The nurse timidly entered the room for he could see that we were praying.
“I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but you really should remove her ring.”
Disoriented by grief and fatigue, I glanced down at my mother’s left hand, cradled in mine, and saw the ring. I instinctively twisted it ever so gently to test the tightness of the fit and asked if removing it was absolutely necessary.
“It will need to be taken off,” the kind man said, “and I think it would be best for you to do so.”
“Do you need it for some reason?” I asked, still befuddled.
“Oh no,” he replied. “You should take it with you, so it doesn’t get lost.”
After I promised to attend to the ring, the nurse said, “Then I’ll leave you alone. Please take all the time you need.”
All the time we need? I’m afraid that wasn’t possible.
It’s strange, but my earliest memories of my mother are mostly set during the night. Due to asthma compounded by allergies, from toddlerhood through grade school, I often woke up struggling to breathe; and, night after exhausting night, my Mom would lovingly answer my cries.
Only many years later, when I’d lose sleep tending to my own sick children on a random night here and there, could I even begin to understand the depth of her selflessness and sacrifice.
I remember the wooden rocking chair where we spent so many hours – me, struggling to breathe, and she, stroking my hair, singing softly, and patiently waiting for the medicine to take full effect.
Though rescue inhalers were available by the late ’50s and early ’60s, I never remember having one. Instead, my Mom always relied upon a traditional OTC treatment called Asthmador, a powder that she’d spoon onto a saucer or small plate and ignite with a match. Soon, I was breathing in the healing smoke rising from the burning powder. It sounds absurd and even dangerous today, but somehow it worked. And, once my breathing regulated, my Mom tucked me back into bed, no doubt desperately hoping I’d remain asleep throughout the remainder of the night.
In retrospect, I don’t know where she got her strength. Then again, maybe I do.
The youngest of five children born to John and Catherine Christopher, my Mom was well acquainted with loss from an early age. She was only three when Black Tuesday (October 24, 1929) ushered in the great depression; twelve when the deadly hurricane of 1938 struck New England; and, fifteen on December 7, 1941, the “date which will live in infamy.”
In the fateful year of 1944, my Mom and her family endured a series of unimaginable traumas. First, her only brother, Johnny, was critically wounded on a battlefield in Sicily. A German soldier, who had somehow managed to circle around behind him during ground fighting, shot him five times at point blank range and left him there to die. Miraculously, he didn’t; but, it would be months before he was strong enough to leave his hospital bed in northern Africa to return home. All the while, my Mom and her family anxiously waited and prayed.
While Johnny slowly recuperated, Mary, my Mom’s oldest sister, whom she idolized, became seriously ill and died still months shy of her thirtieth birthday. That tragic event left a deep impression on my Mom. Even late in her life, well into her battle with dementia, she would occasionally grow quiet and speak softly and reflectively of “my beautiful sister, Mary.”
Still in 1944, with his cherished oldest daughter already gone and his only son battling for his life on a distant continent, my maternal grandfather likewise became ill and died. My Mom never provided us with many details about his dying, or his life for that matter. I think it was too painful for her to do so. What she did share, however, was her conviction that her beloved father had died of a broken heart.
As the old saying goes: “The same sun that melts wax hardens clay.”
The events of her youth could have embittered my Mom. Instead, by God’s grace, they tenderized her heart and made her especially receptive to God and God’s people in a truly beautiful way.
My Mom believed, always. And, it was precisely her persevering Catholic faith that guided her through many more of life’s awful storms, including the sudden death of her oldest child (my sister, Christine).
Yes, my Mom knew loss; but, it never defeated her.
Further, no matter the difficulties she faced in her own life, she always managed to share her faith, hope, and love with those in her path.
“Your mother is a saint!” was a refrain I heard countless times and from scores of people through the years. It was a running testimony to the number of lives she had touched with her kindness.
“You may be right,” I’d always respond, smiling. “You may be right.”
My Mom died peacefully in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, March 14th.
The previous Monday, when I stopped at the nursing home on my way home from work, I sensed immediately that something was wrong. I’d taken the stairs to the third floor, the dementia unit, which had been my Mom’s residence for roughly two and one-half years. The coded security door at the top of the stairs is equipped with a small window, and I looked through it before pressing the button to unlock the door. My Mom, as it happened, was seated directly across the hall from the window. She was slouched forward in her chair, bent at the waist, and repeatedly blessing herself.
Although my Mom had lost a great deal to dementia by the end of her life, by God’s grace she always knew me and would unfailingly greet me by name and with a radiant smile. That evening, however, was different. When I came through the door, she looked at me through glassy eyes and gasped, “Oh, thank God!” I sat with her and immediately took hold of her hand. It was warm, as it had always been.
