The last time I saw my mother was in mid-June 2014—just over two years ago. That was the trip during which she spit out the Communion host, which I then had difficulty disposing of. This week-long visit gave me my last memories of my mother before she died.
Mother had been hospitalized for a gallbladder issue the week before I visited. Surgery to remove her gallbladder was not an option because her physical and mental disabilities would not allow her to cooperate in the post-surgical care. So, while her infection had been healed, she wasn’t eating much and was physically frail. Moreover, her mental acuity had ratcheted down even further, which often happens when Alzheimer’s patients get ill. She was not well.
Every morning during my trip, my father and I went to see her in the dementia care facility where she lived. Dad liked to be there when Mother was brought to the dining room for breakfast. She couldn’t feed herself any more, and his daily routine included feeding her breakfast, then sitting with her for an hour or two.
On the first or second morning I was there, Dad left Mother and me in the dining room and went to talk to one of the staff. Mother had barely touched her breakfast, so I continued to try to feed her.
“How about a bite of pancake?” I suggested, placing a piece on a fork against her lips. I coaxed her to eat. She rejected the food or took a bite and then didn’t chew it.
She kept saying, “It’s too much.”
Did she mean the pancakes? I asked her what was too much.
“Stuff,” she said. I couldn’t get her to explain any further.
A bit later, she said, “I can’t take it any more.” And she told me she was tired.
“What can’t you take?”
“You know. It.”
Because her verbal abilities were so limited, she couldn’t explain what she meant. I didn’t know whether she was expressing normal fatigue, whether she didn’t want any more breakfast, or whether she was trying to tell me she was ready to die. I suspected the last, and I didn’t know what to say.
Mother repeated similar comments throughout my week-long visit.
“It’s too much.”
“I can’t take it any more.”
And she shook her head when I asked her to explain further.
It seemed like she was telling me she was done with her struggle, that she was ready to let go of life. But I didn’t know whether to ignore what she was saying or whether to soothe her with promises everything would be all right.
Or whether to tell her it was all right not to fight any more, that it was all right if she wanted to slip into death.
I wanted to tell her it was okay to die. I wanted to tell her we would miss her, but if she was ready, she should go. I wanted to tell her I loved her, and I didn’t want to see her tired and in pain. Her quality of life was poor, and her family’s love should not keep her in a struggle she did not want.
“It’s okay to stop,” I wanted to tell her. “If you can’t take it any more, it’s okay to let go.”
But if all she wanted was a nap, then how could I tell her any of this?
So I said nothing.
When I left to go back to my home halfway across the country, I kissed her cheek. “Good-bye,” I said. “I love you.” I wasn’t planning to return for several months, and I thought I was probably seeing her for the last time.
The week after I left, my father placed her into palliative care. Two weeks after that, she died, and I returned to help my father with her funeral and other plans.
I’m sure now that she’d been trying to tell me she was finished. And I wish I’d told her it was okay.
When have you left something unsaid you wish you had said?