“It was such a spiritual death,” the nurse told me. “All the family was gathered around her. The children and husband were singing psalms to accompany her as she peacefully slipped into the next world.”
“When my mother-in-law died,” my neighbor said. “My husband, his sister, and father were there with her telling her that they loved her. And then they were together to comfort each other.”
“I knew my mother’s end was near,” a friend explained. “So I did not leave her side. I could tell she was taking her last breath and I was there to say Shmea Yisroel with her.”
I should find these touching scenarios heartwarming but I do not. Instead, they once again open my feelings of insecurity, regret, and guilt because I was neither with my mother nor my father when they died.
It wasn’t because their deaths were sudden. My mother’s health had been steadily failing the last ten years of her life. She was seventy-three years old when she had to have emergency surgery. When I was told of the decision to operate I immediately took off for the airport. My husband managed to get me on a Air Canada flight from Israel to Toronto, another flight from there to Chicago, and a third flight from Chicago to Wichita, Kansas. There were problems with that third flight, though, and it was if I was caught in a time warp. When I finally arrived at the hospital my mother had finished surgery and gone into wake-up. Shortly thereafter I was able to see her. She was so druggy that she did not really care if I was there or not.
The surgery had been successful but the recovery was difficult. Due to emphysema she was not able to get off the breathing machine. That meant she ate via an IV and she communicated with nods and shakes of her head or short notes written in wobbly handwriting. The doctors said her condition was stable. In other words, she might stay in ICU for a long time.
After four days my father and uncle told me I should go back home to my family. I was needed there and the only thing I could do for my mother was to pray. And so I went to the hospital to tell my mother goodbye. It was an offhand goodbye, “Bye, I’ll see you next month.” For the following month was my parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. My husband, three youngest children, and I were planning on being in Wichita to celebrate with them.
A month later, when I returned to America, our first stop was Chicago where my mother-in-law lived. We arrived on a Wednesday evening and were still dealing with jet lag on Friday. During my daily phone call to my father he told me that it did not look good for my mother. She had pneumonia. It was perhaps an hour before Shabbat and the thought went through my mind that maybe I should try to get a flight to Wichita. I dismissed the thought. I barely had enough energy to take put one foot in front of the other. How could I possibly get to the airport?
We spent Shabbat with my husband’s cousins. A good night sleep banished the jet lag and I felt able to deal with the world. During Shabbat morning services, however, as the Torah scroll was being replaced in the Ark, I was overcome with a feeling of heaviness and dread. It was no surprise to me, therefore, Saturday night I received the bitter news that my mother had died that morning, about the same time I had been at Shabbat morning services.
My father had been at her side, but not me, her only child. I had not even told her how much I loved her when I was next to her four weeks earlier. This happened thirteen years ago and for half of those years I alternately tried to justify or ignore my feelings of remorse.
I was determined to learn from my mistake. So when my father went to hospice I made sure to tell him how much I loved him. I thanked him for being such a wonderful father. And I asked him to tell my mother that I loved her when he would again meet her.
Of course, there was no way of knowing if my father would be in hospice for a few days or weeks. We tried to be with him most of the time. On the day before he died I, and most of the family, were with him from early morning until late at night when the English speaking nurse he particularly liked came on duty. Several times in the course of the day he repeated, “I want to go.” I felt our presence was keeping him with us and was not sure that was what he wanted. It was decided that from then on he should only have one or two visitors at a time. The next morning I arrived with the dawn to find him sleeping heavily. He did not wake up the whole time I was there. One of my sons took over the watch and between the time he left and my husband and I returned my father died, alone.
It would have been so perfect if he could have died the previous day with his family surrounding him. An oncologist told me that often terminally ill patients wait to die until they are alone. Some wait for their caretaker to go to the bathroom. Others linger until their loved one leaves to answer a knock at the door. The doctor’s kind words comforted me and, although I felt sorry my father had been by himself, I did not feel guilty. We had taken good care of him the eleven months he lived with us. I focused on that.
As my year of mourning progressed I came to the understanding that the day of death is a very small part of anyone’s life. Honoring my parents had been a lifetime responsibility and privilege. Instead of focusing on their end I began to concentrate on my yearly visits, weekly phone calls, and constant letters. I remembered the two weeks I spent in America taking care of my mother when my father was in the hospital. I reflected on all their values that I had accepted. I thought about the pride they had in me and my family. Finally, I accepted the fact that everything is in HaShem’s hands. It is He who decides the deathbed scenario. It is His decision when and how everyone dies, whether young or old, suddenly or with suffering, at home or far away, alone or surrounded by loved ones.
I forgave myself for my careless goodbye, for not going to Wichita as soon as I arrived in America, and for leaving my father alone a couple of hours. Being a mother who has forgiven my children over and over again, I am certain that my parents have also forgiven me.