“earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”

My mother did not fear death. Nor did she fear suffering. She was the strongest woman I have ever known. Her faith was abiding and steadfast. So when she and God decided it was time for her soul to take flight, take flight it did, despite what the nurses said, despite what family and friends said. Gmamma had her own timetable for departure from this earth and it was one week to the day after she told Dr. Bhandari that she did not want further tests or treatments.

Gmamma was never the last one to leave a party.

That final week of my mother’s life was a hellish whirlwind. Denied hospice by Shannondale, she suffered in silence until Dr. Bhandari ordered palliative care. Even then, the pharmacies didn’t stock the prescribed medications, so Dr. Bhandari went to Walgreens the Saturday night before Easter with her scrip pad and wrote out a prescription for whatever they had on hand. We administered droppers of liquid morphine to supplement the transdermal fentanyl patch. And still the pain persisted.

Gmamma slept deeply and awoke on Easter morning, weak as a kitten. She sat all day in her favorite chair like a statue of herself. Monday she didn’t get out of bed except to go to the bathroom, because despite her opiate-induced stupor, she never lost her dignity.

There were tragicomic moments along the way – my sister and me dancing our mother from the bed to the wheelchair that my brother and I swiped from the nursing home (my brother-in-law has since returned it). Me lying in bed with Gmamma, whispering that it was all right to let go, that we’d take care of DooDaddy for her, to which she replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You people are confusing me.”

Monday afternoon she became agitated and saw old friends who have long since passed on. She thought she was late for a bridge game. “Who’s the fourth?” she demanded over and over again, dealing imaginary cards with a fluent motion of her hands.

A death rattle shook her chest Monday night and then early Tuesday morning, her breath stopped. And just like that she was gone. My sister was sleeping fitfully on the sofa and noticed the sudden silence. It’s hard to tell about these things, so Keeling called me just to be sure. I was already on my way over and went straight to the bedroom. There was a body there, but Gmamma had left the building. Our mother, our totem, our constant, our touchstone. Gone on from this world to the next.

I’ll never forget the agonized look on my father’s face when I told him the news.

Then came the haze of food and flowers – much appreciated – and the flood of faces wishing us well. I recognized the motherless among them by the look of profound empathy in their eyes. I had become a member of a special club now, no secret handshake required, just hugs and the shared experience of unspeakable loss.

I tried to do her justice in her obituary, but how do you capture a lifetime in a few paragraphs? I forgot to say she was a Girl Scout Leader and a Scotch drinker. That she loved cats, especially Richard Parker. That before she was married, she worked in advertising at Lavidge & Davis, subsisting on coffee and cigarettes. I didn’t specify that memorials might be made to the Music Fund at First Church. Then again, Gmamma would have considered all these details “too much of a muchness.”

The service was lovely and subdued, befitting a stoic Scots-Irish Presbyterian. As the bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” and walked slowly toward the hills, birds flew overhead. I think my mother bird was among them, wings spread, eyes on the horizon, riding the wind upward …

Just now I almost bought her raspberries at the grocery store before I remembered.

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Rest in peace Jennie Dickerson Keeling Mansfield 3.29.16