I was twenty-one when word came from another airman that I was being summoned to the squadron commander. In my gut, I knew why I was being requested. I hastily packed my training books away and quick stepped to the administration wing. Within minutes, I was knocking on the side of the commander’s open door. With his command of “Enter”, I stepped briskly to the front of his desk and snapped a salute. “Sir. Airman reporting as ordered, Sir.”
The commander looked up and subtly uttered, “At ease, Airman. Sit down.” As I took my place in the leather chair, I sensed what was coming. The commander fussed with a few papers on his desk and then leaned forward and looked me straight in the eyes. “Do you know why you’re here?”, he said softly.
I knew why. I could see it in his eyes. My mother’s health was falling prey to a viscous cancer and her doctors felt the end was extremely imminent. I was being summoned home again for the fourth and what was most likely to be, the final time. “Yes sir – I know”, I said solemnly.
As the commander relayed to me the doctors prognosis, I felt myself shocked by how I was taking it. Just like the last three times the commander sat me down, he leaned forward in his chair and gently relayed to me the exact same message. “They said it’s imminent. This will likely be your mothers last moments. You need to go home, son.” Three earlier times over the last four and a half months, those words resonated like a plunging knife ripping through my soul, but this time was different. This time I felt a numbness and a haunting peace in his words.
I booked the first flight out of Wichita Falls and upon arrival in Albany, I made an immediate beeline to the hospital. I didn’t care about eating or brushing my teeth or cleaning myself up. My world centered around my mother and being with her till the end.
I had been in this situation before. Three previous times I came home and after what seemed like countless days at her bedside and gut wrenching anticipation of the inevitable, my mother’s body would decide it just wasn’t her time to go. Without explanation her health would stabilize and the doctors would scratch their heads. She would bounce in and out of consciousness just long enough to look around, smile at everyone and clench any hands that were in her vicinity. In a soft but raspy voice she would whisper to my father. Dad would nod and cry and hold her hand tightly, instilling hope that things would be okay. Then, as fleeting as these moments would manifest, she would close her eyes and fade back into the cold abyss of a dismal unconscious state.
These bouts of consciousness were excruciatingly infrequent but joyously rewarding. Everyone knew they were rare and exhausting moments for our mother. It immediately sapped her strength to break through her darkness and you could sense her fragility as she uttered her words.
At least, that is how it was explained to me. They were such an infrequent event that they never happened while I was there. It seemed that if I stepped away for a second or went to grab a bite in the cafeteria, she would awake only for those short precious moments I was away.
As I walked up to the critical care unit, I saw my sister standing outside my mother’s room. After a quick hug, she wiped the streaming tears from her eyes and said, “She woke up for a moment, Tommy.” With an obvious sign of dejection in my voice, I lowered my head and asked, “What did she say?” I’m not sure why I asked the question. This was certainly no different than all the other multiple occasions in which I wasn’t there.
“She said the same thing”, my sister said. “I love you all but, where’s my Tommy?”
“Did you tell her I was here?”, I said pleadingly. “Did she hear you?”
“Yes, we told her. We told her you were here.”, she said. My sister knew I was disappointed. She understood my heart was sinking that much deeper. With her arm around my shoulder and her forehead into my cheek, she murmured, “I’m sure she heard us this time, Tommy.”
“Yeah, Maybe she did.”, I said, but I wasn’t nearly as confident as she was. All I could do was walk to my mother’s bedside, stare intently at her face and clutch her hand into mine. Above the whirling aspiration of the machines that sustained her life, I knelt and whispered into her ear with the reverential hope that she could possibly hear me.
“I’m here Mom. Your Tommy is right here with you.” I made a pact at that moment that I wouldn’t leave her side again. I promised that I would be the one staring her in the face the next time she awoke for those brief, miraculous moments. She would finally see the son she feared was not there.
As fate would have it, my Mother never came back. In the wee early morning hours, we released her from the ventilator and soon, she passed away with nothing more than a few quick breaths and then nothing at all. Her soul left her and I mourned not only her loss, but my failure to assure her of my presence during her last and final moments.
Over the next following days, preparations were made for my mother’s funeral. Although Mom left specific instructions on how she wanted her funeral to be conducted, the funeral home director assisted us with the fine details. Dad tried to help but his soul was broken and he was a fragile shell of the man we once knew. We stepped up to handle as much as we could without his help, including the obituary. Once we drafted the final version, we did a character count to make sure we didn’t exceed the standard obituary size. If we made it too wordy, we would pay a hefty price on the cost.
Sitting in his chair in the living room, we handed the draft obituary for him to review. After a few minutes, he muttered in a soft, light voice, “Add the dogs, Queenie and Pepper. She loved those dogs. And her love of flowers, especially the irises she acquired as a child from her grandmother and has replanted wherever we lived. And mention her love of sports.”
As he continued his review, we scribbled notes on what he liked and the items he thought we should reword or change. He never suggested removing anything. Once he was done, he handed back the draft to my oldest sister without looking up. “You kids did a great job. Your mother would be so very proud of all of you. Thank you.”
My sister leaned over and said with a soft voice, “Dad? If we add these things you mentioned, the cost…” Dad turned his head and stopped her in mid sentence, “It’s okay. Just add them in. Whatever you come up with will be fine.” She nodded and kissed him again on the forehead. Dad turned and looked down at the rubber band ball on its pedestal. We went back to the kitchen table and started writing up the additional points.
Many years have gone by since my mothers passing. The memories are still rigidly ingrained of how I was never able to quell my mother’s hope that I was truly there during her last days. After many years of reflection, I hold no more guilt for what transpired. There was little I could have done to have changed anything but I knew it would profoundly affect my life moving forward.
I do not have a fear of death. I possess a gripping fear of not sharing my sincere affection to those who hold a special reverence in my life. Whether it is a close friend or a significant other, my fright is that the last thing they may hear from me is an angry word or even worse – nothing at all.
My last words to my mother was on a phone call from Texas at the Air Force training base I was stationed. I remember what I said. “Mom – I wish you would mind your own business.”, and then I hung up the phone. Why I said it was not important, but I do remember I never told this woman, who was my greatest cheerleader throughout my entire life, that I loved her.
Within hours of that phone call, my mother broke her arm as she was lifting herself out of the car. All she was doing was pulling herself up by using the door and her arm just snapped like a dried twig on a forest floor. Once at the hospital, they realized it was not just a broken arm, but she had cancer throughout her body. Her body failed mercilessly after that moment, as she was hospitalized and pumped full of chemotherapy medication.
Hanging up the phone up, I felt justified because my current ascension to manhood and independence meant she should respect me and my choices; that she had no right to intrude on decisions that I was making on my own. Be that as it may, there was no reason for me to hold back telling her that I loved her unconditionally. But yet, I did just that.
I lost my moment to tell my mother the very words she yearned to hear. I plan to never make that same mistake again.
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