All moments in life are unique. But some moments are more permanent and poignant than others.
On Saturday, February 18, 2017, at 10:30 am in the morning, I found myself alone with my mom, holding and patting her hand, smiling at her, looking straight into her eyes and talking with her, knowing she was slipping away, but still there. There is nothing more intimate than spending the last minutes of one’s life with someone.
I could have told her how much I loved her, what she meant to everyone, or cried and say I would miss her. But all those things would have made her sad. That is not what I would want if I had only minutes to live.
Looking out past her, I talked about the blue blue sky, the white fluffy clouds – running through grass covered hills in the country with friends and plopping down on our backs from exhaustion. Feeling the cool grass on our skin, feeling the breeze on our faces, hearing the rustling of the leaves, smelling the flowers and the fertile earth, and the warm bright sun shining on our faces. Looking up into the sky and imagining what shapes we saw, sharing them with each other.
Not talking about love or life, but just being. Just feeling what it is to be alive on this earth, in this universe. The gift of life we all share.
You see, I didn’t want sad. I couldn’t do happy. The best I could settle on was melancholy.
Since an early age, I knew what death was. At five, I was crying to my parents but didn’t know how to describe the feeling of my first realization that we all will die someday. As Woody Allen so aptly put it: “It’s not death I’m afraid of. It’s being there when it happens”. And there I was, and it was happening. It was happening to my mom. The ultimate life-giver and protector.
While I sat with her alone, the heart doctor came in and found me talking away about all the great things and times we had as if mom were wide awake. He started to say, “you know she…” and I cut him off with a loud voice: I know! We were talking about those great times at Black Lake”. I waved him off never looking too many seconds away from my mom. Big smiles, kissing her hand, stroking her hair.
Over my many years, I have studied a lot about the brain. We try to understand the brain to get computers to do quote unquote “intelligent” things. I know from near-death experiences in people that people perceive almost everything around them even though they seem gone. There was no way I was going to let my mom be alone without someone there.
Later, the nurse came in and looked at mom’s vital signs and shook her head. Technically she was still alive. Her heart was pumping, and there was very shallow breathing. The nurse whispered “you can leave if you want” as if she had already gone. But I knew better. I was NOT going to leave my mom alone. I said again “I know I know. I want to talk with her some more though”. The nurse who thought she was quote unquote “not there” got the picture and left probably thinking I was there because I couldn’t let go. But that was furthest from the truth.
I actually got angry at the nurse. I screamed inside my head saying “Don’t you know she still sees us? She still hears us? And I would NEVER leave my mom alone???” You should know this! But I kept that inside my head because mom WAS there, listening.
If you don’t believe me, I can prove it to you. I would say the words “Bob”, “David”, “Karan”, “Laurie”, “Mike”, “Doris” and “Luanda” and every time I did, I would look up to see her heart rate go up on the monitor. She even moved her arm once although she was not blinking. I knew she was inside listening and understanding even though the nurse and doctor implied she was no longer there.
Before the nurse came in with Dad and Karan to give mom medicine to ease her pain, I was alone talking with my mom when the lullaby song came over the intercom. At this hospital like many hospitals now, the lullaby song is played when a baby is born.
That hit me hard. My smile faltered. My lip trembled. I choked up. I didn’t want to break the happy mood. But at that point, a new baby came into the world as my mother was slipping away. I imagined the birth of my mom 80 years ago and HER life flashed before MY eyes. That moment was the hardest moment in my life.
Then, the nurse came in with my dad and sister.
As mom was given medicine for her comfort, Dad, Karan, and I talked about all the good times laughing, smiling and remembering all the happy things. And eventually, mom left us. Very quietly and peacefully.
And when she left, I hope, she was not sad. I hope she was not feeling loss. I hope she was feeling loved and more important was happy, with joy in her heart for the great gift of life we all have in this amazing world. I hope, I hope, I hope, I gave the happiest sendoff I could. Always smiling, always loving, and always happy to be alive.
Patricia Anne de Hilster: you didn’t author the very first model of the universe in scientific history. You didn’t direct a feature-length documentary film. You didn’t create some of the most beautiful costumes to ever parade in the Rose Parade. You did work decades as a nurse, giving and caring for those most in need. You didn’t save people daily as a 911 dispatcher. You didn’t spend your time writing amazing words that flowed together like great wine and song. You didn’t sing your way into a role in a middle school musical at the tender age of 11 years old.
You didn’t do any of this.
But you did something even more amazing: you made it possible for ALL of these people to give these great gifts to the world. Your husband, children, grandchildren, in laws, and friends were all loved, nurtured, and supported by you without question and with total love and devotion.
Mom was a producer. No one in the general public really seems to know what a producer does. Sort of like moms. They are not the director, they are not the star or actors, they are not the cameramen or technical team. But on Oscar night, when the last Oscar is given out for best picture, it goes to the producers. The people who are ultimately responsible for everything.
That was mom. That was Patricia. That was Pat.
Goodbye mom. I love you dearly. Rest in peace.
And one more thing: this death thing? I don’t care what anyone says: it sucks…
Sincerely, your first-born son,