The Perfect Goodbye: The Last 11 Days I Spent With My Mother (personal story)
It all happen so quickly. One breezy evening in May, we went to the hospital emergency room because my mom wasn't doing well. I never imagined she would die eleven days later. Though heart-wrenching, the final days I spent with my mother were perfect.
We all have to experience death. All of us. And because of this truth, I consider the time leading up to my mother’s death as a wonderful gift.
Less than 90 minutes after arriving in the hospital emergency room, we were presented with a diagnosis of possible lung cancer based on a large mass on the upper right lung and other parts of my mom’s fragile body. Final test results would confirm.
The doctor delivered this news while kneeling at my mom's bedside holding her hand. I, the youngest of three children and the only one surviving, held the other hand.
My father died in 2008. My sister died in 2009. My brother died in 2010. My fiancé and the father of my children died back in 1994. My mom was always there to lean against in my grief, but not this time. I had to be there for her and for myself.
As the news was delivered, a single tear fell from my eye. I refused to have a meltdown in front of my mom.
A part of me had known something wasn’t right for months. So while the diagnosis was not a total surprise, the reality of it was. Until now, I couldn’t get my mom to understand how not prioritizing her health affected others.
My mom looked at me, squeezed my hand and said, “It’s OK, I’m relieved. It’s OK. I’m OK.” She started praising God.
“I had to drag you here and now you’re praising God.”
“I was scared,” she said. Compassion replaced my confusion.
She was relieved to have finally faced her fear, the fear that caused her to put off so many doctor visits. I was relieved that my cousin in North Carolina and I had convinced her to go to the hospital. I imagined her dying at home in her bed proclaiming, “I’m OK! I’ll go tomorrow.”
The emergency room doctor informed us that my mom would be staying overnight.
I looked at my mom, who despised hospitals because they prevented her from smoking cigarettes.
“That’s fine,” she said. “I ain’t leaving here unless they throw me out.” We both laughed. Hard.
That was one of many good laughs in that hospital.
My mom’s hospital room was a private end unit on a high floor with an amazing view of rich green trees and crisp blue skies. It reminded me of a hotel room rather than a hospital.
Virginia Hospital Center is superb. All of the staff, from the doctors to the maintenance crew, had immaculate bedside manners and showed genuine empathy mixed with respect for their patients, or “guests” as they call them.
My mom was seen by a host of doctors, specialists, nurses, aides, technicians, dieticians, clergy, chaplain and social workers.
I had the gift of learning in detail every single health issue plaguing her body. Everything was explained to me in layman’s terms.
My mom was old school. She didn’t fully accept any of those conditions. I called it denial. She called it faith. She was a whiz at minimizing things. We left it there. Why argue?
The laughs were plentiful during the 11 days. For example:
She asked a nurse when is her baby due. The nurse said, “I’m not pregnant.” Ouch.
After the dietician explained the importance of healthy eating, she asked if she knew of any good carry-outs in the hospital vicinity. Really, Ma?
She got sick when she ate soul food from a local restaurant that I brought her. She said it was worth it.
She wrote out a grocery list, had me go shopping and bring it to the hospital. Mind you, her room didn’t have a stove. But fine, Momma.
She told my daughter I asked the doctors too many questions, but that she was happy I did.
When the chaplain came in and starting praying, “May your soul find rest on the other side…” my mom opened her eyes and said, “Nah, I’m not ready for that yet. Why are you trying to put me in the ground already?”
We watched TV. We talked. We prayed. We sat on the bed. She lay in my lap on the couch. We took short walks in the room. We listened to Travis Greene’s song “Made a Way” a gazillion times. She rested.
I rubbed her lips with an ice-cold straw sponge. She loved that, especially when it became difficult to drink water, around day nine.
Mother didn’t want anyone to know she was in the hospital.
“I don’t want people coming up here, standing around looking at me and asking a whole bunch of questions,” she said. We laughed. I obliged. For the first week, only my daughter, son, grandson (and his dad) and I came to visit.
That all changed on day seven.
