Recently, I started reading Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a collection of questions and answers on love and life from the advice column called Dear Sugar.
The very first question and answer in the book made me cry. Hard. It still gets to me when I think of it.
The actual question is irrelevant here, what is important is Dear Sugar’s answer in which she talks about the last word her mother ever said to her and her pain over not being present when her mother died from cancer.
The last word my mother ever said to me was “love” … The last thing that happened between us would always be the last thing. There would be the way I bent to kiss her and the way she said, “Please, no,” when I got close because she couldn’t any longer bear the physical pain of people touching her. There would be the way that I explained I’d return in the morning and the way she just barely nodded in response. There would be the way I got my coat and said, “I love you,” and the way she was silent until I was almost out the door and she called, “love.” And there would be the way that she was still lying in that bed when I returned the next morning, but dead.
My mother’s last word to me clanks inside me like an iron bell that someone beats at dinnertime: love, love, love, love, love.
~ Cheryl Strayed in Tiny Beautiful Things
I was present when my mom died on Oct. 7, 2006, in a room in the intensive care unit where she’d been for about 18 days. She’d gone to the hospital because of pain (which they never found a cause of) and developed double pneumonia on her second day there. She had advanced emphysema and her body just couldn’t overcome the infection.
So while I don’t have to agonize over not being there when she passed, I have the pain of watching someone take her last breath. I hope I never witness that again.
Still, even rawer is the fact that I don’t remember the last words my mom said to me, or my last words to her.
I asked my stepdad if he remembers the last words she said to him. “Yes,” he said after thinking for about 10 seconds. “She said, ‘Help me.’ ”
Well, dammit, I hated to realize that “help me” very well could have been the last thing she said to me too. Not really want I wanted the last words to be, especially knowing how sad those words made me. She’d had a terrible day because the tube helping her breathe was making her so uncomfortable and so thirsty, she kept calling out for us to help her. It was heartbreaking and was one of the reasons I didn’t spend the night at the hospital that night.
While I was sleeping at my parents’ house, we got a call in the middle of the night that she was asking for my stepdad. By the time he got to the hospital, though, the nurses had sedated her. She never talked to us again.
For years I thought that this bothered me so much because I didn’t get to say goodbye to her. I eventually realized that it had more to do with the fact that she didn’t say goodbye to me.
If you want to read more about my mom, here’s a post I wrote about things I wish I’d talked to her about before she died.