When at the last the stage was all hers, Mama’s flawless delivery betrayed the frequency with which she’d rehearsed the lines. Mama had come to terms with dying long before the day her deathwatch dawned.
Truth be told, she’d gotten a little anxious to get on with the gettin’ on … an understandable anxiety, I suppose, when breathing becomes as labor intensive as ditch digging and every movement requires strength you don’t have and intensifies pain you can’t remember living without.
And, worst of all, after a lifetime (91 years) of serving every single soul who ever came into your orbit, you can’t imagine being able to muster the vigor to help anyone with anything ever again. Convinced her serving days were over, Mama was more than ready for her curtain call.
So when the gentle emergency room doctor suggested a risky surgical procedure that might possibly delay her death, Mama promptly and politely declined. The doctor nodded and explained what Mama already knew: that she’d soon die, likely within 24 hours.
Mama sighed, smiled, checked the clock (because she’d be counting down the moments like a kid counts down the days till Christmas), and said in a tone of pure delight — as if commenting on a delectable sample of pecan pie or a moving rendition of her favorite anthem — “Isn’t that wonderful?!”
Having finally been given her cue, Mama wasted no time getting the show started. Though impossibly weak, she somehow managed to fully command the makeshift center stage — a stainless steel gurney within the drape-enclosed ER cubicle.
An examination lamp served as spotlight, sparkling off the soft waves of her silvery-white crown and illuminating the joyful luster in her watery eyes.
Then, with the humility of one who’d long understood that all is grace, and with the authority of one who’d been assured her allotment of earthbound hours was all but depleted, Mama crooked a bony index finger toward each member of her mesmerized audience, beckoning us to come close, one at a time, to receive the words she’d rehearsed.
The youngest, I stood in the shadows as one by one my three brothers took their place at her bedside and received a final blessing from the same woman who’d dispensed their first.
I couldn’t make out the actual words, but the lilting timbre of her voice was intimate and timeless, the same cooing hum born deep in the soul and released through the lips of a woman-made-mama as she rocks her newborn, eyes closed tight and face nuzzled soft against the fragrant, downy head.
Though now the diminished parent lay cradled in the arms of the grown child, still — as always — it was the mother who comforted the son. And then it was my turn.
Stepping into the radiance of Mama’s moment, I could barely wait to hear the speech she’d prepared just for me. I sat down on the edge of her bed. Mama cupped my face with the hands that held my world together.
She looked long and deep into my soul and, then, finally, released the waterfall of well-rehearsed words: “I love you, Haven. You are the best daughter ever in the whole wide world. You are amazing and beautiful, gifted and bright, and oh, so, so strong. I am incredibly proud of you, honey. I’ve always been very proud of you. I love you so much. You can’t imagine how much — and I am infinitely grateful God chose me to be your mother.”
Mama pulled me close. I buried my face in her neck and hugged her with a gentle fierceness. The room had gone quiet, save the sound of my muffled sobs.
After a few moments, I pulled away, wiped my eyes, managed something of a swagger as I crossed my arms in front of my chest and asked, “So, that’s it? That’s all you’ve got to say?”
Mama grinned, winked, pulled me close again, and together we giggled and sobbed all at once, for she knew what lay behind my mock sarcasm. It wasn’t the first time I’d had the privilege of bathing in the downpour of my mama’s outlandishly gracious words.
Those life-giving words she spoke at the end were nothing new — nothing she hadn’t said or written to me a thousand times over. She’d hoarded no blessing for the final hour, held no compliment captive.
Mama’s deathbed speech was flawless and familiar because she’d rehearsed it so many times, and I’d been at every rehearsal. She’d made sure that if death came without warning, it would never cheat her of the opportunity to bless her people with words of approval, affirmation, endearment and encouragement.
I want my mouth to be like my mama’s.
“Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Eph. 4:29)
—Haven Parrott is bereavement coordinator at Hospice of the Upstate in Anderson, S.C.