I arrived at the hospital in the early morning as usual. As soon as I walked into the room, she raised up a little. She was waiting on me. It was 8 a.m.
“What are you gonna do when I leave?” she asked.
“Huh? And go where?” I asked, as I grabbed the chair and moved it closer to her.
“When I die?”
I was stunned because she didn’t want to talk about death. ever.
“What would you like for me to do?” I asked, tentatively.
“I want you to live your life and live life abundantly,” she said.
I swallowed hard. “OK,” I said. “Anything else?”
“Yeah,” she said. “When someone dies, don’t dwell on it. Live on the good memories, find something to laugh about. That’ll keep you going.”
I reached for her hand. “Are you alright?”
“Last night was very scary,” she said. “I was in a fight. The devil tried to take me out of here, but I fought it.”
“Maybe it was a death angel, Ma,” I said.
“I’m not saying it wasn’t. But I’m not ready to die yet. I want to tell my story.”
“That I’m a cancer survivor. That I was healed from stage IV lung cancer and lived to tell about it.”
If a death angel had really visited my mother, I figured he’d be back. “OK,” I said. “I can get my phone and record you.”
“No, I don’t want to record it now, I want to tell it later. On stage, in front of people.”
“OK,” I said.
She agreed to allow family and close friends to visit and call. She told me when and what I could post on Facebook after she died. She told me to contact her football pool players and let them know about the funeral. She told me where in her house to find her black book with phone numbers. She told me whom she wanted to preach her eulogy, whom she wanted to sing, where she wanted to have the services, the casket spray color, and some other important information. I wrote while she was talking.
“What do you want to wear?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. We laughed. I’m sure having a say in her planning gave her a sense of control. I followed all of her wishes.
She took a nap. Talking so much had tired her. I went in the hallway, had a mini-meltdown, then started making calls. It was such a relief for me to hear some inclination of acceptance from her, finally. We never brought the subject up again.
Family members from North Carolina arrived two days later. We had a praise service in the hospital room, singing, praying, laughing and crying. Not one staff person asked us to keep it down. The next day, our relatives left for the long drive back to North Carolina. My son and I stayed with my mother. That evening, desperate and hungry for air, she slid out the bed. I screamed for help.
Mom’s oxygen and blood pressure were extremely low. What seemed like a dozen doctors descended into the room. They stood over her, taking tests, calling for results, checking vitals and asking questions.
If you can’t breathe, you can’t live.
I sat there in a daze, rocking.
They decided she was going to ICU.
I was prepared to follow the team of medical professionals as they wheeled her bed out of the room. But a nurse started gathering my mom’s things. She looked at me. “Did you drive?” she asked.
Puzzled, I said, “We’re coming back to the room, right?”
“She’s not coming back here,” said the nurse. My son, a medical professional, agreed.
We gathered my mom’s things, cards, flowers, groceries and took them to the car before heading to ICU.
On the eleventh day, in the early morning before the rising of the sun, my mom died. She went peacefully, without pain or suffering. She stopped breathing. Cause of death, metastatic lung cancer.
Mother didn’t get to tell her story like she wanted. I wrote this to tell it on her behalf. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. She loved herself some me and I loved myself some her.
My mom, Malinda Ferguson, is a cancer survivor. She was healed, delivered and set free. Praise the Lord! The moment she took her last breath on earth, she took her first in heaven.
My mom was a fierce, vibrant and proud woman until her death. She lived her life on her terms. She spoke her mind. She was funny and fun-loving. Known as Aunt Ba-Ba in our big extended family, the person everyone called for support, humor, encouragement and a bit of innocent gossip. She was also known as the travel lady, hosting regular bus trips for a dedicated group of travelers, and, during football season, the pool lady. She traveled to many places, including Paris.
Growing up, my friends loved coming to my house. If they were having problems at home, our place provided temporary refuge.
My mother was a praying woman and raised me in the church. I’m forever grateful that she introduced me to something bigger than myself, something I can rely on when I feel hopeless.
Today (9/21), my mom would have been 71 years old. Happy birthday, Momma. I’m doing my best to live life abundantly as you instructed. I’m focusing on our good memories.