dock at sunset

My mother died suddenly at age 75 after a brief period of intense illness early one morning. No one else was there except my father. When he was nearly 94 my father died when my brother and I were far away, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and we were unaware of his several hours of declining life signs. He was living in a nursing home, and the staff called my son, who was able to be present with him. He died, as his death certificate so elegantly phrased it, of “a failure to thrive.” I never spent a night with either of them, when they were seriously ill, although I have spent many nights with other seriously ill people, many of whom were dear to me.

I was not especially close to my father-in-law, although I had plenty of cause to respect him, but Jan and I were with him the hour that he died, after his year dealing with colon cancer in treatments of diminishing effectiveness. He appeared to be comatose when we arrived, but in the last moments of his illness he became alert and agitated. I said to him, “It’s all right, Lyle. You can let go now. We’ll soon be coming after you,” and whether it was the meaning or the tone or something inside himself, he relaxed and soon stopped breathing

Now Jan and I sit with my 92 year old mother-in-law through the second of two nights, staying at her bedside. We no longer fear that she may die at any moment, even though that can happen of course. She fell three days ago, where she had walked hundreds of times before, tripping into her walker and landing hard on her face. She broke a neck vertebra and two more farther down her back. The doctors’ advice ruled out surgery, and they put her in a neck brace that she will probably wear the rest of her days. The vertebra remains in alignment, but a bump or slip or twist could change that without the brace.

She is “banged up” with cuts, bruises, and swelling around her face and broken nose, but she is mostly comfortable until she tries to move, which, naturally, she has to do now and then. We supposed that sooner or later she would fall, possibly breaking the increasingly fragile bones in her legs or hips. She always finds ways to surprise us. What broke was her neck. Somehow she survived it, breaking it just enough to keep living. She doesn’t understand it. She doesn’t like the collar and wants to remove it. How she will keep going, doing what she has to do, and learn how to live with that brace, we do not know.

She has been my mother for 47 years, doing what mothers do, and doing it well. It must be my turn to watch, feel the pain with her when she hurts, and understand more deeply what it means to suffer with someone I love.