Where I share a personal sketch of an extreme collision of life events.
A few months ago, I briefly documented how our family moved from my son’s wedding to Christmas to my mother-in-law’s deathbed within the span of 18 days. Here, I pencil in details of my raw experience of those days, including the mysterious simlarity of birth and death, and a new sense of God’s whispered presence in the labor pains of entrances and exits.
[Content Warning: Contains description of death.]
18 Days in December
Those days bleed together in my mind the way the blood slowly pooled in her body after her heart stopped. I sit at my writing desk and sift through recent piles of wedding programs, Christmas cards, and funeral notes. I sort the collision of occasions like an upturned puzzle of sons and mothers, vows and death all jumbled inside a frame of eighteen days.
Some things don’t go down tidy on a calendar until after the fact.
My sock feet slide slow and tired down the hallway in my quiet morning house of sleeping sons. My mind follows like a toddler at my heels offering handfuls of uninvited memories from the last three weeks like marbles from a small cup. “Look at this one. No, this one instead. Look.” I think about the bride’s sheer veil, my glittery mother-of-the-groom shoes, twinkle lights in pine trees, frigid wind and frozen tears, the granite gravestone. I pause at the laundry room window to check on the cold mountain sunrise and my eyes lock in an involuntary unblinking stare. For 15 seconds or a half hour, I think of everything and nothing at all.
I scoop up the pile of dirty laundry next to the washing machine. The floppy white sweater on top still smells like my mother-in-law, her hospital lotion and cold clammy arms. I remember foregoing a shower that morning. I see myself threading my arms into these sleeves and pulling the soft knit over tousled bed-head hair. When this sweater was clean, I thought we had weeks left, not hours.
All at once, the lingering death scent on my sweater throws me back to the uncomfortable chair beside her hospice bed. My husband, her compliant Minnesota-born son, sleeps in the reclining chair of the hospice room. My warm hand rests on her cool boney chest. My fingers feel the telltale lung rattle and racing heartbeat. The citrus scent of lotion wafts and mixes with her heavy breaths. Her open-mouthed gasps come up empty like a dragnet cast in shallow water, again, and again, and again. I lean in like a midwife to whisper, “You are almost done. You can do it. You are almost done. Today is a good day.”
I first met my husband’s mother when I was in college and she could still walk. She was a dutiful pastor’s wife with a long-term illness, a ready smile, and the open admiration of many for her refusal to complain.
The last time she walked without assistance was twenty-four years ago at my wedding. As the church organ played, she took her husband’s arm and cautiously stepped down the aisle. With neatly curled brown hair and a fresh blue mother-of-the-groom dress she stationed herself in the front row. She watched as I walked down the aisle in a white dress, my first son hidden in my newly pregnant belly. That day, I carried perishable flowers and a quiet shame that would take years to absolve.
She never spoke to me about the whispered scandal of fornication between two pastor’s kids. She avoided the subject of my sex sin with her son like an enforced contract, always shut down without question or response, as though history could be erased with the consistent and deliberate change of topic.
A few months after our wedding, my new husband awkwardly pulled on green surgical booties, scrubs and a ridiculous hospital hair net. Together, we monitored the aching patterns of my contractions. He leaned in to whisper, his large hand rubbing slow light circles on my chest, “You are doing great. You’re almost done. Today is a good day.” My breaths slowed then quickened, deeper and closer together until the warm gush of blood and water, the stretch of blue umbilical cord, the large round head with dimples in each cheek. I watched a clamp tighten on the cord of life between my son and me. Beating pulse stopped on the bridge between womb and infant, mother and child. The nurse wrapped our son in a tiny blanket.
Years passed unperceived like spinning rotations of the Earth around the sun. Every day we flew 800 miles per hour in porch swings and dining room chairs. Our house became a flying nest of brothers one after another, four altogether. Four umbilical cords snipped and tended into one outie and three innie belly buttons. We lived in a long fast succession of birthing, breathing, crawling, running, driving days. We moved through soul-feeding, heart-breaking, blissful, crumb-riddled, stretched-to-the-limit years.
And in one flutter of an eyelid, on the first of 18 days in December, my dimpled son stepped to the front of a church with a wedding ring in his hand.
My mother-in-law sat in a wheelchair at my son’s wedding. Freshly curled grey hair atop a heavy body of immobility, she smiled with happy approval. As a small boy, my husband believed his mother would die of Multiple Sclerosis any year, any month, any day. And yet, there she sat at her grandson’s wedding in an elderly woman’s dress wearing her deceased husband’s wedding ring, sized to fit.
