By Andrea Mullenmeister
A swath of springtime sun filtered through the curtains and bathed my mom in dust motes as she rocked back and forth in the chair. Her yellow skin clung to her cheek bones, and she smiled.
“I’ve decided to put the hospice bed here so I can look out the window and see the lilacs bloom,” she said. Every morning, she looked out to the gangly bushes with anticipation, and every morning their stubborn buds failed to burst.
“Hopefully tomorrow, mom,” I told her, pretending I thought she would make it.
Five days after she decided to live for the lilac bloom, she surprised me.
“Let’s have a party,” she announced. She could barely get out of bed. She hadn’t eaten for days. Her skin was grayish now, and her cheeks were hollow. It really didn’t seem like the best time to host a party.
“Well, we do love parties in this family,” I conceded, “but I don’t know…”
“We’re doing it,” she interrupted. I think she was afraid that the cancer that was killing her body was also killing her legacy – she needed to know people hadn’t forgotten about her, that she still mattered.
So, I began planning my mom’s final party.
We invited everyone she knew to her “living wake.” Would anyone come? Not many people are comfortable with an obvious manifestation of death, and here death was, laying in a hospice bed waiting for lilacs and parties.
The morning of the party mom’s eyes were slits, and her body was motionless. I stared at the long list of RSVP’s and I got nervous. Did we really want 100 people in our house right now? “Are you sure you still want to have the party?” I asked.
“Yes. Party,” she said. Her voice cracked and I sponged water on her lips.
Those were the last words she ever spoke to me.
Long afternoon shadows climbed through the window and the dust danced. Visitors poured through the door. The sound of jokes and laughter mixed seamlessly with quiet reminiscing and tears. Her wake was exactly how she had lived her life, filled with people and activity. But instead of fluttering around, laughing and talking with her friends, mom slept on the hospice bed, breathing but unresponsive to the party that was happening in her honor.
Early the next morning, my brother and sister and I sat next to our mom’s bed. Mom had told us over and over that she wasn’t afraid to die. She was only 53 years old, but had made peace with her early demise. She had lived her bucket list and made amends. During the two years since her diagnosis, she had made the journey to God. She believed in Him and in angels. She felt safe.
As we sat around her, each lost in our own thoughts, she suddenly sat up for the first time in days. Her arms reached towards something we could not see. She frantically grabbed and clawed at the air around her. Was she afraid now that death was closing in? She moaned and reached towards the window.
The lilacs. They hadn’t bloomed yet.
Mom slumped back in bed, defeated. Her labored breathing began to slow…gurgle, huhhh…just when we thought it might be the end, her chest would rise again in a futile rally cry of “please, just one more day.”
I whispered “It’s ok mom. We’ll be ok. You can go now if you’re tired.”
The gentle spring rain splattered the window and eventually, she just stopped. We didn’t realize it at first because it was so peaceful but then a thunder clap rattled the windows and the skies opened up and it began to pour. She was gone. Gusting wind ravaged the budding lilac bushes outside and the curtain of rain couldn’t compare to our tears.
The next morning, I awoke exhausted and red-eyed. I looked out the window and stared at the brilliant purple flowers that bounced lazily in the breeze. The goddamn lilacs had bloomed. I threw my pillow at the window. Once my favorite flower, the lilacs were mean and ugly in the wake of my loss.
Cancer robbed my mom, and me, of so much more than just the lilac bloom.
Four months later, on my wedding day, I laid a white flower on my mom’s empty chair as I walked down the aisle.
Three years after that, I slumped next to my son’s incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit. The sounds of the NICU pierced my soul and a nurse elbowed me out of the way while she tried to convince my one-pound baby to breathe. I slunk into the background and stared out the window wondering if my child would ever feel the sun on his skin or smell the lilac bloom.
I haven’t held you yet, little boy. I haven’t even loved you.
His tiny chest rose and fell with mechanical precision now; the ventilator was doing the work of living for him. His labored breathing…whoosh, wheesh…filled the room and I wished I had ear plugs. I didn’t want to listen to another person die.
The sharp sting of grief scavenged my emotions, tricking me into believing I wasn’t worthy of being a mother anyway. “You can’t do this,” said Fear. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Doubt chimed in with a vengeance. Even if my son lived, how would I raise him without my own mother to help?
I glanced into my son’s incubator, a tangle of wires and tubes hid his face, but each heartbeat lit up his transparent skin with the bright reminder of blood and life. His tiny foot kicked a tunnel through the wires and flailed into the air.
“Just one more day!” his tiny body screamed with a force that knocked the wind out of me. My son was alive. This was not that rainy spring day where life lost. This was a bright summer day where life was winning.
Just yesterday, that same little boy bounced over to me, laughter bubbling from every inch of his healthy, strong body. The gold flecks in his gray eyes shone like the rays of sunshine that streamed through the window. His tornado-like entrance stirred up all the dust and the particles twirled. His pointy chin jutted proudly like mine does and like his grandmother’s did.
Mom was worried people would forget about her after she died. But no one has forgotten, least of all me. The dust settled on the window sill and I ran my finger through the thin coating, leaving a lasting impression.
Butterflies danced in the springtime breeze and fluttered in and out of our view. Even though they disappeared from our sight, we knew they were still there. “Look mom.” My boy pointed to a branch, bursting with fragrance and color.
The lilacs had bloomed.
Andrea Mullenmeister writes about her family’s story of love, hope, and survival at www.AnEarlyStartBlog.com. Her essays about motherhood, prematurity, and parenting a child with extra needs have been featured nationally.