On the death of a parent, an anchor, a friend

Should I have taken her to our pond that day, her last day with me?
Should I have taken her to our pond that day, her last day with me?
Image: Photo by Andrew McElroy on Unsplash
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I can’t begin to describe what it’s like to lose a parent. Regardless of your age—whether it happens when you’re 10, 20, 40, or 60—there’s this sense of the world suddenly going empty. It’s like the anchor to your life disappears or the map of your own self gets wiped blank. It’s the most unique pain and fear I’ve ever felt.

My mom passed away when I was in my late thirties. This was two years ago now, but I still feel like I want to pick up the phone and call her. She was a tough woman, and she raised me that way, too. But there was a softness to her when it came to family and her kids. We became friends, we really did, after I became a parent myself. Suddenly, I understood her differently. For my wife’s birthday that year, she baked a 4-tier cake. At that point, she had already been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They gave her six months to live. She made it four and a half.

For the last month or so of her life, my mom was in hospice care. I spent her last two weeks with her—every single day—and it was the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve ever done. On my first day there, while she was still lucid, I asked her:

“Mom, what’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do that you never had a chance to…?”

And she thought about it and thought, and then she said: “There’s one thing, but I’m not going to tell you.”

I kept pressing her. If it was feasible, my intention was to set it up for her—to bring her one last wish to life before she passed away. But she wouldn’t tell me.

Her last two days were the worst. She spent less and less time awake. Even when her eyes were open, she wasn’t quite there. I could sense her slipping away, and I begged and pleaded for her to tell me. It was a race against time; I became fixated on getting her answer. I had this delusional thought that I could make her death somehow easier (for her? for me?) by making her wish come true. I cried at her bedside. And finally, she told me.

She said, “I’d like, just one last time, to go fishing without feeling any pain.” Such a strange thing to hear, that of all of the things she could have asked for, all she wanted was a fishing trip like the ones she used to take me on when I was a kid.

I spoke to her nurses and doctors but it was impossible: we couldn’t move her. It was too dangerous; she was too close. I’m sure everyone thought it would have been a nice gesture, but at the end of the day, nobody wanted to deal with the legal liabilities and just general messiness of allowing a dying patient to go fishing.

I went home to sleep that night, and I drove to see her the next morning. Her eyes were glassed over and she moved them sporadically. Her mouth was open—her tongue, thick and white, was peeking out of thin and ashen lips. And she was breathing like an elephant was sitting on her chest.

“She’s a lot worse today,” I told her hospice nurse.

She nodded, and then asked me to help her move her on her side so that she could breathe better.

“She’s going to feel a lot of pain,” the nurse told me, “and she might scream. But she’ll feel better afterwards.”

So the nurse stayed on her left, and I hooked my hand around her right arm. My mom let out a shudder, and as we lifted on to her side, a loud and anguished moan. Her eyes shot open and her face contorted from the pain, but then, just as the nurse had promised, her next few breaths became easier, less labored.

She had her back to me, so I didn’t see her face when she died. Did she look peaceful? Pained? With not much warning, only a minute or two after we moved her, she stopped breathing.

The agony I’m in about her death is selfish. I’m left behind to be haunted by the images from the last few days of her life. If I think about her and only her, I should feel relieved that she is finally released from her pain. But it is only human that I think about myself, too: did I kill her by moving her? What will become of me, now a motherless son? But the silliest question also feels like the most important: should I have taken her fishing on our pond that day?

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for over two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.