The last week before my mother died, she acted so differently.
I was taking her for rides daily. With the windows down and the wind blowing in, from her passenger seat she'd stare at the sky and ask, "Have you ever seen such a blue sky? So pure and clear." When we drove past the many farmers' fields in my small town, she'd tell me to look, "See that green? The grass is a green like I've never seen." One day when the temperatures were in the 90's, I started to roll the car window up so I could put the air conditioning on for her, she asked me to leave the windows down, because "The air is so fresh like water on my face."
One of her favorite things to do had become for me to take her on a rustic road where wild lilies grew. She'd ask me to pull over and pick "just one" and she'd hold it, staring at its center, saying over and over in Spanish, "What a beautiful flower. Have you ever seen such glory?"
With my children at the lake, she'd marvel at the clouds and loved sitting and staring at shapes. Excited, she'd point and call to my son, Xavier, "That one looks like a little rabbit!" She had stopped talking in English to the children about two weeks before then, and it was all Spanish now. When I spoke to her, I'd catch her staring at my face like she had never seen me before, the way she would look at the paintings at the art museum where she would take us when we were little. My heart fell when it occurred to me that possibly, she was beginning to not recognize us anymore, but her answers back to my questions were quick, witty, and right on track, and she knew it was me she was talking to.
The day before she passed away, I remember being surprised to the point of laughing out loud, when I told her one of our shared, secret pleasures: gossip on a thorn in my side woman. My mother had been semi-conscious for several days, and I leaned in, telling her the latest antics on this less than kind person, when in the quiet of the room where you heard nothing but the small fan whirring, cooling her face, she burst out with a "Ha!" At that moment, I had never felt more grateful, more honored, more proud, to have the gift of humor.
She laughed, like laughter had become her oxygen. Our youngest, Auggie, would dance for her, wiggling with his butt facing her, and shouting "Activities!" and she'd almost choke from the sputtering joy. It became so important for her to hold my hand while I drove. Equally important, she had to touch my children's faces every day that she saw them.
She acted like she's never acted before, serene, tranquil. She took notice of everything, it was as if her prayer that day had been, Be aware. Be Aware.
One day while driving, as she said so softly to herself in Spanish, "The green of that grass... look how green, like emeralds," I remember my stomach clenching, as I realized it. I looked at her while she stared out of her window, and I remember thinking, in disbelief at how soon it was going to be, she knows she's going to die. Because she hung on to everything as if she knew she'd never see it again. But it wasn't desperation, it was wonder. I opened my mouth to ask her, but I was too scared.
It's so sad, with all I've had to do, I haven't had time to reflect on the days before her death.
I kept a notebook of this time with her because I knew I had to -- the air felt lit, magical, and no doubt I was in the thick of something rare. One morning, with eyes closed, she pointed to something behind her. At 4 a.m., the day before she passed away, she reached for my face while I was reading to her, and though her eyes were closed, her hand found my chin, and she held it, making a croaking sound. I will never not remember it.
She tried without success to open her mouth and say something to my children the day they came to say good-bye; as weak as she was, she willed herself to put her shaking hands together in prayer and made a whimpering sound. I saw the corners of her mouth turn down, in sadness, and it broke me. She didn't want to leave them. I keep saying over and over, She doesn't want to leave them.
When my mother and I were alone during those last days, I lay next to her and stroked her hand, telling her, "Mama, the books the nurses gave me here say you can hear me. I'm so sorry for your life. I'm sorry for the childhood you had. I'm sorry your husband killed himself and you were left alone in a new country, with six children, one of them just born. I'm so sorry you came to the United States where your life has always been too hard for you. I'm so sorry, mama. I love you, and thank you for taking care of us, for being so good to my children, for saving me from post partum depression. You had newborn Alec crying in your arms, and me crying on your shoulder. You came to see me every day when I didn't know how I was going to make it through the next hour with that first baby. Remember? You saved me, mama, from the most terrifying time in my life. You saved me. Thank you, mama."
And when I finished, there was silence, except for her dry tears being the only sound.
Her last days were complex, and simple, and astounding.
The end of the indestructible woman that my mother was.
When we called her church of over forty years and told them of her death, you could hear their reaction from across the room, "Leonor? Oh, no!"
I wanted to say, "I KNOW. None of us can believe it."
Who can believe it.
I still don't. It's the abruptness of death, no matter how slow it is in coming, that leaves me bewildered. Even as I sit, sorting through the packed boxes of her things as evidence around me that she is gone, I shake my head hoping something falls into place, that allows the permanency of this condition, to sink in.
* * *