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The Death Rattle

Updated on January 30, 2016
Still wearing her favorite, a red jacket.
Still wearing her favorite, a red jacket.

At 3:30 PM, 16 June 2014, I was holding my mother’s shoulders and singing, “Once there was a silly old ram; thought he’d punch a hole in the dam…” when she stopped breathing.

I’ve been crying for six weeks now, since I put her under hospice care, and I still can’t stop crying.

I get so angry at myself – the one who never cries. And now, when I finally fulfilled my promises to her to have a quality life or end it, I still cannot accept the inevitability of a long life of 90 years quietly ending.

I knew when I got up that morning that she was in great distress. The nurse, aide and social worker all warned me – that was her hast day. They each spoke to Mom about letting go, going to join her husband and son. But I couldn’t stop crying. I wanted to be strong for Mom and also guide her into the next world, but I couldn’t stop crying.

When I was a kid, and Mom was sick, she would ask me to read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to her. I had a copy of Aesop’s Fables with me; they are much shorter, so her dementia-riddled brain could hold on to them, and they were much more cheerful than the Grimm brothers. So I read fable after fable whenever we were alone.

Finally, when all visitors were gone and my daughter was away shopping, I talked with Mom. I didn’t say the things the hospice people said – had to stick to my own script. I talked about my belief that she would move on to a different life; these struggles and trials are over, but I don’t know what the new life would bring. I told her I believed my brother Gary had moved on to a new life back in ’98. I told her I believed that her karma had been healed by the many acts of her life since Dad died. I sang Sinatra to her – she loved Old Blue Eyes and his music. But I couldn’t remember the lyrics. I sang the opening verse, “When I was 21, it was a very good year…” but then had to skip to “…but now the days are short; I’m in the autumn of the year…” I noticed a tear escaping her right eye. Maybe that got through.

In that last hour her breathing eased. She kept closing her mouth (something she refused to do for the last couple of days), seeming to try to say my name, as her eyes focused on my face. I told her it was okay – we’d said what needed to be said already, but I will still be here as long as she needs me. She would stop breathing for seconds at a time, then take a clear breath in. Then, in the middle of that silly song I sang and cried, she didn’t take a new breath. The death rattle had ended.

And still I cry.

© 2016 Bonnie-Jean Rohner


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