This is a true story about my friend Laurie and her mother, Evelyn. I've used it in sermons on a variety of topics, such as grief and redemption. I had lunch with Laurie yesterday, and as we were talking about our lives, both the blessings and the burdens, I realized I have never told Laurie I'd written this story.
It's based on an email I received from her a few years ago. I present it here in memory of Evelyn, and in honor of Laurie.
Evelyn lay on her bed in the corner bedroom of the house where, as a widow, she had raised her four children on her own for the past nearly 30 years. As a hospice care nurse held and stroked her hand, she tried to allow her body to relax, like the nurse kept urging.
"Come on, Ev, you can do it," the nurse was saying. But the breaths kept coming out in rasping heaves. Her body was resisting death, just like she had for the past several months.
Always strong and independent, once by necessity, later, perhaps out of habit and a bit of pride, Evelyn had resisted every step of the way. First it was giving up her car, then enduring strangers in her house saying they were there to take care of her. And then there was that blasted walker. Why did her legs keep failing her? And her mind? She kept forgetting things. Now, she could feel her body shutting down moment by moment.
She knew it was near the end, and so did her family. Two of her children were in the other room, waiting. But they had been waiting for months, as they all thought she had reached the end of this life before. They'd said their good-byes more than once. They had made their peace.
“Why do I linger?” she thought.
"Come on, Ev, you can do it," she heard the voice say above her. Was it the nurse, or God? Either way, she wished she could tell the voice, "My name is Evelyn."
She became vaguely aware that there were more people in the room, now--her youngest daughter and son. The nurse must have called them in. It must be the end, again….
Laurie watched her mother's chest move up and down and heard the loud wheezing sound coming from her mother's throat. “Is this the end, again? How many times will we have to say good-bye?” she wondered.
The labored breath sounded ragged, as if torn from her body. She thought, could that really be coming from her mom? The nurse had told them the body does this at the end. It fights to continue, even when it's too weak to breathe. In fact, the body can be so weak, it can't relax.
Soon, the breathing changed to a quieter, more peaceful sound. It was a sign that her mom was able to relax, the nurse said. Then the sound stopped altogether. The silence was huge and overpowering in that small room, where, as a child, Laurie had run to her mother's side for comfort.
"Is she gone?" Laurie asked the nurse.
"Yes, she's gone," the nurse said.
The silence was replaced by sobs coming from her own throat and from her brother beside her. Suddenly, a loud gasp, a desperate intake of air came from the direction of the bed and it startled the two of them. She almost laughed when the nurse explained, "Sometimes they do that. They take one last gasp of breath."
Clearing her throat and wiping away the tears, Laurie hugged her brother and headed for the telephone. There were a lot of people to call, arrangements to be made….