Mom, it’s a Wednesday afternoon and I am sitting in your wheelchair, bumped up against the couch, watching you sleep. A spring rain is speckling the cement of the back patio. Dozens of tulips that Dad planted for you are just starting to show their green bulbs, the fireplace is warm behind me, and the house, this house in which you raised six rowdy children, is quiet.
I am listening to you breathe, watching your eyelashes tremble, as you drift even deeper. Into sleep that will rest your body and brain, renew where possible. And maybe, after you nap, I will be able to sit you up and feed you lunch, talk to you for a few minutes.
You don’t say much these days. I know you can hear me, you understand, and sometimes a full sentence comes spilling out. But mostly, when I ask if you are comfortable, hungry, or if you’re finished on the toilet, there is nothing. If I am patient enough to wait out the silence, eventually, you answer. Brief and succinct. Like, “yes,” “that’s good,” “how nice,” or “I don’t think so.”
Your smiles are infrequent, your laughter less, and our conversations mostly one-way.
It was last week when I realized you weren’t laughing as we went through the rigamarole of wrangling you in and out of the bathroom, moving your limbs for you, hoisting you onto the couch. And a new pang of sadness swept over me. I hadn’t heard you laugh in a while and I realized how much I missed that sound. That sight of tiny tears creasing the corners of your eyes as you laughed and laughed and laughed.
You’ve been so good at not taking yourself too seriously. You’ve chuckled at Dad’s silly jokes, let us lift, push, and rearrange your limp body. And despite your dependence on all of us, you’ve never complained. (Except when you became hyperglycemic and we wouldn’t let you eat any more Toblerone.)
It was you who taught me to listen with empathy, to try and see the perspective of the person speaking. You taught me never to let a friend laugh alone. Such a let-down to share something you found hilarious with someone and have it fall flat because they don’t see the humor in it, right? That was never the case with you. What was funny to me, was always funny to you.
On this morning’s run, my friend, Rebecca, asked about your first brain tumor, and she let me talk. I told her about the day I got the phone call. How I was living in Jerusalem. Remember that sacred place, Mom? Of course you do. That glistening limestone. The golden, holy city. I was only 20 and the news devastated me. I didn’t know a single person with cancer. And when people did get cancer, they didn’t seem to live long. But there was hope in your voice that day. Faith in your words.
You survived two major surgeries, and come April, you and Dad arrived in Jerusalem. I got word you were at the Jerusalem Gate Hotel and I could not wait. I left the student center alone, took a taxi to your hotel, and walked into the lobby. I saw your straw hat before you saw me. You and Dad were sitting at a table and I began walk-running towards you. As I moved into the dining area, you lifted your head, and our eyes locked. We ran to each other. Threw our arms around each other, Dad capturing us both. That embrace was one of the sweetest of my life. Wrapped with more gratitude and grace than any other. You were only 48.
Now, you are 69. And we’ve had all those glorious years. Of missions, marriages, births of grandchildren, travels, temples, talks, and tears. Every reason to live with joy and thankfulness.
Before you fell asleep today, I tried reading to you. The Savior’s words. The most simple of verses, in a voice I knew you would recognize. “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid” (Mark 6:50). We looked at each other, you spoke nothing, you did not smile, but light passed between us, and I could no longer read aloud for the emotion in my throat. We knew something in that single, tender moment:
Jesus, the lover of your soul, is still with you. Jesus, the One who extended your years, healed you two decades ago, and taught our family the power of miracles, has not stopped working in your life. Yes, it is Him, as he said. He is here. In this half-way place. This in-between heaven and earth in which you drift. He is your comfort. Your calm. Your strength to continue unafraid. This truth, you have also taught me.
I fold all my emotion neatly inside, and begin reading again. A second verse, a third verse, and by the fourth, your eyes are closed. I slowly stop talking. You are as beautiful as you will ever be to me, Mom. This day, this moment. With your peach blanket tucked under your chin. The swell and fall of your chest as it rhythmically rises. The red in your round cheeks.
I am here.
He is here.
And you are still here.
Dark clouds from the west swing in upon your apricot blossoms. A wild wind steals those translucent, white petals. One at a time. Just how we are losing you. One small piece. And then another.
You wake briefly and comment on the thunder. Then your eyes flutter and close. I watch you, and love you. While you are sleeping.