My mother's last lesson

The author (middle) as a child, holding her mother's hand. Her sister, Lynn, walks beside her. (Courtesy Katherine A. Sherbrooke)
The author (middle) as a child, holding her mother's hand. Her sister, Lynn, walks beside her. (Courtesy Katherine A. Sherbrooke)

The color of death is blue. That’s what the hospice nurse told us.

We had rushed to my mother’s bedside from various parts of the country, shocked to see her so diminished. She had suffered from severe dementia for years, but her spirit had remained strong. She’d communicate her delight upon seeing one of us by popping open her eyes and flashing a mischievous smile, ever ready to be amused, always desirous of play. But this woman who’d once made all her own clothes, gracefully hosted huge parties most people would need a full catering staff to pull off, and commanded a U-Haul like a truck driver, was now the center of the grimmest gathering of them all.

As soon as the last of her five children arrived, she began to moan and unevenly gulp for air, her waves of pain evident. We had gotten there just in time. We clutched the bedrail and told her it was okay to let go.

She held on.

The author's mother on Cape Cod in 1984. (Courtesy Katherine A. Sherbrooke)
The author's mother on Cape Cod in 1984. (Courtesy Katherine A. Sherbrooke)

Watching her struggle was agonizing, and by the second day, we clamored for answers. What should we expect? How long might this go on? The nurse patiently explained that we could look for her hands and feet to turn blue, a sign that the circulatory system was no longer able to push oxygen-rich blood to her extremities. The blue would eventually climb up her legs toward her heart. We began to hunt for blue, almost hope for it.

On the third day of our vigil, to our horror and relief, her feet turned the dark color of the Atlantic during a storm, a forbidding marker that was somehow also a promise of reprieve, a sign that her suffering would cease, and with it, our own. But as the afternoon ticked past dinner time, she endured.

I offered to stay with her that night, grateful to have her to myself and terrified that death would sneak in on my watch. I tried to calm us both by playing music and talking to her. I told her how lucky I felt to have grown up at our family dinner table, the one she’d painted a bright green, how I was still hoping my own version of motherhood might someday match the masterwork that was hers, how I wished I could have apprenticed with her for longer. Then I did something I had never done in my life, even as a toddler. I slept next to her holding her hand.

When I woke to see her gently breathing beside me, I felt a quiet joy and began to wonder why we had all been in such a rush. In the name of ending her suffering, we'd been more interested in moving on with our own grieving than soaking up every drop left of her living. And sure enough, when I pulled the covers back in the morning light, her feet were the peachy color of begonias, flushed with life. I laughed. My mother would not be told how this was going to go.

Katherine A. Sherbrooke's mother in the late 1970s. (Courtesy Katherine A. Sherbrooke)
Katherine A. Sherbrooke's mother in the late 1970s. (Courtesy Katherine A. Sherbrooke)

I told my siblings we all needed a break, especially Mom, that she didn’t like how we had been handling her farewell. She was the best orchestrator of gatherings any of us knew, and we were botching this one. It was too intense for her, too fraught. She would want us to walk her favorite beach, feel the sunshine on our faces, enjoy each other. As kids, if any of us became overly dramatic or maudlin, my mother would gently tell us to “lighten up.” She was trying to tell us that now.

So, with one brother staying behind, the rest of us ate lunch outside that day and walked the beach, the bright sun a hopeful yellow, the warm breeze catching the words of our newfound agreement: If Mom wanted to take another few days or even a week to sort out her own exit, we would find peace with that. No more rushing the matter. We even laughed a little. We felt better.

It was on our way home from the beach that my eldest sister suggested buying roses. She described the Hindu tradition of covering the dead with flowers, a ritual meant to aid the soul’s separation from the body. In the meantime, they’d bring joy to Mom’s room.

The only roses the florist had on hand were two dozen in pale yellow. Perfect. But he was hesitant to sell them, worried they wouldn’t survive the week. “Looks can be deceiving,” he warned. “Trust me, they won’t last.” Punch-drunk with exhaustion, my sisters and I burst out laughing. “We can’t even get this right. The flowers are going to die before Mom does!” Not sure what to make of us, he gave us the roses for free.

Less than an hour later, the call came. Just when we had loosened our grip on impending death, my mother had found a way to embrace it. No more than three minutes after all of us rushed back to her bedside, she quietly let her final breath escape and set herself free.

We showered her then with the yellow petals, heart-shaped, as soft as her skin, as holy as anything I have ever touched — hundreds of them tenderly sheltering her face and blanketing her body. They transformed the cold gurney that would wheel her away from us into a floating garden, heralding the transition of something beautiful and bright.

If death is blue, we are told that grief is supposed to be black, dark and somber, but that didn’t suit my mother. She could only move on once her children understood that it was the lightness, peace and joy of life that she wanted us to carry forward.

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Headshot of Katherine A. Sherbrooke

Katherine A. Sherbrooke Cognoscenti contributor
Katherine A. Sherbrooke is the author of a family memoir called "Finding Home" and three novels including "Leaving Coy’s Hill," awarded a 2022 Massachusetts Book Awards Honors in Fiction prize.



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