Jumping Off

My mother, getting ready to jump off


“If no one has bodies or faces in heaven, and we’re just energy, how will we recognize each other?”

I sit at my mother’s bedside, listening to her words about death and thinking that this is a funny question. She’s at the jumping-off place now and is curious about what’s going to happen when she dies. One would think that, after 92 years, a person would have made up her mind about these things, but not my mother. She’s still wondering about it all and still frightened.

“Well,” I say, “I’m not really sure how it all works, but I think everyone just knows.

“Your father visited me a while ago. He came up to the edge of the bed, dressed in a cape and hat — very unlike him! — and smiled at me. I don’t remember saying anything. We just looked at each other, and then he went away.” (My dad died in 1998.)

“I’ve heard that your loved ones will be there to greet you when you pass on,” I add. “You’ll see your mom and dad, and all the people you miss now. How would that be?”

“That would be wonderful! You make it sound like dying is a good thing.”

“Maybe it’ll be better than lying in this bed, day after day, being sick and unable to do anything. You can get back to dancing and singing and seeing clearly and …”

“I used to love to dance!”

My mother closes her eyes. I imagine that she’s picturing herself as a young woman in a Manhattan nightclub, gliding through the air in a handsome stranger’s arms, dancing until the wee hours of the morning.

While her eyes are still closed, I ask, “What are you thinking about, Mom?”

“I can see myself dancing. My body feels light and graceful. I feel beautiful and young.”

“That’s how I think you’ll feel once you are in heaven. No disease, no age, and no limitations.”

To be honest, I’m not sure what I think happens after we die, including the concept of heaven and hell, but I want to comfort my mother during my visit. I am determined to help her through the dying process and try to alleviate her fears of the unknown.

I think it’s working.

“Once I took a Tai Chi class at my apartment complex,” she says. “The teacher asked me to come to the front of the class and demonstrate how to do a certain step. I remember feeling very proud of myself. I really liked that feeling.”

Positive self-worth was never one of my mother’s strong points, so this was an important moment for her.

“Remember feeling good about yourself, Mom? Well, I think you always feel that way in heaven.”

She nods peacefully, eyes closed again.

After she snoozes for a bit, we sing a few songs together, like “When You’re Smiling” and “You Are My Sunshine.” I am amazed at her ability to remember lyrics. As she sings, I see a young woman on an old, grinning face.

With the last notes still hanging in the air, I walk out of her room and into the living room to see my sister, who has been taking care of my mother for over two years. I tell her all the things I’m saying so she has an idea of what I’m trying to do.

“That’s very nice,” she says, “and I’ve said some of these things to Mom before, but I wonder if she’ll remember them tomorrow. She’s not likely to, you know.”

Right before my mother was bedridden, she was in and out of dementia, couldn’t walk or see very well, and was quite frustrated at being unable to do simple tasks. Now that she’s in bed all the time, and is receiving hospice care as well as extra care from my sister, Mom seems much more clear-headed and calm, probably because everyone is doing things for her and she can relax.

The next morning, my sister and I walk into my mother’s room.

“Mom, do you remember what you and Joanne talked about yesterday?”

“Oh, yes,” she says, “definitely.” My mother turns her head and her rheumy eyes look right into mine. “I know what you’re trying to do for me, dear, and I appreciate it.”

Tears well up, and I say, “I’m trying to give you the gift of peace.”

I bend over my mother’s bed and kiss her goodbye for what we both know may be the last time.

I think it worked.

 


© 2011 Joanne Shwed

Originally written for CoastViews magazine

Received Honorable Mention in the Class 2 Senior Essay contest and was selected for inclusion in Carry the Light: Stories, Poems and Essays from the San Mateo County Fair (2012)

Featured in the South San Francisco Patch, the San Bruno Patch, the Pacifica Patch, and the Burlingame Patch