This photo of my mother was taken when she was 80. It wasn't retouched -- that's the way she looked at 80 -- eyes full of intelligence and spirit; complexion still like a bowl of cream; a body as fit as eight decades would allow it to be, thanks to daily swims and an energetic, can-do approach to life. The photo was a publicity shot for the back cover of one of her books -- each one a romance novel, published after her 80th birthday. You haven't lived until you've read one of your mother's love scenes, but as she said at the time, "I wasn't born old, you know."
Indeed, she didn't really start to get old until five years ago when her hip was broken -- irony of ironies -- when someone accidentally tripped her at the YMCA where she had been swimming laps. After that, her life became increasingly hitched to a series of medical procedures and interventions, all of which she met with her usual verve and snap. The surgeon who performed her hip replacement asked to use her in a video demonstrating how to use a walker, thanks to her ready response to physical therapy. The years of exercise and her refusal to let age be the definition of her life made her an ideal patient, quick to recover and determined to meet the challenges of her physical limitation.
That relentless determination ultimately prolonged the suffering of a body that needed to quit long before the spirit was ready to let it go. Saturday night as my daughter, niece, sister and I surrounded her and sang her to the finish line, that powerhouse heart kept trying and trying to stay in the race.
As her body began to shut down and the hospice nurse rounded us up for the final farewell, we began to sing every song we could dredge up from a lifetime of harmonizing over dishes and family road trips. Although she had been unable to communicate for several days, her color improved and she began to breathe a little faster as we found the harmony on Somewhere Over the Rainbow and the beat on a medley from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, leading the nurse to speculate that Mom was trying to sing along with us. I said, "It was probably because she noticed I was flat on the high note -- and that will just never do." We all laughed at this acknowledgment of her commitment to vocal perfection, but decided to chill with the stirring renditions of show tunes and focus on slightly more sedate selections.
Then I thanked her for teaching me to sing way out to the cheap seats, and I thanked her little body for giving life to all of us and to the rest of us who weren't there, my sister thanked her for teaching us to be wonderful cooks, and one by one we began to thank her for every connection, every contribution, every good thing we could trace from her life to ours. There were many and we could have kept going, sending her out on a sea of acknowledgment and praying that she could somehow let it in, she who so often shrugged off warm fuzzies in favor of sharp edges.
Ultimately, the little clock wound down. With my hand over her heart, my daughter's hand cradling her head, my sister's arms around me, my neice embracing my daughter and even the nurse holding Mom's toes, she breathed one big sigh and just like that, she was gone. It was a gentle, kind exit and I will never get over the honor of participating in it as we did.
We washed her little body ourselves -- given her lifetime care of her appearance, I couldn't stand the idea of strangers receiving her body disheveled and poorly groomed -- and dressed her in her favorite nightgown. For good measure, we wrapped her in a thick, warm robe she loved. I gave her a last pedicure and manicure and laughed at myself as I did so. As if it really matters that my mother's nails are pretty when she meets her Maker.
But it mattered to me. It mattered that we were the ones to wash and dress her, to comb her hair and give her back to the Earth not as one discarded, but as one annointed and prepared.
My dad used to bear my sister and me off to bedtime modifying Shakespeare's, "Good night, sweet Prince. Flights of angels sing thee to thy sleep," to fit his girl children and also his whimsical sense of humor. "Good night, sweet princesses. Flocks of angels sing thee to thy sleep." It helps me now to imagine him standing on that mythical Other Side, his arms open wide for her as those flocks of angels take up singing where we left off.
In my version of the story, they nail all those high notes. She'll see to it that they do.