A mother’s hands are special. Many years before, hers had bathed me, changed my diapers, prepared my meals, washed my clothes, tied my shoes, buttoned my shirts, combed my hair, brushed my teeth, tended to my cuts and bruises, dried my tears, guided me through crowded places, scooped me from my crib or bed when I struggled to breathe, administered needed medicines.
Yes, it was a long time ago. But I remember.
I spoke with the nurse on duty, who confirmed that my Mom had not been herself that day. She said the nurse practitioner had ordered tests and that results should be available the next day. In the meantime, she promised that my Mom would be carefully attended through the night.
Tuesday, I got news that pneumonia had been detected in one of my mother’s lungs. She had already been prescribed an antibiotic in case the pneumonia was bacterial, and she was being watched closely. That night, my wife Marianne and I both went to visit her. She was nervous and struggling to get comfortable. We stayed with her until she was changed and in bed for the night. It was difficult to leave.
The next day she rallied a bit, but the uptick was temporary. On Thursday, I received news that my Mom’s liver function was not within the normal range. I asked if she should be sent to the hospital, but the nursing home staff thought that was unnecessary. We visited again that evening. Our concern was mounting.
On Friday, my Mom’s newest blood work revealed a dramatic drop in liver function. She was sent to the Emergency Room at a nearby hospital, and we met her there in the late afternoon. The doctors and nurses in the ER were kind and attentive, but they were also careful not to offer false hope. Tests were ordered to see if the cause of the liver failure could be determined and, hopefully, treated. And, as soon as a bed became available, my Mom was to be admitted.
In the midst of this activity, my Mom actually seemed more at peace and more like herself than at any other point that week. She was calm, chatted amicably with us, and even joked with the doctors and nurses that were in and out of her room. We stayed with her in the ER until about 10:45 p.m., at which point she was ready to fall asleep. The nurses promised to contact us if anything changed and suggested that we go home to get some rest. Before leaving, we said good night to my Mom and promised to see her in the morning. As Marianne and I left, she said, “Good night, guys. I love you both so much.” Those were the last words I’d ever hear her speak.
We slumped inside our bed at about 11:30 p.m. and, exhausted, fell quickly to sleep. Shortly after midnight, my phone rang. It was a doctor I’d not spoken to before. She quickly assured me that my Mom was still with us. Then, she explained that my Mom had been moved to her floor and that she was now her attending physician. As such, she needed to ask me some questions that the ER doctors could not answer. We spoke for about twenty minutes. Then, I tried to go back to sleep.
A little after 3:30 a.m., the phone rang again. A different doctor explained that my Mom’s vital signs were dropping and that it was time to come back to the hospital. My wife and I dressed and scrambled to get out the door.
The hospital has a parking garage directly across the street. We pulled in, parked the car, and were just steps from the hospital door when my phone rang again. It was the doctor I’d spoken with just after midnight.
“Mr. Dalton,” she said.
I quickly interrupted her. “Please doctor, don’t tell me she’s gone. We’re right outside.”
“I’m very sorry.” And, she paused.
My mind was racing. “Was she alone?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she replied. “She died just moments ago. I was with her. We were holding hands and talking. She closed her eyes, and she was gone. It was very peaceful.”
After a respectful silence, the doctor promised to meet us at the entrance to the ER. I ended the call and Marianne hugged me tightly. Moments later, we were standing outside my mother’s room.
“Please, go in to be with her,” the good doctor said.
We walked toward the bed tentatively. My Mom’s eyes were closed and her mouth was slightly open. She appeared to be asleep, but there was no breath.
Emotionally wrung out, my first thought was to pray. Marianne and I each pulled a chair to our respective sides of the bed and took hold of one of my mother’s hands. I held her left hand, on which she wore her ring.
My Mom had a great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. For many years, she prayed the Rosary with a group of friends after daily morning Mass, often leading the prayer. So, Marianne and I began our prayer with a decade of the Rosary. We were perhaps half-way through when a male nurse tapped quietly on the door and entered the room. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but you really should remove her ring.”
After the “Glory Be,” we sat in sacred silence, and I lost track of time. I held my mother’s hand as I’d done so often before. Then, I remembered the ring. I gently twisted it again and tried to pull it off, but the fit was snug. I tugged harder and anxiously glanced at my Mom’s face to make sure I wasn’t hurting her. There was no change in her expression. In that brief instant, the reality of her passing fully dawned. With sadness, I pulled the ring from her finger, dropped it in my pocket, and took hold of her hand again. This time, I squeezed a bit tighter.
More time passed. Memories. Then, Marianne and I both noticed the change. The warmth was leaving. After exactly eighty-eight years and nine months, my mother’s healing, loving hands were growing cold.
“Time to go,” I said. And, Marianne nodded.
I kissed my mother’s forehead and whispered, “Thank you, Mom. I love you.”
Before sunrise, the very next morning, our seventh grandchild, Leo, was born. New life!
His tiny hands were warm.