The Gambler

Tomorrow marks three years since my mother died. When I remember those last weeks before her death, I am weighted with sadness, even anguish, at certain of the choices I made, or failed to make. But one of the decisions I came to during my mother’s dying season has passed time’s test. It’s the decision I describe in this essay:

At the moment my mother died, Kenny Rogers was singing. Or perhaps it was Willie Nelson. I never could tell country singers apart. Sometimes I wonder if she gave up sooner, was in fact mortally offended, by the country music blaring from the room next door to her in the hospice.

The hospice was a lovely place, as such places go. Its staff was wonderful, attentive and kind. My mother’s next-door neighbor was dying of cancer, and she was young, too young, much younger than my mother. Her husband played her favorite music, loud, and stroked her head. His love for his wife, I thought, was proportional to where he positioned the volume knob on his boom box. The hospice workers did not once ask him to turn the music down, or off. They saw what I saw.

My mother was unconscious. As I sat by her bed I wrestled with the fact that she found country music detestable. She was a classical music enthusiast through and through. In her typically judgmental way, she called classical music the only real music. I fretted. Could she even hear the country music through the walls of her coma? Some say that the comatose can hear everything. I’m not sure. When I spoke to my mother in those final days, I never once received anything I might hopefully classify as a response: a finger flicked, a mouth upturned, an eyebrow raised.

I had to make a choice, and so I did. I chose to let this man I’d never met love his wife, and send her off, the way he wanted.

It was the first time I’d made a decision that so deliberately flew in the face of my mother’s wishes. One day, when I am old enough to view the trajectory of my life, I may say that it was my own Sophie’s Choice, and that it marked the beginning of my adulthood: the day I allowed romantic love to trump filial love.

I have no doubt that my mother’s neighbor died, probably not long after my mother did. Hospice time is measured in days, weeks, and, rarely, months — never in years.

I hope that she went with Kenny crooning in her ear:

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

And I hope that her husband still plays his wife’s music loud and finds her there, waiting for him in the familiar strains of the melody.

written in January of 2010

11 thoughts on “The Gambler

  1. I would hope by the time your mother reached that stage of life and illness, that someone else’s taste in music would have become irrelevant. You recognized the music was more for the husband than the wife. The rituals we embrace with the dying are often more about US, not about them. We want to believe we’re making a difference; it’s our way of coping with our helplessness and the vast divide between the dying and the living.

  2. This is a beautiful memory of those difficult, final days. A small victory of choice when there weren’t many offered. The daughter/caretaker role is full of emotional juxtaposition; receiving your full independence against your will. Our lives often have someone’s else’s prefrences blaring in the background. Evolving emerges when we stop trying to adjust the volume when we realize that the music matters more to someone else. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. I tend to be the kind to filter things out when in stressful situations. I concentrate on the task at hand and let everything else slip away. But the blaring of country music would rattle me, I think. For the reasons you mentions, I would never dream or raising a stink, however . . .

  4. it’s been just about 10 years since my dad died. i can still munch over some of the decisions, words, actions that the entire family meted out during those last days…it’s good to celebrate the ones that you know you got right! and the ones that still gnaw on you? they were the best you could do at the time…pretty sure you done good.

  5. Having lurked on your previous website for an embarrassingly long time, I can recall this era, and this moving post. I hope your anguish eases with time, and am thinking of you at this anniversary. I don’t know if it’s wrong, but your decision here makes me smile – and I like to think that, somewhere, somehow, your mother gave a wry smile too.

    And what *is* it about ‘The Gambler’?!? Kenny Rogers is coming to Darwin soon – NOBODY of genuinely international stature tends to come here, so this is (literally) front-page news. We are a music-loving household but none of us are into country. When the boys got wind of the anticipated concert they asked us over dinner one night who Mr Rogers was, and my husband and I simultaneously burst into a rousing version of the chorus you quote above. We then found ourselves reflecting on what a great, moving song it was, saying to the lads that it was hard to pin down its magic, but that they’d get it one day.

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