I have her black and white newspaper picture hanging on my bedroom door. She’s 17, an exchange student on the beach in Brazil, riding a motorcycle. Her Brazilian community wrote a newspaper article about her in Portuguese. It’s probably my most favorite picture of her, telling me the story of my mom before she was a mother. She seems so full of life, so spunky. I bet we would’ve been friends had I been around during the ’60s. But I guess I got lucky; instead of just a friend, I got a friend and a mother.
She’s not “La Garota da Motocicleta” (The Girl On The Motorcycle) right now, but that spirit is still in her; I see it, even though there’s tubes and cords and a central line running through her body. I’m with my family in the ICU at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia. It’s quiet, minus the steady beep of the EKG monitor, signaling life, and hope, and of the steady rhythm of another day to be alive. My dad touches her forehead and my sister pats her on the shoulder. I kiss her on her cheek, pausing, grateful for this moment. It’s been a long time since I’ve kissed my parents, especially on the cheek. But in this moment, I’m grateful to be close and at peace.
We sit there, in silence, with the occasional interruption of updates from the nurse. “We’re monitoring the blood pressure; as you know it’s low again. This is just more fluids to help aid in that process,” she says, changing an IV bag.
The first person my age that I knew to lose their parents was my friend Sarah, during the last month of our senior year in high school. Her parents died in a car crash and her mother was the art teacher at our middle school. It was the first funeral I’ve been to for someone’s parent, and shortly after, friends and I headed to Sarah’s home. That’s the first time I was introduced to “sitting Shiva,” a practice in Judaism in which family members receive visitors in the home of their deceased love one, for seven days. Shiva translates to “seven” in Hebrew, based upon Job grieving the death of his father for seven days. Traditionally, during the period of Shiva, mourners sit on low stools or boxes while they receive condolence calls. Often, doors are unlocked to allow visitors to enter quietly without knocking. Once in the presence of mourners, it is customary to wait until the mourner speaks before greeting the mourner. A minyan (prayer service) is held for the mourners each day during shiva. Shiva creates an atmosphere of condolence and support while allowing one to disengage gradually from the life of their deceased love one.* There’s something about this tradition that I find so beautiful.
Though I am hopeful for my mother’s recovery and personally not anticipating death, I think about Shiva. Sitting in this room in soft silence and occasional chatter between my family, I feel as though I’m celebrating a living shiva, feeling melancholy, and yet a very real, sincere peace.
There’s some connection I feel to my mother, as I think about all she’s experienced during her lifetime. My dad shows me a picture of the two of them, before they were engaged. My dad is on the left with dark, shaggy hair, and my mom to the right, in long, blonde pigtails and bell bottom jeans.
“Who is that?” we ask my 29 year old sister, who has Down Syndrome, while pointing to the photo.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s Mom and Dad,” I tell her.
“Looks weird.” She states, never having been a bashful one.
I watch her breathe with the support of intubation. Occasionally, she tenses and one of the tubes fills with liquid. She’s sleeping and under heavy medication, but still able to make small coughs that help bring the fluid from the pneumonia that’s gathered in her lungs. It’s strange to think, in this moment, that there was another time, and another place (not the ICU), in which my mom and I were once connected. I feel as though right now, I’m a fly on the wall, or a shadow of my spirit, zoomed out, as I picture my mom holding my brother, then my sister, then me after birth. It’s a humbling experience to think about a day I can’t even remember, but a day that was quintessential to my very life. It’s in this moment I’m acutely aware of what a gift it is to have loving parents to bring you into life in this world. I suppose I may never know fully unless I become a mother one day, but here, in this moment, I’m as close to “getting it” as I might ever be. We all make sacrifices for each other. Fathers. Mothers. But right now, I see most clearly the amazing gift we each receive from a woman who uses her very body to provide life to another. Don’t get me wrong, women who choose not to have children can live every bit as sacrificially as those that do, but for right now, I’m looking at my mother in a hospital bed. And I’m so grateful that she, along with my father, made my life possible.
“Better get going,” my dad motions to my sister and I. Lauren, my Aunt and I are going to go home to make dinner, then head to the movies for a laughter break.
But I don’t want to leave.
I’m so sick of living my life focusing on getting tasks done.
I’m tired of half-listening to my roommate when I come home each day, as I tend to the dishes and listen to her talk in between my clanging of pots. She never does this when I talk to her. She stops what she’s doing and looks you into the eye…No, no, no. She looks into your heart.
Dinner can wait, I think.?We can order takeout to make it quicker. This time is much, much much more important. My sister and I linger over her bed for another twenty minutes. The nurse told us that even though she’s under sedation, she can still hear us, and encourages us to talk to her in short whispers as part of the healing process.
“Love you Mom,” I whisper softly and give her another slow kiss.
My sister and Aunt and I leave the room, and I glance back through the glass window to see my Dad, currently on furlough, sitting quietly beside her, where he’s been since her admission ten days ago. Last weekend, I watched him brush her hair, gingerly, especially at the ends where a few tangles had gathered. As my siblings and aunt and I talked in her room last weekend, he stood beside her bed, touching her forehead every few moments or so. As I walk further away from my mom’s hospital bed, I admire his love. He always knew how to keep people a priority and go out for a run when his head needed clearing. I love that about him.
I don’t think this is it, but I was told there’s always a chance. I think that spunky young woman on a motorcycle is going to beat the pneumonia, heal from the staph infection which triggered her initial hospital admission last week, and come back from this in due time.
But what do I know.
What do I know about death.
What do I know about what it must feel like, to be near it, or perhaps around it, or perhaps still far from it, but not too far.
I don’t know.
But I remember the words of my youth pastor who watched her own mother pass away:
“I will tell you all this–never be afraid when this time comes. You could actually see Mom’s spirit leave her body, hover a while, and go. She looked so happy, so peaceful. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”
I cling to this hope, and the hand of my sister as I whisper “I love you,” steadfast with the optimism that I will be back here tomorrow, watching her chest rise and fall. But even if for some reason, I cannot, I let the words and experience of my youth pastor nestle deep into my heart until a satiated peace comes over me.
I’m sitting a living shiva.
And I’m so thankful for the prayers and support of friends and family like you.