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My Mother’s Last Words

In the last moments of her life before crossing over, a woman’s mother struggled to speak. But what was she trying to say?

music sheet

What is it, mom?” I said, bending down close to the hospital bed in our living room.

All day, Mom had been trying to tell me something. Again I put my ear near her, listening for words. None came. Finally Mom stopped trying to talk. I held her hand and watched her eyelids flutter, then close.

Lord, let her sleep. Give her peace. Mom slowly drifted off. The rise and fall of her chest as she took in oxygen from the tank beside her was the only sign that she was still alive.

For more than 15 years Mom had battled breast cancer. But during the last few months the disease prevailed, first confining her to bed and now, in these last few days, rendering her so weak that even talking was a struggle.

Our pastor’s words to me earlier that day came back. “Your mom’s in the final stages,” she had said. “What she needs from you now is just your presence, and your love. Be strong for her, and help her accept what’s happening.”

Acceptance. Mom knew a lot about that. Years before, she’d set up Dad’s bed in the living room archway just as hers was now. She’d held Dad’s hand in his final hours, and when the moment came when he left us, she was there to get me through it. “Your father’s in a better place now, sweetie,” she’d said, her arms wrapped around me like they’d never let go. “He’s gone home to the Lord.”

Suddenly Mom’s eyes opened again and she reached for my hand. “It’s okay, Mom. I’m here.” I took the Bible from Mom’s bedside table and opened it. I read some verses from Psalms aloud. Mom was again struggling to say something. Her lips moved. I still couldn’t make out what she was saying.

Lord, help me to calm her.

Music. Mom loved music. All kinds, from hymns to big band. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” she’d sing on Sunday afternoons while the spaghetti sauce bubbled on our stove. She was always off key and sometimes she mixed up the verses, but to me it was beautiful to hear, familiar and reassuring.

Every year Mom and I would make a pilgrimage to New York City to see some musicals. Fiddler on the Roof, Sunset Boulevard, Beauty and The Beast, Phantom of the Opera… altogether, Mom and I had seen 17 Broadway shows over the years. We’d take ourselves out to the Russian Tea Room afterward, still humming melodies from whatever show we’d seen. Sometimes Mom would break into song right there in the crowded restaurant. Off key, of course.

Now I flipped through the CDs in our collection till I found one of Mom’s favorites, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and put it on softly in the background. This will calm her, I thought.

Yet Mom still looked at me with that imploring expression. I took her hand again. What is it, Mom? What do you want to tell me? The CD played on. Slowly Mom loosened her grip on my hand. Her breathing became slower and deeper and I knew life was slipping away like a wave receding into the sea.

“Mom,” I said, my face up close to hers, “I want you to know. You’re my hero.” Her eyes closed, her features relaxed. Our dog, Darcy, and our cat, Jazzy, came into the room and stood at the foot of the bed. And that was how Mom died, with all of us around her.

Those first days after Mom’s passing I told myself I was taking it all in stride—being strong the way she had after Dad died. I made funeral arrangements and closed out her affairs. Then, as life returned to normal, I had trouble sleeping through the night. Even with the pills my doctor prescribed I could only count on grabbing an hour or two before the alarm went off.

One thing nagged at my mind, refusing to let me rest. What was Mom trying to say to me that last day? Through the sleepless hours, and even in my dreams, I wrestled with that question, seeing her lips move wordlessly. Lord, I have to know what she was trying to tell me if I’m to move on.

I left the television on all night. The dim noise and chatter kept my thoughts from overwhelming me. One evening I set the TV sleep timer for 4:00 a.m.—praying I’d be sound asleep by then—and fell into bed. For the first time in weeks, I drifted right off.

I opened my eyes not knowing what time it was. The TV was on, infusing the room with cathodic blue light. I sat up and focused on the screen. A young woman in a hospital bed. She closed her eyes and a man walked away sadly. Is she dying? I wondered. Then, a face I recognized appeared on the screen: Reba McEntire. Must be a country music video. I peeked at the clock—3:35 a.m. I laid my head down and immediately fell back asleep. The TV would shut itself off at four.

The next morning I turned on the television to check the weather. Down in the corner of the screen, I noticed the station logo: Country Music Television. What’s it doing there? I thought. I didn’t know we got that channel. Suddenly, the memory of the woman in the hospital bed, and of Reba McEntire’s face, came back to me. I couldn’t shake it. I was still thinking about the video when I got to work. Which Reba song was it? During my coffee break I searched the Internet for clues. I found Reba’s site and clicked on fans comments.

“I loved the video for ‘What Do You Say,'” the first entry read. “It’s so sad yet touching when the mother dies.”

I rushed over to the music store on my lunch hour and found Reba’s new CD. I slipped the disc into my car’s CD player. Midway through “What Do you Say,” I pulled off the road. I didn’t want to miss a single word. “Her every breath is weaker than the last. And lately when she sleeps she talks about the past.” The words coming through the speakers sent a chill up my spine. “She looks up at him,” the song continued, “and says, ‘I want to go home.'”

I didn’t fight the tears. My hand clenched as if I could hold Mom’s one last time. Even with her dying breath Mom was still trying to reassure me, just as she always had. She wanted to tell me that she was going home. To Dad. And to the Lord, who’d used one of Mom’s joys of life, a simple popular song, to let me know.

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