The day my mother died I learned that the commonest noun in the English language is time. That morning I sat alone by her bed, stroking her forehead as her eyes fluttered open and closed and the night made its slow transition into nebulous light. As I touched her skin, then her hair, I said all the things a son says to a dying mother, assuring her everything I had or became was because of her. When her eyes were open, she stared at me, and although the last stroke had left her speechless, she said all the things a mother says to a son when her time is short. I saw that her eyes, which had always been a lovely light blue, had turned blue-gray, and once, when she seemed especially present, I asked with a smile if she wanted to sleep or wake up. She breathed the gentlest of laughs into the air. Encouraged, I asked this woman who had always been frail, who had spent the last seven years in a nursing home, if she wanted to go for a bike ride. Again came the breath, the whisper of laughter. She had always been my best audience. The next sound I heard from her was the gurgle they’d told us would precede death.
In those pre-dawn hours I couldn’t tell any more than she could what the day would be like. When she wasn’t looking at me, she often looked through the window, as if to discern for herself what the weather would be. Other times she stared at the ceiling as if she saw something fleeting or maybe permanent there. When the light was sufficient, I saw that the day would be overcast, though the clouds were thin. They stayed until my mother had breathed her last and then, as if drawn away by her spirit, revealed a sky as blue as her eyes.
Later that day, as my wife and I waited for the ferry to the mainland, I looked around the holding area one last time. For seven years we had paused there after our visits, in all kinds of moods, conditions and weather. We had talked to each other and on the phone to family and friends, including my mother, oftentimes saying a last goodbye. We had laughed with her or each other, smiled at memories, debated and argued both temporal and seemingly eternal plans. Sometimes our visits had left us happy, other times frustrated. Sometimes we were anxious and tired, other times energetic and calm. There, in a small space, alone with each other, we’d read books and newspapers, worked crossword puzzles, eaten sandwiches and chips and drunk what must have been gallons of water.
There we had lived all kinds of life, and now that living was over. In the shortest of times we’d cross to the mainland and visit that island no more.
A few days later we spent an evening on the lakeside porch of a man who had made more money than he could possibly spend. The house was new and huge, built beside his previous home on some of the city’s richest land. When he heard that a childhood friend had offered his second-best wine to toast my mother (saving the best for his own father’s death), he brought out his most-expensive bottle. There, with wine worth more than a week’s worth of food and the kind of view she had only dreamed about, we toasted a woman who’d spent her last years on Medicaid.
A short time later I heard that the man’s new house, or maybe the old one, had burned to the ground. I didn’t hear if he had the will or the time to rebuild.
The day my mother died I learned that the hardest word in the English language is time.
This nonfiction piece appears in our Fall 2013 issue (Vol. 60.1).