Saying goodbye.

September 18, 2020

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Terminal agitation. That is the hospice verbiage for the loud moans my mom was making from the bed in Sonya’s Margate home. The mattress she occupied was the very one she had slept on for many married years with my father, now of blessed memory. Though she would die of loneliness caused by COVID, by G-d, she would not die alone. As soon as my mom was diagnosed with pneumonia, she was released to her three daughters. Our hunger to touch her was feral—I hadn’t laid hands on her since early March. Getting her lungs filled with fluid was my mother’s last act of sheer defiance. Somewhere inside her befuddled mind, she knew that was the metaphorical gate left open.

My dad had died in their living room 18 months ago, surrounded by his wife and daughters. We would now create the same setting for my beautiful little bird, Sylva.

When the ambulance drivers, so young and damp with sweat, carried her to the sunny Yankee baseball blue chamber, rearranged so that she could gaze at the sky and daisies, I was relieved she was still breathing. Now, there would be only oxygen and morphine in this, her last, resting place. Our instructions were clear and unselfish. Sonya, the elder wand, and keeper of all memories, was the POA and like any accomplished teacher, insisted on following the rules perfectly. Vanessa, the youngest, would once again escort a parent to the next world with as little suffering and as much comfort only a pediatric oncology nurse could muster. And I, an exhausted trial lawyer, had no argument to make. The verdict was in and there could be no appeal. We were out of time.

We took shifts—which is to say, we all sat for hours on the bed together encircling my tiny mommy as we chanted like a coven of witches. Alas, we had no spells. An aerial view would reveal a mystical ring of energy so hot and bright that no earthly fatigue could snuff it out. We prayed, we wove stories, we laughed so hard that we snorted, and we sang off key. She was there with us, even if her eyes were gazing elsewhere. We even danced like the living dead. Sonya Pandoraed Doris Day so loud that my mother’s last audible words ironically and prophetically were “Que sera, sera. 

During my shift, I laid with this broken, peeping lark propped against me who was making bitty peeps. I called my husband, who I hadn’t seen for days, to catch him up. As I placed the phone to my mom’s recently moisturized lips (the one job I was entrusted with!), he could hear her rattled breathing (the “rales”) and all was quiet on the other end. “ Jack? Are you there?” Then a low, husky voice tiptoed in with a stock phrase that failed to disguise. “Let’s go over the palliative care plan,” he finally came up with. Vanessa, our minister of mercy, got on the phone to make her report. We all have our roles. Jack puts broken things back together gorgeously. Not being able to do that this time was his penance. 

The bewitching hour struck, and slumber found us. Well, some of us. There would be no sleep for the night shift daughter however, as she hourly medicated, flipped, poked, and massaged her beloved patient. Never has a nurse so loved her invalid. Never would a sufferer be so tenderly handled.

On the night before Sylva’s final adieu, I dreamt of reluctantly acquiescing to sing three songs in front of a packed audience. In the dream, which I feel is more akin to a nightmare, I was as I am now. Older and completely tone deaf. In no waking world, would I agree to remember lyrics, let alone bellow them out publicly. Regardless of my protests, the pianist nodded at me as I approached the microphone with swelling anxiety. The curtain lifted to a packed house, and I awoke. 

Finding my way down the dark hallway where the oxygen tank hummed like a noise machine gone berserk, I found my mother, ever shrinking in the sheets, completely embraced by her lover, the hospice nurse (who had apparently abandoned all professional protocol and returned to her place in the womb as the baby of the family). 

What I know is this—we ultimately have no control over the big stuff and must let go. But we can love. And the only way to love is to love thickly. For “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” (Toni Morrison). Just as I’ve never sung before an audience, I never lived in a world without my mommy.

But the curtain is rising, and I just woke up. 

Lisa Bertini is the immediate past chair of the Holocaust Commission.

- Lisa Bertini

Letter to the Editor