Sitting in the hospital next to my sleeping mother. In sleep, her face draws back and tightens against her skull, her skin, usually flaccid and wrinkled, is smooth and shiny. Her mouth hangs slightly open. As long as I can remember, Mom has snored. Sometimes between them, she and Dad were like a point-counterpoint duet when they slept. When they stayed at one of our early houses, the futon they shared was just across the wall from Beve's and my headboard. Their two-throated snores kept made me toss and turn all night. But now, there is no sound coming from her, and the only movement is the slight rising and falling of her chest. The last time I saw a person with such taut skin, sallow coloring and almost noiseless breathing was the last week of my mother-in-law's life. I thought then that her face was unwrinkled because of her strong Norwegian skin, beautiful and smooth. My mother's skin is usually flaccid and covered with harsh frown lines, and tiny pleats crisscross the whole of it. And it strikes me that a prominent skeleton beneath the skin must be a prophet of winter.
Three of my siblings are sharing this arduous week with me. The last time only this particular configuration of siblings was together without other members of our large family was the day our father died. In our deeply shocked state, we drove around this town together in my sister's van, and could hardly speak. The backbone of our lives had only been gone for a few hours, and we were barely able to walk. Just as we veered left around a corner and came in sight of our large house up the hill, I said, "The word of the day is 'shit!'" Now I'm not a swearer. In fact, it's possible that was the first time I'd actually said that word outloud. But that first orphaned afternoon, we threw open every window of van and screamed the word at the top of our lungs--"SHIT!"
Last night, we sat in a bar (also something I never do) and I reminded them of that moment. We laughed, but here we are again, dealing with a parental crisis. There is no imminent death here, presumably...at least not today. But the end of this life is in sight. That much is clear. Even now, the person sitting in that bed only resembles our mother in the superficial. The other day, one of the nurses told me they didn't mind working with her, even though her 'conversation' is impossible to follow, her words ramblingly incoherent. "She's so sweet," this young woman said. I cocked my head like a puzzled dog, not quite understanding the sentence. It was the first time in my life anyone has called my mother sweet, and it's the last characteristic I would imbue her with. But when I thought about this woman, the one lying in the cranked up bed, really is a sweet old woman. She wants to please, doesn't want to be a problem, and even her confusion is rather endearing. Every time she goes to sleep, she wakes up disoriented, tries to remember where she is and why, thinks of her legs as separate from herself. Every so often, she deep sighs, or twists her face into its frowning repose, and I recognize my real mother beneath the skin of this softer version. In those moments, I instinctively cringe and turn away. It was that mother I have struggled with all my life. Sadly, that woman is the one who will return to me at the end of the day, that woman I will carry into my post-mom life.
It's just the opposite of the way many people feel about loved-ones at the end of their lives. They want to forget the querulous, petulant old person, and remember the dearly-loved sweet one. I wonder what it would be like to feel this way about my mother. How it would feel to know the real self of this person is their best version. But this will not be with my mom. So I pray today that I can also hold these last images, these days when she is gentle, thankful, like a child.
And as I pray for that, I pray that the best version of myself is one I'm growing into, not one that will only come when my head empties of itself. I pray that the further up and into the Kingdom I go, more of Jesus will be seen in this flesh than me.