When you lose your mother

When You Lose Your Mother

I can’t tell you exactly why I photographed each of my parents dead in their beds. It seemed important not to let such a moment go undocumented. What if you wanted it back. What if you wanted to see your mother slurp soup one last time, like she did that last day, when she was barely alive?

As soon as I saw her, I knew she was dying. Her hands were swollen to twice their usual size — their long elegance replaced by swollen fruits. Her mouth was open, her eyes closed, and she made a sort of low moaning sound that reminded me of a sound I’d make if I were trying to manage great pain, or a great process, like labor. A doctor came and took her pulse. It was so low that protocol required that she be transported from the nursing home to the hospital. I begged mercy. My mother needed to be done. Done with hospitals, with nursing homes, done with the long process of dying. It had already been years. The doctor said she would let her be, if my siblings all agreed.

I lay my chest to my mother’s chest and kissed her cheek and whispered ‘I love you’ in her ear.

A health aide bustled into the room and wanted to give my mother some soup. I was annoyed by the interruption and wanted to wail: Soup? You think she is going to eat soup? Have you looked at her fruit hands? Heard her ancient dying sounds?

“I don’t think she is in any condition to eat,” I sniffed.

“She will eat,” smiled the lady, sphinx-like. “She loves to eat. You’ll see.”

Did these ladies own my mother now? Had I given up claim to her by not being here enough? Had they stepped in to rub her feet and feed her soup? I took my shame down the long linoleum hall, past the occasional wafts of human excrement and disinfectant, to the family room to call my siblings. On the way back another health aide greeted me. “You must be Barbara’s daughter,” she said. “You look just like her!”

This was unnerving. Everything here was unnerving: the fluorescent lights; the elementary school decorations adorning the hallways; the fact that patient names were written on white boards on the bedroom doors, so easily erased. Before I arrived, someone had parted my mother’s silver hair straight down the middle, and made two tiny French braids starting at the crown and traveling back towards her ears in a deep V. I admit she looked cool, like an ancient Nordic princess, with her high cheekbones and long nose. But I didn’t like it. It was nothing like what my mother would ever have worn. It looked like she was being dressed for a ritual.

When I retuned to her room, Mom was propped up against her pillows, a towel draped across her chest and lap, slurping soup off a spoon held patiently to her lips. She was not passive about it. Her lips actively searched for the spoon she could no longer see, like a baby searching for a nipple, eager for the flavor, eager for the nourishment, the pleasure of the weak broth on the warm spoon. She sucked the soup into her mouth, feeding herself, feeding her body.

I was stunned to see this. My mother was too frail to speak more than a word or two, too frail to keep her eyes open, barely alive, yet she here she was, eating soup. Was this the body’s reflexive drive to live, or was this my mother’s determination to stay? Her desire for comfort? For one last pleasure?

When it was time for me to go that evening, I lay my chest to my mother’s chest and kissed her cheek and whispered “I love you” in her ear. She could no longer form crisp words, but sort of sang it back to me, in three syllables, so I understood.

My mother didn’t see another dawn; by dawn she would be dead, her silver hair brushed out on the pillow. I’d taken out the braids before I Ieft, and dampened her hair, and smoothed out the kinks. Now I wished I hadn’t. Now, in the photo I secretly took when my siblings and family finally left the room, and that I secretly keep on my phone, she just looks like a little old lady, dead in her bed. Now I wish I had sent her off with her silver warrior braids intact. I wish I’d dressed her in deerskins and beads, given her a bow and arrow made of birch and silver and a white fur blanket, and a thermos full of soup.

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Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

12 Responses

  1. Elise Pettus

    What a beautiful story! And what a great face she has in that photo. Thank you for this one.

  2. Linda B

    Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your profound experiences of your mother’s death, and my deep condolences to you. I understand your experience so well; I lost my mother 15 months ago, and can easily relate to how it felt for you. My mom also passed around dawn, alone in her bed at the small care facility where she was in hospice. I went there straight away when they called to tell me. Like you, I took a picture of my mother, reposing peacefully as if in sleep. . .

    I lost my father 23 days ago to Covid; our farewell was over FaceTime two days before, with my siblings also on the call from out of state. My brother and brother-in-law both thought to take screen shots of that final conversation. Amazingly, Dad pulled himself to consciousnesses and we will never forget his last “I love you.”

    It is a comfort to have those last photos. I hope you will feel that way about the ones you took. It is really hard to lose one parents, even when they are old and it is time. . . It will take time for our hearts to heal.

  3. Hilary Richards

    We are so bad at death – and this piece shows us how to say goodbye, how inadequate anything we do is, but how necessary. Thank you, Sarah. Your words are moving, true, and teach us sentence by sentence about the importance of ritual, imaginary or actual, in the farewell. Bravo!

  4. Megan McAllister

    I was deeply moved by this recollection, which so perfectly captures the tender, surreal, and unsettling nature of watching a parent slip away. Thank you!

  5. Beth G

    Sarah, you capture exactly what it feels like to be in the presence of someone who is slipping away. It’s impossible to wrap our minds around the reality that this person you know so well will no longer be with you. The braids, the slurping soup. And to be surrounded by people who are experts on dying, like they know your own mother better than you do!
    When the hospice nurse removed my sister’s insulin pump as she lay dying of lung cancer, I looked at her as if she had just committed murder. “She needs that!” I said, horrified. The nurse just continued to calmly pat my sister’s graying hand and reminded me that you only need insulin if there’s food to break down. Karen hadn’t eaten in days. And I’m also grateful for the photo I took of her, lying in a hospital bed in her living room. I don’t look at it often, but I’m glad to know that the memory of such a difficult day is preserved.
    So glad I’m not alone in my experience!

  6. Arline Epstein

    Sarah! You look unflinchingly at one of the profoundly sad milestones of life with a clear-eyed vulnerability that invites us in. Your stunningly crafted words and images both ground us and lift us up. Thank you!

  7. Sarah Balsley
    Sarah Balsley

    Linda, I can’t imagine how wrenching it must have been to have a FaceTime farewell. I’m so sorry for your loss, and send hope that your heart has time to heal. Thank you for reading, and for sharing your experience.

  8. TM

    Wow, this is stunning. What a beautiful unexpected read. We don’t talk enough about this thing that happens to all of us and never ever in a way that somehow manages to connect the linoleum realities of a nursing home with the poetry of a tribal send off. Lovely! More please.

  9. Amy Barr
    Amy Barr

    Excellent. I hope you’re not offended when I tell you that I took a picture of my dead dog in her bed just after she passed. It was a completely spontaneous gesture fueled by love and the urge to remember her in her final moment of peace. I’ve never shown it to anyone lest they think I’m weird. But after reading your piece, I feel completely normal and understood.

  10. Evelyn Squadrille

    I remember my sister and I unhappy with mom’s makeup and hair so we carefully redid her hair and applied blush on the apples of her cheeks, I outlined her lips with her favorite shade of lip color making sure I highlighted her Cupid’s bow, then my sister sprayed perfume on her and on us…

  11. Nancy Sheed

    Such a wonderful sentiment for such a difficult time. Thank you for making even heartbreaking moments feel magical and special.


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