White lights dangled from the ceiling like stars in the sky. My four sons stood together at the front of the little church in grey suits and men’s shoes. My husband sat next to me and held my hand and I felt a hot surge of unadulterated life, like childbirth without the labor. There in a twilight gathering of family and friends, with tears on my wet handkerchief, I came to know a full circle of redemption and forgiveness. With my mother-in-law down the row, I realized a new grace. My redeemed wedding shame had bloomed into a strong new groom speaking his own sacred vows,“’Til death do us part.”
In that little log chapel a love song of redemption, grace and new life started to reverberate over the coming days like a big bang of invisible sound waves. Over the next days, similar echoes would repeat in music, whispers, and words like a lover’s voice calling over a canyon, “I am here … I am here …”
Entrances and Exits
Wedding guests waved the new Mr. and Mrs. off into the cold dark night, and I traveled from wedding to Christmas in a whirlwind. My little family got caught up in the festivity of gifts and honeymooners returned. We reveled in the union of relationships and laughter in the kitchen.
Christmas Eve, we sat in a large congregation full of candles held high. “Silent Night” wafted through a room full of tiny flame stars shining for a savior, singing out to the promise of peace and eternal life. We listened to the story of Jesus, angels, unexpected birth and bleeding, a son wrapped in blankets, and sacrificial love of Emmanuel, God with us. And I felt the pulses across the universe echo God’s grace, redemption, and gifts of eternity. I heard the silent reverberation, “I am here.”
Days later, a nurse called from the nursing home. My husband’s mother was in transition.
The labor of death and birth share recognizable symptoms: the rise and fall of breathing, the struggle and release, the unknowable final moments. At entrances and exits we funnel in different directions through the same door.
Our family filed into her room. My oldest son sat with his new wife. Three younger brothers situated in stiff chairs. We waited, sat in silence, sang old hymns while squinting at iPhone lyrics, told stories, laughed too loud. We rotated in and out of the chair by her bed and sat in silence some more. My second son timed her periods of non-breathing like contractions in an obstetrics ward. Slower then longer between, seconds passed between silence and resumed breath. Time slowed as midnight approached. Her breathing showed no signs of change. So, each of her tired grandsons quietly said goodbye, wiped wet faces, and headed home.
My husband moved to comfort his mother the way he soothed me in birthing rooms with quiet whispers of assurance and tender pats. “You are doing great, Mom. It’s going to be ok. You can go see Dad now.” Without ceremony he gently bent down, removed his father’s wedding ring from her finger, and put it in his pocket.
As my husband rested, I stroked her clammy arm and murmured, “You are almost done. Today is a good day.” Her son jostled awake just in time to see her eyes open one last time. Loud labored breaths stilled to peaceful silence.
The nurses arrived unannounced, like blackbirds on a fence waiting for permission. A giantess and a midget, they stood by the door and patiently watched for us to leave or stay. In hushed tones they warned me twice, “You can just come back when we are done.” For some reason, it felt wrong to leave. So I stayed like a doula after birth and hovered at a distance.
The duo in nursing scrubs smoothed away the evidences of struggle and braced for the mess of involuntary reflexes. The large nurse explained details to me like a patient teacher, “After the heart stops, blood collects in puddles.” The unlikely team turned the body’s heft to reveal blue and purple pools of blood settled at the lowest places. I wondered at the hidden colors of death and the power of a beating heart.
Water trickled in a washbasin as the attendants wrung wash cloths and returned the body to a peaceful position. In the middle of her flat white stomach, I noticed the small mark of her infancy. I stared at the belly button, the last vestige of an umbilical lifeline embedded in a lifeless body, a reminder of clamped cords and new creations set free. And I felt the rumble of silent thunder. I sensed the divine echo that whispers through sanctuaries, birthing rooms and deathbeds, “I am here.”
The workers tucked sheets in around her clean body and confirmed the time of death. Just before sunrise on New Years Eve, my husband’s mother exhaled her last breath and was birthed from a bruised womb into the arms of an eternal father.
I turn the clicking knob on my washing machine. I stare as the streaming water churns into soapy suds and I think of the compression of our 18 days as a divine sloshing mix of brides and grooms, shame and redemption, birth and bleeding, final breaths and new life.
And I think I hear the whisper again, more felt than heard, “I am here.”
I hold the soft sweater over the water, take one last whiff of that day in December, and let it go. Close the lid. We begin again.
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