I held my mother's hand, looking at her face inches from my own. She was in that place that is suspended between worlds. None of her six children knew yet, only I was there with my son while she was still with us, but leaving.
I, along with my sister, had been with her for six days now. But, at this moment, my sister and brother were just yards away, in a room down the hall. My mother's breaths were coming one after the other quickly. My feet knew the right thing to do, to call my sister and brother but with the room holding only my son and his grandmother, the quiet called her to surrender.
In my other hand, I had my finger holding the place in a book that I had brought from her things. Reading to her from her beloved Spanish poetry, I hadn't closed the book since we began our six day vigil in hospice. Now, I held the book and walked over to bring the dozen roses I had brought earlier, something telling me to have them there. Bending down, my face hovering over hers, I arranged the half-open petals just under her chin. We had been listening to her breaths, coming fewer in between since before dawn that day, and with the last shallow exhales, I knew.
My mother was at the end of her life. To be there for that moment splits your reality, you are child, you are grown. The questions from both existences fly from your mind and strangle you. You want to cry "Mama!" but who you are now tells you, it won't stop anything. Your mother is gone. Things are real and unreal, and practicality requires that you press the button for the hospice nurse to come bedside with their stethoscope, and pronounce the time aloud that they need for their charts.
If I had grown up in the luxury of a typical Hallmark-card mother/child relationship, I would have tears of grief at this monumental loss. If I had had cold callous indifference at my mother's hand, then I might weep with relief, that finally, all was over.
But I had neither. My lifetime with my mother was one of mixed emotion... extreme on both ends, saturated with love and devotion as much as hurt by the intensity of our place in her life. My mother's love was love expressed in ways that a child could not comprehend. She was a tireless, determined woman who worked three jobs to give us what we never lacked: food, clothing, a warm house. She single-handedly raised six children in a country where she had to wait 10 years before feeling the security of being a U.S. citizen. Always working, she was never home, and the childhood I grew up with was one without a mother present. There was no other choice, I know that now.
I don't recall her working as much as I only remember her as never being home. I was a child. What did I know of feeding six children, what providing for a family as a single parent meant.
My father committed suicide after only four years in this country, leaving my mother with six of us. The oldest, just 18, the youngest, two months old, and the rest of us, scattered in between. My mother had no time for grief when she lost her husband. She had to find work to make up the income of two parents. She worried that if she couldn't provide for her family, America might send her back.
My mother would be gone in the early morning hours before any of us had a chance to see her. She would go from her day job straight to her evening job, coming home too late at night to set out our pajamas and rub us dry after our baths. When weekends came, she would be at work before the first bleary-eyed child awoke for Saturday morning cartoons. She worked while we were in the care of her mother, our grandmother. It was my grandmother who was there for the physical nurturing and lap sitting, the reading to us at night, and the prayers said before meals.
I never knew why my mother wasn't home, and when I was in the second grade, I grew envious of the children whose mothers lined up in station wagons to bring them home from school. I had no thought as to how things were paid for, where food came from, how a house was kept warm and safe. I only wanted a mother to walk me to my girl scout meetings like the other mothers, one to come along for school field trips.
I was a child then, what I wanted was for my mother to be home. How could I have known that that was her wish, too?
The six of us grew up. We left home. The only attachment we felt in leaving our house was the one formed with our grandmother. Children never wonder why there is food on the table, or why they have coats and boots to keep them dry in the winter. We don't understand that a house with heat comes by the way of work. It isn't until adulthood, when we are parents ourselves in a dual-income family with half the children that my mother had, that we ask ourselves with a lump in our throats, How did she do it all alone?
How did my mother keep six children fed and warm? How did she manage the care of so many things under the grief of losing a spouse in such an abrupt manner in a country where the language was as unfamiliar as the winter season? How was she able to raise children to value education and work? All of her children graduated from high school, four of the six going on to college.
I grew up not knowing my mother, nor why she was gone. There were no conversations that children have with their mothers while driving home from school, as I now do with mine. We never shared confidences while she pulled cookies out of the oven on a Saturday afternoon. There were no Sunday mornings waking up to a mother there, asking us if we slept well. She was working, with no other option open to her.
Our mother was a stranger. Without the core of casual I love you s that get tossed about in hours spent in home life. My mother had been given life, situation, circumstances; all adding up to me in the time spent without her, wondering if I mattered. Could any of the six of us, remember how many words she had spoken -- she was always so tired. Would we forget her profile, the one I caught a flash of one morning, as she ran out the door to catch the 6:00 a.m. bus? Would the day come, when we could no longer recall the sound of her breathing, beginning rapidly, then slowly steadying, as she'd fall asleep on the sofa while we watched Sunday afternoon shows around her; she still in her white nurse's aide uniform, home for the first time that week.
I grew up not knowing my mother. And on the day of her death, I clutched her poetry book to my chest and watched the hospice nurse with the stethoscope, pronouncing the time to something I already knew. The ache in my throat so real with the thoughts of a lifetime with her but never a minute to know her.
My mother was gone, and in the weeks that passed, not a morning came where I didn't open my eyes and think of all the time lost, and knowing, there was no other way it could have been different. I searched to know her, reading her books, her papers, her writings. I combed through her poems, love notes, cards.
And then I saw an envelope, peach colored. In the upper right corner, it read "3 a.m." and began, "To my children." The flap to the envelope stood open, time had broken the seal and made it useless.
I was scared to see more. It could be confession, it could be too much, and the irony of this feeling struck me: I wished to know more of her, and here, I feared knowing more than I wanted to. From the inside, I pulled out a note written in Spanish. At the familiarity of her beautiful, swirling penmanship, my throat broke open with sobs. I began reading, hearing her voice in the language we grew up hearing her speak,
My children, my angels sent to me from the heavens, I wish you to know that I loved you more than my life. I wish that when I die, it is to the sound of my poetry, with roses across my chest, in the final act of my life that was spent loving you.
Finally, the release of hot tears, she had asked for poetry! I remembered how I had read to her from her book of poems as she was dying. What was it that told me to read to her from this? I began to laugh, roses! They were there, the ones she had hoped for! I pressed her note against me. Her love for us had been there, in what we thought was absence. So powerful, that even with a lifetime without words, its strength broke through the hours spent away from us.
I had known my mother, down to the last minutes of her breaths.
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