Death by Design

by Nancy Shobe

file0001845870441Mom told me only twice in 53 years she loved me and wrote it to me only a handful of times. Born in Detroit but bred British, she had adopted the stiff-upper-lip approach of our “over the pond” ancestors. She masked emotions behind a stoic face.

When my four siblings and I were children and we needed motherly love, we turned to Dad for his generous hugs and attention. If we brought up a problem to Mom, she would fold her arms across her chest and say, “This too shall pass” and “Carry on.”

I still remember Mom walking by my room, where I sat sobbing on my bed, a newly broken-up-with fifteen-year-old. “You’re still crying?” she asked. “Get over it.”

As Mom entered her sixties, she started doing things that seemed equally as uncomfortable to me as her unloving ways. She began sending us boxes filled with tchotchkes from the household. “We’re downsizing,” she said. “Who knows when we’ll go. I’ve sent a box to each of you with things you like, things I thought you might want.”

After the third box, I jokingly asked Mom if she were planning a trip to Kevorkian. She was healthy, still young. Why was she cleaning out the house when she and Dad probably had at least a good 25 years left? “I don’t want any fighting when we’re gone,” she said.

At family get-togethers, when Mom was out of earshot, we kids would gather around the table and laugh. We laughed because it hurt.

Next, we started receiving returned grandchildren photos. “Thank you for sharing them,” said the note tucked inside the return envelope. “I thought you might like to keep them for the kids’ photo files.”

About that time she also sent lists to me and my two older brothers—the names and addresses of Mom and Dad’s estate attorney, their bank account numbers, their doctors’ contact information, and their safe deposit box number. Then came the sale of their home, a move to a condo, and eventually a move to a retirement home. Next came a package with their will and advance care directives, and the addition of my brother’s name to Mom’s checking account. Like a commander in chief, Mom was always one step in advance of the enemy—the enemy being death.

A week before her 80th birthday, Mom “caught” a stomach bug that wouldn’t go away. I called her. She told me she didn’t feel well. The next morning when I called, she didn’t answer. No answer, again, later in the afternoon. “If she doesn’t answer the phone tonight, I’m calling 911,” I told my daughter. When no answer came, I began to call around trying to find her. It took me two hours to discover that Mom had called for an ambulance and checked herself into a hospital.

“I’m so sorry. I had no idea that your mom hadn’t talked to you,” said the apartment manager. “They wheeled her out this morning. She even handed me some birthday cards to mail for her, from the gurney on her way out.”

“Which hospital did she go to?” I asked. He didn’t know. “Which ones are close?”

“There are three,” he said. I jotted down notes.

I called until I found her, still in the emergency room. A nurse answered and handed the phone to Mom. “How did you find me?” Mom asked. She sounded so weak.

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“Because I didn’t want to worry you until I knew what was wrong. There’s no use any of you kids flying in until I had a diagnosis.”

The thought of Mom alone in the hospital unnerved me. Her friends were there, but still. This is exactly why I wanted her to move to California to live near me. But every time I had asked, she refused, saying she had been born in Michigan and would die there.

The doctors stabilized her. She went back home. Two weeks later, an ambulance picked her up again. This time we got the call. And this time, all five of us kids instinctively knew it was bad.

My little brother choked on the words as he teleconferenced the news. Diagnosis confirmed. Stage IV adenocarcinoma small-bowel cancer. Metastasized.

Because he was the one with a medical background, Mom put him in charge of the doctor’s call. My sister and I cried. My two older brothers were moved to silence by emotion.

“Who flies out?” I asked.

“I’ll fly out tomorrow,” my sister offered. “And I’ll stay for a week.”

“I’ll come in the day before you fly home,” I said.

And so it went. When I flew in a week later, Mom asked when I would be flying home. “Mom, I’m staying”—she looked at me—“until the end,” I choked out.

“Thank you,” she said. And then the words came out: “I love you.”

How I savored those words, rolling them lovingly around in my heart.

Mom wrote checks from her bed until her signature was no longer legible. Then my brother took over. Mom asked me to write a schedule of her treatments because she didn’t think the hospice nurses were properly handling them. I wrote the schedule, and she shook her head no and told me I didn’t have it right. I wrote it again. She nodded yes. She was still in charge.

Mom lost forty pounds; cheekbones appeared, her eyes sank deeper in their sockets. She was having trouble drinking water, so I bought her a sippy cup. “Isn’t this what Livvy uses?” Mom asked when I handed it to her. Livvy’s my granddaughter. I nodded. Mom sighed.

“Empty my apartment and get rid of it, please,” she commanded. Empty her apartment before she was dead? The thought made me sick.

But my sister and I undertook the task of sorting things, making phone calls for last requests, packing boxes and shipping them. We took items of curiosity to hospice and asked Mom for their meaning. We heard stories about Mom’s life that we would have never known, like what a porcelain penny doll was.

The last thing we cleaned out was Mom’s closet. Her scent still clung to her clothes. I scooped up some and inhaled them.

“Mom, your apartment’s gone,” I said the morning after cleaning out her apartment. “I turned in the keys.”

Mom looked down at her cup. “This is the first time in my life I don’t have an address,” she whispered.

The sippy cup wobbled and fell from Mom’s hands. I picked up ice from Mom’s lap and put the chips against her bluing lips.

As each day passed, oddly Mom began to look younger.

My sister came back for another two-week stint; my brothers came on weekends. We all marveled at how beautiful Mom was once again—youthful-looking. As she gave away things, including worry, she grew younger. Even the nurses commented on it. Acceptance of her fate erased her age by half.

“Considering there are five of you—it’s astonishing how you don’t fight,” said the hospice nurse to me one night. “We’ve had to call the police on families; children who are fighting over the money, fighting over who gets to sit next to Mom.”

“That’s because Mom made this easy for us,” I said. “She had everything planned.”

Mom passed away on Tax Day, under a “blood moon” eclipse and during a very unusual spring blizzard. A small robin pecked at her hospice window just hours before her death, as if trying to let out the old, stale winter and bring in spring again.

Saying “I love you” didn’t come easily to Mom during her life, but it did at the end. And perhaps that’s why she needed to live for six weeks in hospice.

“Why didn’t I die on the surgeon’s table?” Mom lamented a week before she passed.

“Because you were meant to be here to do this work,” I said. “Mom, you needed to be able to tell all of us you loved us. But perhaps even more importantly, you needed to know how much you’re loved.”

The final night before Mom died, I kissed her forehead and said, “I love you.” She whispered the words back. I could see her lips move, but the only word I could hear was “love.” It was the only one I needed to hear.

I knelt at the edge of Mom’s bed in the early morning, while it was still dark, and listened to her labored breathing. I began to sing to her. I sang the songs I remembered singing with her as a child, “My Favorite Things” and “Kumbaya.” I sang her a Native American prayer and recited Tibetan prayers. I massaged her arms and stroked her hands and told her I loved her, over and over, until it became her dying mantra.

At 5:30 a.m., five hours before she died, I clapped her hand to my heart and then put it back down onto the bed. Her fingertips folded up around the edge of my palm. I looked down at them and smiled. “I love you too, Mom,” I said.

I’d like to think it was her last good-bye, her last act of love.

But the truth is, her last act of love was having her dying, death, and “afterlife” perfectly planned. We siblings didn’t fight over her care or the estate or money, because we knew exactly what Mom wanted. And because there were no disagreements, Mom gave to all of us the greatest gift of love she could ever give—the one that she had always taught—to just carry on.


Category: Fiction, Short Story