dealing with death

Illustration: Julien Pacaud

8 of 8
Everything Is Illuminated
My mother never wanted anyone to have to take care of her. "Just send me out on an ice floe," she'd say. In the five years she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, she went to chemo, shopped for wigs, managed her insurance bills, and still made herb-stuffed chicken nearly every week for her and my dad. Then, abruptly, her oncologist said there was nothing more they could do. Two, maybe three months, he said.

Yet within a week, she no longer had the energy to shop or cook. She would sit in a chair, holding her head, staring and thinking.

It was a Sunday when she collapsed while walking upstairs. Hospice set up a bed in the den, where a wall of windows looked onto the snow-covered yard. On Tuesday, an aide taught me how to roll her from one side to the other to change the sheets. On Wednesday, a nurse showed me how to place a syringe between her cheek and molars so the bitter-tasting morphine could drip down her throat.

I'd shared nearly everything with my mom—probably too much. She could turn the knife, but she was usually right, and she loved me no matter what. She was the person I called when I broke up with a boyfriend ("He was wet behind the ears," she said) and when my first article got published ("Mazel tov! Now keep writing"). Sometimes I called simply to hear her voice.

And now I couldn't make her better the way she'd made me better. I read her Shakespeare and Robert Burns, but she struggled to stay awake. I made ice pops out of grape juice, crushed them, and spoon-fed her the pieces, but by Friday she could no longer swallow. No matter what I did, my mother was going to die.

When I was little, after my mom had tucked me in, I'd close my eyes, hold my breath, and try to imagine death. The thought scared me so badly, I'd scream, "I don't want to die!" and run to her.

As I watched her sleep, I wondered whether I could bear being in the room when it happened. One week after her initial collapse, she slipped into unconsciousness. My sisters and I stayed up through the night, watching for the signs that the end was near: Her breathing became shallow. Her skin cold. Her extremities had gone purple. The room was silent, save the hum of the oxygen machine; early morning light filled the space. My mother was still. There was no more attempting to move her, no more coming and going. Nothing needed to be done.

"We should say the Sh'ma for her," my oldest sister said. The Sh'ma is a Hebrew prayer that is supposed to be the last thing a Jew utters before dying. Because my mom could no longer speak, we spoke it for her.

Then my sister whispered, "You're also supposed to open a window to allow the spirit to leave." My mom didn't believe in an afterlife, but we cracked open a window just in case, then repeated the Sh'ma on the off chance she'd heard us talking.

I held her hand. Her breathing became slower, like a mechanical toy whose mechanism has begun to wind down. I watched as delicate breaths caught in her mouth—an inhale, a pause, an exhale, an inhale, a longer pause, an exhale. Then nothing. I stared for several seconds before I understood that I'd just witnessed my mother's last moment on earth.

I had imagined she would say a final word. But her passing was no less profound for its silence. As I watched the woman who gave birth to me die, the unknown became known. I had the answer I'd wanted since I was a little girl: Death is a part of life.

I thought the mother I'd relied upon had left us earlier that week. I thought she'd offered all the wisdom, all the comfort, she could. But I was wrong. Even with her last breath, she still had more to give.

— Naomi Barr