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Sitting with Mama


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12:39 a.m. Saturday, March 27, 2004
Fort Collins, CO

I'm sitting with my mother as she sleeps through what may well be her last night on earth. We discovered tonight that music really seems to calm her down when she's agitated — especially her favorite music.

In the past weeks we've watched lots of old movies together, and I've read to her from a thick, boring novel. One day we watched, "Inherit the Wind," and I remember the heaviness of the scene in which the preacher disavows his daughter, condemns her to hell for siding with the evil evolutionists in the Scopes "Monkey Trial." The saving grace comes from Frederick March, playing the role of Mathew Harrison Brady, who advises tolerance, offers that the Bible instructs, "He who forsaketh his own blood shall inherit the wind."

It is without words that I let the thought roll around my head, "that's exactly what I'll be inheriting — and I haven't forsaken anybody!" An unexpectedly large estate has fallen to my mother, largely because of insurance payouts from my father's death only six months earlier, and it's all going to only one of the six children: my sister, because, as my mother had explained months earlier, "boys grow up and have their own lives... but a girl is yours forever."

The nurse today examined my mother and estimated that death will come at some point within the next 24-48 hours. That was about 10 hours ago. For the next few hours my job is to stay awake and then give my mother her medicine at 2:00 a.m., doing my best not to waken her, beause she is much more at peace when sleeping.

The cold Northern Colorado wind is whipping around fiercely outside against these second-story windows. It's the wee hours here on the front range, and the night out there is angry and unprincipled, as if grimly riding on horseback to pick up the slated life. What is it about darkness and death? Back in Taiwan, the color of death is not black, but white.

For days my mother, when conscious, has complained, mostly to her own, dead mother, "Mama, I can't open the door!" Frustrated that, though she's finally accepted her coming death, her body just won't give up.

There's a tumor the size of a softball in her liver, the cancer has eaten away almost all of the skin on the right side of her torso, down to the muscle, it's probably all over her internal organs, but it still hasn't killed her.

A couple of days ago she stopped speaking in English, reverting to her mother tongue, Cajun French: "c'est pas vrai!" [it's not true!], "voir Daddy encore" [seeing Daddy again]. Fortunately, my Uncle Jimmy was there to help translate... until the words became too incoherent even for him.

Yesterday Mama uttered the mysterious words, "violet... violet fleurs" [purple flowers]. When I took a quick trip home to get a change of clothes, I saw, blooming for the first time, twin bouquets of dark purple flowers straddling the sidewalk before my front steps.

*   *   *

March 27, 2004
Mama died this morning, at 7:20.

I had stayed with her from midnight to 6:00 a.m., trying to sleep in a lounge chair. She awoke on her own at 1:00 a.m. and became agitated, so I notified my sister, and she decided to give my mother her moprhine and other medicine an hour early. She also changed my mother's diaper. My mother eventually settled down, and I eventually did get a few hours of sleep.

When 6:00 a.m. approached, my brother came to replace me, and I headed down to the sofa on the main floor to try to sleep some more. I did fall asleep, and about 7:15 was awakened by my eldest brother, who said, "It's Mama's time." I followed him upstairs to see my sister, Uncle Jimmy, and I think another brother standing around the bed. My mother was on the bed with her mouth open, as she has slept for years, but this time she was completely still. Her beautiful hazel eyes were still half-way open. Even though she wasn't breathing, I kept expecting her to take another breath, because for some time she's had labored breathing with significant periods of apnea. But she didn't move. My initial feeling was confusion: why isn't she breathing? I didn't cry. Most of my brothers - and certainly my sister - did.

*   *   *

Weeks earlier Mama had talked about the time years ago when, after a serious argument with my sometimes-brutish father, she left the house and went to stay at my brother's house. She said that she had felt, "so free" then. I had told her, I want her to be able to feel that freedom again.

*   *   *

I felt her arm. "She's still warm," I offered, uselessly, and then, instead of crying, heard myself announce to my rightly weeping brothers and sister, as if they didn't know, "She's free now..."

— David Saia

David Saia edits His work has been published and produced in several venues, including The Daily Reveille, The Culture Report, New Delta Review, and the now-defunct San Francisco Review.

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