Our father was seventy-six when our mother died. For almost three years, he’d been taking care of her while her health failed and her mood plummeted. She morphed from a fun-loving, kind, irreverent redhead into a cranky, frightened, white-haired old woman. The whole time, Dad somehow managed to remain solicitous of her.
He loved to cook, so he would make her tasty little treats. A pioneer in the kitchen, he was hip to small plates long before most Americans knew they existed. His real agenda, though, was to get our mother to eat something. Anything. Her illness had made her lose her appetite, so whatever he cooked—no matter how tempting — she’d turn her nose up at it. He’d bring her a ramekin of ratatouille, say, with a flaky fresh biscuit on the side. Or a half-serving of baked stuffed scrod with two spears of steamed asparagus and a dab of lemon aioli. Maybe a few spoonfuls of his trademark pea soup flavored by a hefty hambone. “Here, Peg, try this,” he’d say, as if she was his taster and he was seeking her professional opinion. She would take it politely and thank him. But we all knew she didn’t mean it. What she really wanted to do was throw the food to the floor and never touch any of it again. But as furious as she was about getting sick and enfeebled, she did her best to fake it. She’d scrunch up her face, take a careful nibble, then concoct some excuse for putting the food aside. “Mmm,” she’d say. “Very good, Kev. Maybe just a little too salty.” Or “Oh, scrod. Wonderful. Did you remember to put dried parsley in the breading?”
So Dad realized he had lost the woman he loved—the “real Peg”—well before she died. And we all knew we had lost our beloved mother. The day she finally left us for good, we dressed her in a coral-colored nightgown and matching robe. She lay all afternoon and into the evening in a hospital bed we’d set up downstairs while friends came and went to say goodbye. One brought her yellow roses, another rubbed sweet-smelling cream on her hands. She was already in a morphine fugue, though, only letting out the occasional noise that sounded like a cross between a mumble, chuckle, and growl. I guess you could say we gave her an old-fashioned Irish wake while she was technically still alive.
After night fell, our brother came over with his guitar from his home nearby. Then he, my two sisters, and I sang Mum out. Our last song, I remember, was “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead.
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone.
Like a child again, I cried to myself, No, Mum, no! Don’t find that highway. But, of course, she already had.
When she breathed her last, Dad was upstairs in their bedroom of forty years. We had encouraged him to get some rest, but the truth is I don’t think he wanted to be there when Mum actually passed. My brother didn’t either; he went home around 2 a.m. I understand how they felt. If you’d told me I could have been in the same room when my mother died, I would have said, impossible. Now I am glad I was there; it seemed only fair. She brought me into the world and I helped send her out. I found a poignant symmetry in that.
So, in the end, only my sisters and I were present. Just the women of our family, which also seemed about right. For all our adult lives, the four of us had stayed up together whenever I, the family wanderer, came home to visit. My sisters would drive down from their homes in New Hampshire and Maine, and we would chat away with Mum about our lives, family friends, politics, books, and world events until we fell asleep in place. On the sofa, in the arm chairs, sprawled on the rug, flopping against each other, sharing sofa throws and pillows for bedding. That last night of her life, it felt only natural for us to lie down on the floor around her bed. We looked at each other and knew what to do. “The party’s over, Mum,” one of my sisters said. “We’re shutting our eyes and going to sleep.” Then we stayed still and quiet until, minutes later, we heard her death rattle.
“The dining room has become the dying room,” my other sister whispered.
Then we got up from the floor, linked arms, and went to tell Dad.
Paula Harrington is a former journalist who, for many years, was the director of the Farnham Writers’ Center at Colby College in Maine. She is now devoting herself full time to her own writing. She is also a Fulbright Scholar whose research in Paris led to the book Mark Twain & France: On the Making of a New American Identity (with Ronald Jenn), which was shortlisted for a French Heritage Society Book Award. Her essays have appeared in the Mark Twain Annual, the minnesota review, and Colby magazine.