stick per year.
The hospital room was very white. The fluorescent lights shining down onto Mama somehow made her look more sickly than usual – I think it was the way they reflected dully off her skin. I accidently got some chocolate ganache on the edge of her sheets, but neither of us minded it. It made the room more personal, provided evidence that someone still lived in here, until they changed the bedsheets again.
The day after my birthday, I finally broke down. It was hilarious, really. She was the one who was going to be dying, and yet here I was, blubbering and bawling, tears streaking down my reddening face. She had never asked me to comfort her, not through all her pain, but here she was patting me on the back and smiling in that soft familiar way for me. Me, the one who was supposed to be strong. A rock to support her.
I felt like sand.
I told her what was going through my mind in long gasps of air forced between the sobs. “Because I’m acting like it’s so much harder for me than you!” I finished, erupting again into fresh convulsions.
She let me cry myself out before she said anything, which had been exactly Mama’s way since I was a little girl devastated that nobody in kindergarten liked me. And then I sat back, and I looked up at her face.
She was beautiful in that moment, haloed with curly rings of thinning gray hair. Wrinkles were etched across her face like some ancient being, more wise than I could ever comprehend, even knowing her my whole life. “Honey,” she said, “it is so much harder for you than me.”
I blinked at her, uncomprehending.
“Anna.” She placed her hands on my cheeks and used her thumbs to wipe away the last teary remnants of my tantrum. “You’ll have to live without me. You’ll remember me, and it will make you sad and angry and emotional. You will be free of the burden I’ve become.” She seemed to sense I was about to butt in with a denial, because she pressed a single finger to my lips.
“Listen, Anna. For me, it will be relief.” Her countenance hardened. “You’re the one who will have to live with it. And I’m sorry for that. But it can’t be helped.”
“But Mama,” I whimpered, ten years old again, “I need you.”
“No,” she said. “What you need, Anna, is courage.”
We’ve been speaking so much over these past few days, but that’s the conversation that keeps replaying itself in my head as I look down at Mama today. She asked to take the medication at the small cottage I’ve rented, so I managed to get her here from the hospital. It makes it easier and harder at the same time. No more white, no more sterility, no more sickly fluorescence. She is covered in an old quilt, dwarfed by the size of the queen bed.
I realize that the sharp tang of hospital antibacterial sprays and cleaners has clung to Mama like burrs on flannel. Without really thinking about it, I retrieve a bottle of air freshener from the bathroom and spritz it around. The room smells like roses, and now Mama will, too.
She’s waiting patiently for me to go through my motions, but she is ready. I can tell. It’s like the moment before the bus doors close; you know you could still get off, but you’ve made your decision. I repeat my mantra to myself, because otherwise there is no way I can get through this. Courage. Courage. Courage.
Khronos. Time. It’s time.
She takes the meds, and soon there’s only one person breathing in this room. She’s at her destination.
I have a few more stops to go.