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