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northeast, IL
(Zone 5a)

May 13, 2010
5:41 AM

Post #7789070

I'm sorry this is long, this article was published in the May 9, Chicago Tribune. I thought it was beautiful.

Given the chance, I read to my mother
May 09, 2010|By Mary Schmich

Every night at bedtime for the past couple of weeks, I've read a poem to my mother.

I sit next to the old sofa she prefers to her new, metal hospital-style bed and I leaf through her copy of "Good Poems," edited by Garrison Keillor. It's a fat hardback with a blue jacket, and I muse over the titles she has starred, the stanzas she has bracketed, the pages she has bookmarked with toilet paper.

Here, I said a few nights ago, talking over the wheeze of the oxygen machine, here's a passage you marked in "What I Learned From My Mother," by Julia Kasdorf.

I learned that whatever we say means nothing,

what anyone will remember is that we came.

"Oh, that's nice," she said, and pretty soon she was asleep, coaxed by the drug that eases the anxiety that's caused by the drug that helps her breathe.

My mother and I started this bedtime routine after she went into the hospital with pneumonia two weeks ago, then came home on hospice care, permanently unable to walk.

After several years of decline and rebound and decline again if you have an elderly parent, you know the cycle she has been given a loose official deadline. Three to six months. Two weeks if she gets another respiratory infection.

Whatever the count, the goal now is not recovery, but comfort until the end.

And so the ritual of the poems.

One night, noting that she'd written "COPY" next to the title, I read "Perfection Wasted," by John Updike.

And another regrettable thing about death

is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,

which took a whole life to develop and market

She smiled, and drifted off.

She sleeps for a couple of hours each night, then wakes up and rings a little bell to say she needs to be lifted to the portable commode or wants a sip of juice or has to have a light turned on.

She needs a lamp, she says, with a flutter of panic, because she wants to see the clock. It's as if she senses she can hold on to life as long as she has light and the time.

"Here's one by Mary Oliver," I said one evening, holding up the page where she'd written a big "Yes!"

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

When the poem was done, I asked what she was thinking.

"What a wonderful world I have lived in."

I have friends whose mothers died young and others whose mothers died suddenly but many more whose mothers leave this way, fading and flaring through old age, like the last shred of wick.

This process, difficult and bountiful, may be the greatest common bond of my generation.

One day last week, the hospice nurse, who drops by routinely, reached for her ringing cell phone.

"I have to take this," she said. It was her mother's nurse, calling from Florida.

I think about all those other fading mothers while I read poems to mine at night. I think about what little rituals their children seek to make the last days feel kind, the conclusion close to right, the relationship close to complete.

And yet all that really matters is that, given the chance, you came.

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