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When the nurse told me there was a room she’d like me to visit, she said the patient was on hospice care and that her daughters were not handling it very well. A mother was dying and her daughters were falling apart. I was intimately familiar with this scene.

The patient had cancer. She was nearing death. She was nearly comatose. Her hair was nearly gone and her skin was nearly perfect. This was nearly the exact scenario I had lived through 20 years ago.

Big deep breath.

I told the daughters about my word project, and asked if they could think of a word that was really important to them in this situation. They both blurted out “Mom!” through their tears, so I knew this would be an inspired piece of work.

The whole time I was making their word, they talked to me about their mom. How strong and selfless she was. How, even when she was sick, she took care of her skin and made herself presentable every single day. She was always there for them, always giving, always loving, always their backbone of support in the world.

Because their story was so similar to mine, I gave them a copy of my book, Invisible Ink, which I had in my bag. One of the sisters read a few pages in; just far enough to see how many details in their story were replicated in mine. That opened the floodgates for them, as they felt I would understand their fears and frustrations about the way this journey had unfolded. And oh, did I ever.

All the while, their mom lay quietly, breathing deeply, one eye half-open, the other closed. One by one, they occasionally got up and walked to her bedside to stroke her hand and talk to her, but she never responded.

I decided to ask if they had gotten the chance to talk with her about where this might be headed. I told them how important I think it is to give patients an opportunity to be open about their fears and beliefs about death. They said their mom absolutely had a strong faith, even if they didn’t.

And right then, she opened her eyes and stared into me. She began to flail her arms. One of her daughters jumped up and thought she needed to use the restroom, so she called for a nurse. It got kind of chaotic as two nurses rushed in, but “mom” never took her eyes off of me. Before I left, I walked over and held her hand as I said hello. And then goodbye.

The daughter closest to me caught my arm as I was leaving and pulled me into a long, hard, shaking, sobbing hug. She was so grateful, and like many people, thinks I’m an angel.

I’m really not. I just have a sense of awe about life and death and the deep and important connections people make in the middle of both. If anything, I want to create a space in which others can find their own sense of awe, so that courage and dignity can remain an unbroken thread throughout this process we will all go through someday.

I think “mom” understood.

© 2015 Kathy Curtis. All rights reserved.

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