Yes: near the end

by Jeff Oaks

It’s nearly the end for my mother. She’s stopped eating. She’s mostly unresponsive. Her nurses have stopped giving her her drugs, only administering Morphine and Ativan to help ease her pain and panic. She looks like she’s going to die. White hair, white face, eyes closed. LIke a drowned woman. In her hospital bed in the living room, an ancient woman laboring to breathe. I, who hoped everyone was overselling her condition, burst into tears. Catherine, one of the nurse-aids who has been visiting and helping my mother for almost a year now, hugs me. It’s more than I can stand. I weep for Catherine’s grief too now, because she’s come to love my mother like a mother herself. I’m broken open, completely losing it. I sit down beside her and take my mother’s warm hand in my own. When Catherine says into my mother’s ear, “Marilyn! Your baby is here!” my mother’s eyes open for a brief moment, and I think she’s still here! But then they close again. I say, Oh Mama, as if I’m only eight. I’m too late for a last look at her old self. She’s started dying yesterday. She’s not coming back. I blubber some more. She would’ve killed me for weeping about all this, I laugh to Catherine, who understands. She’s a tough woman, she says. But I think she’d understand. We laugh a little through the awful tears.

In the face of loss you must still say yes. It’s not enough to wait around for the universe to invite you back into it after grief, although you may want to do that for a while. Even when you have to put her cat down, a cat who never liked you, you have to say yes. Even when you hold your mother’s hand in the end, you have to keep a yes for yourself alive somewhere. In a pocket in your coat in the closet. Wrapped among the unnecessary shirts in your bag. When the only water is an ice cube, or a pink sponge on a stick. Among the suppositories and lotions and adult diapers. When language runs out of meaning. Have you told her it will all be all right? Yes. Have you told her you’ll take care of everything? Yes. She knows about the cat. Yes. We’ve taken care of what must be taken care of, just as we talked about before this descent. Yes. What I’ve said is true. Yes, even if I don’t want to believe it. Don’t worry, I say to her, everything will be taken care of. Even when she won’t respond. Yes, you say to her, she can let go when she’s ready. Yes to being a mess. Yes to love regardless.

While you hold her hand, your tears gone now, the initial grief over, you interpret any jerk or muscle tremor as a sign she knows it’s you. Everything is something. Even when the other nurse says that muscle tremors are a side effect of morphine, you think yes. An old nurse who came by yesterday told one of the new nurses that when she’d sat with my mother she had been smiling and laughing, saying that she was meeting people at a train station. People were around her, she said, protecting her, helping her move. When I hold her hand tonight, I imagine that I’m standing there with her, in the station waiting for the train to come, for the great transport to arrive. Hi Honey, I said as I came into the room in the late afternoon. It’s me. Jeff. And her eyes fly open again. And what does she say, but Yes. Suddenly and out of nowhere. A recognition. A last gasp. Even if it’s to a conductor asking her if she has her ticket. If only it weren’t for this heavy luggage.