Few things are more heart-wrenching than saying that last goodbye to a loved one. My last goodbye to my mother happened when I was 16. The day was a Monday. I visited her in Hospice that evening.
I expected my mother to be awake and talking, but I found her in a coma, struggling to breathe. I stood there frozen, surrounded by my relatives, staring in disbelief at what had become of my mother. A relative gently said to me, “You need to tell her you love her and that it’s okay for her to go…she is waiting for you.” I remember thinking, how can I tell my mother it is okay to go? It is not okay for her to go! She can’t leave me now!
A month earlier, I was shocked to hear that my mom’s breast cancer was terminal. The doctor estimated that she had about three months left. During that time, I tried thinking of all the things I would need to know from my mother—memories, thoughts, advice on any future thing I might want to know. She was going to write it all down in a journal for me but there wasn’t time. The three-month estimation was wrong. Months quickly turned into weeks.
My mom became so weak that she could no longer write. Dad rushed to purchase a memory book so that visitors could read questions and write down Mom’s answers. My Mother also dictated letters for me to open at the major milestones of my life – 18th birthday, high school and college graduations, and wedding.
I stood at my mom’s bedside, thinking of all the things I still wanted to know. The memory book wasn’t finished yet. Pages of questions still unanswered. How does a 16-year-old tell her mother that it is okay to die? I still needed my mother. I didn’t know what to say or do, so I repeated what my relative said. “I love you Mom, it’s okay for you to go”. I’m not sure I even held her hand when I said it.
Fourteen years later when I was 30 I was in a similar situation with my grandmother. We weren’t sure that she would make it through the night. My aunt suggested we say our goodbyes.
This time I knew what to do. I held my grandmother’s hand and leaned in close so that she could hear me. I told her that I loved her, that she was the best Na-na. I told her how much I enjoyed our Scrabble games and how I was sorry we didn’t play one last time. I told her I loved watching baseball games with her, our White Castle and Cheese Coney dinners, and our family-history talks. I told her it was okay to go, that I would be okay. I reminded her that she would see her baseball buddy again, my mom, whom she missed so much.
Why are these two goodbyes so different? The age and stage of development. The human brain isn’t fully developed until age 25. An adolescent cannot cognitively comprehend the loss of a mother, nor do they have the emotional maturity to deal with it. An adult in their 30s however, has the life experience and maturity to understand the loss and know how to say goodbye. At 16 I thought my parents were immortal—they couldn’t possibly die. But yes, even my mom wasn’t immune to death. By 30 I understood the fragility of life, and that I too, will die someday. I am not invincible.
I wish I could have given my mother the last goodbye that she deserved. Today I would tell her that she is the bravest person I know, who faced death with such courage and grace. I would tell her that she is my hero, and I hope I make her proud. I would thank her for teaching me about friendship, because that is one of the greatest gifts in my life. I would ask her to watch over me, but most of all, I would tell her how much I love her.
But that, I think, she already knows.