Today marks 11 months since I sat on my mom’s bedside, held her hand, and watched helplessly as she took her last breath.
11 months since eyes that sparkle,
11 months since squeals of delight;
11 months of silent stillness,
11 months to write.
This time last year was the beginning of the end. My mom was in her final battle of a two-year war with lung cancer, trying desperately to fight with every ounce of strength in her soul. She was taking immunotherapy in a last-ditch effort to minimize the cancerous growth invading her vital organs, but with each treatment she endured, it made her body weaker and harder to breathe.
When my mom had her scheduled appointment in mid-April, the doctor recommended that she go straight to the hospital. “I’m a little concerned about your breathing,” he said. “I think you need to get that checked out right now.”
So my mom dutifully followed the doctor’s orders, her husband, Bob, driving her directly to the hospital following the appointment. Everyone expected her to have a breathing treatment or two, then to be released and go about her way.
My mom never returned home.
I started to write about our journey, even as death was slowly slipping from possibility to reality. It was a story told with words and photographs, capturing the turmoil of “not so great news” mingled with kindness, love, and memories.
As one week in the hospital lapsed into two, and my mom’s condition diminished from bad to worse, I took photos. Lots and lots of photos. I wanted to capture every memory possible.
I took photos as friends and family visited with my mom. I took photos of flowers delivered to her room. I took photos of her so I could hold on to one more smile, one more moment of joy. I took photos of us together.
On Monday of her final week, my mom suffered unimaginable pain. Her throat was closing in, every swallow “like rubbing alcohol poured over an open wound.” Those were the doctor’s words because at that point, my mom couldn’t speak.
Actually, she couldn’t do much at all as her movements were hindered from the pain medicine and her lucid moments were becoming nonsensical. She had lost the dexterity to hold a cup in her hands so we were feeding her tiny ice cubes from Sonic and hoping she wouldn’t choke in the process. We finally had to resort to swabbing the inside of her mouth with a small sponge soaked in water.
The evening before, I asked if she wanted me to sing to her, reaching for an old hymnal I had used in my days of singing with a church choir. She closed her eyes and nodded, so I sang. By the time I finished the second verse of Amazing Grace, she had fallen back to sleep.
It was the first and last time I ever sang to my mother, just me and her. It’s a memory I will never forget.
That Monday was a horrible, horrendous day. The doctors told us there wasn’t much more they could do, but hospice couldn’t take over until we agreed to have my mom moved to another facility for care. We were at a crossroads, an impasse. My mom was on high flow oxygen, maxed out to the greatest level she could endure. To remove her from this machine for transport would most likely end in fatality. They wanted us to make the final decision.
We were caught in the quagmire of one department committed to helping people heal and renew with the other committed to helping people die with dignity. All the while, my mom suffered in the bed before our eyes. It was by far one of the most excruciating days I have experienced as a child caring for a parent.
That evening, as I was about to leave for the night, not knowing if I would ever see my mom again, she sat up in bed as if struck by a bolt of lightning. She opened her eyes and lifted her shaking hand, pointing at the notepad and pen lying on the table near her bed.
My mom was always a note taker. As a secretary, she had taken countless notes of tasks to complete, documents to preserve, and general notes of this and that. She loved little spiral journals with colorful pens that could easily glide across the paper. She was extremely proud of her meticulous handwriting.
Over the years I’ve received several letters from my mom. Some were penned in anger and frustration; others filled with passionate perspectives she needed to share.
But my mom couldn’t write anymore. She couldn’t even hold a pen.
And yet… there she was. Sitting straight up in bed, pointing to her pen and paper. I opened the journal to a blank page and uncapped a pen. She grasped it, her hands continuing to shake as she scrawled lines across the page.
I leaned over to catch a glimpse of what she was writing, still in shock and amazement that she was sitting up with the pen in her hand, when I realized she was actually writing words. They were disjointed and repeated, the pain meds and cancer-ridden body struggling to get the thoughts on paper, but they were there.
With real purpose.
My mom was writing one final letter to me.
“I love you more than anything, if these are my last words. Love, your Mama.”
This is when I broke.
I hugged her and thanked her for being my mom and choosing to bring me into this world so many years ago. She whispered three simple words as I took another selfie with her. My heart was paradoxically broken and complete.
These were the last words my mom ever wrote on paper.
Three days later she was gone.
Today, as I mark the milestone of 11 months on the calendar, I remember the power of words and the incredible gift of photos to capture all of life’s moments for generations to come.
Never underestimate the gifts you have to share with your loved ones and the world around you.
Take your photos.
Write your letters.
Make sure people know they are loved.
For these are the moments that matter.
These are the moments that live on.
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