The last time I saw my mom alive, I was visiting her. This was my routine: I taught a class in the morning, picked up my daughter from the nanny, picked up my son from school and together with the 90-pound puppy I’m fond of toting around, we all went to see my mom. We call our ensemble The Crazy Train.
We would walk in with a whirlwind of activity. I would get my son set up with after-school snacks and games, my daughter would go straight to the arms of our favorite caretaker who was madly in love with her, the dog would join the other rowdy canines outside and I would settle down next to mom’s bedside. I would immediately hold her soft left hand with its whisper-thin skin and mysterious effervescence. If she was sleeping, I would just sit there. If she was awake, I would chat and tell her about my day and then offer to read to her.
It was always different. Some days were gentle and easy; others were a struggle. It just depended how she was feeling.
On this particular day — February 23, 2012 — she was in a deep sleep. The caretaker pulled me to the side. She said, “The hospice nurse came by. She said your mom’s body is trying to shut down and that’s a complicated process.” I felt my stomach drop. I knew this was coming. I also knew this was what mom wanted. On several occasions she had made this very clear. She was done fighting. She wanted peace. So I just nodded.
“The nurse says if it was anyone else, she’d only give them a couple of weeks — tops. But since your mom has defied their every prediction so far, they aren’t quite sure how much longer we have. She did say that we need to let her rest,” she finished. She was looking down at her shoes now. I let this sink in.
“You mean, I shouldn’t come by any more?” I queried, trying to get her to look at me.
“Yes,” she said, finally looking into my eyes. “She said every time you come by with all of the excitement you bring, you really wake her up. And then the process has to start all over. Your mom needs complete rest now. She needs no distractions and no interruptions.” Again, I nodded. This time I was the one looking at my shoes. I felt like I was being reprimanded and yet, I knew this was for the best.
So I went back to mom’s bedside. She was in a deep sleep, but it didn’t look enjoyable. She had the oxygen tube in her nostrils. Her face was drawn tight. Her breathing was so labored. I could tell she wasn’t getting a satisfying breath even with the oxygen. It looked so maddening. I held her hand and began speaking.
“They tell me I can’t come by anymore,” I said. I began crying.
“They say you need space and rest and me and my three-ring circus are anything but restful,” now I was chuckling through my tears.
“So I'm going to pack up and go. But if you need me, please don’t hesitate to have them call me. I’ll be here any time, Mom,” I reassured her. I had often received phone calls in the middle of the night because my mom wanted me. I promised her I would be there. That wasn’t going to change.
“I love you,” I said. This was difficult to get out. I think I knew on some level that it was the last time I would speak these words to her.
She was in a deep sleep, but her eyes flew open. Her mouth was caked shut as she hadn’t spoken in some time and she had the oxygen mask on earlier. She was unable to drink liquids without a huge battle at this point, so she was also dehydrated. She opened her mouth and said, clear as a bell, “I ... Love ... You ...” Then she closed her eyes. And I swear, the air in the room said, “Now don’t let the door hit you on the ass, dear.”
So I left.
The next morning at 6 a.m. my phone rang. It was my father. He said, “Our sweet Paula has left us, honey.” She was gone.
Recently, a friend I grew up with lost her father. His death was quick. I’m unclear on the specific nature of his ailments, but I believe it was a form of heart disease. It claimed his life in a short six weeks. I attended her father’s service. He too was able to open his eyes and clearly say, “I love you,” at the end. I find this remarkably merciful that these were the last words some of us have been able to hear before losing loved ones.
And so it's with great humility and pure love that I offer you this lesson: Please, never hesitate to say I love you. If you feel the words brewing, but there's some blockage (like fear or shyness or anger or belligerence) in your way, I beg of you: Plow right through that shit. You never know when it might be your only chance to utter those beautiful, magical words. It is a privilege; it’s a gift we’ve been given that we can say these words to one another. Never hesitate. Never pause. If you feel them, say them, speak them, sing them — whatever you have to do to honor the moment. You won’t regret it.