In one respect, it was not a difficult decision, because it had already been made for me. My mother’s body had decided it could no longer live, even with artificial means of support. Still, it was not easy to give my consent to remove all those tubes and machines.
She had a long history of health problems, but it was a massive heart attack that had brought Elizabeth Reeder to the end of her journey in September, 1998. After a nurse disconnected the equipment, Sally and I went into Mother’s room in the hospital’s Cardiac Care Unit. She was in a coma; I have no way of knowing if she could hear me when I leaned in close and told her, “I love you.”
If this had been a movie, I suppose this is when it would have shown me having flashbacks. I’d see myself playing on a Little League field with my mother in the stands, keeping score the way she always did. Then the movie version might dissolve to her presenting me with a birthday cake, or taking pride in some youthful accomplishment of mine.
It wasn’t like that, though. In the final minutes of her life, I wasn’t remembering the long-ago; I was in the present with her, and with my wife who stood on the other side of the bed. Each of us held one of Mother’s hands, and we began to sing softly to her. My mother had been a devout Christian, so we sang her into heaven with some of the hymns she had loved.
Sally and I glanced at the monitoring equipment occasionally and saw the numbers getting smaller, the signs of life more faint. Within a few minutes they stopped altogether. The heart monitor showed eerie activity, but that was due to the pacemaker that had been implanted years before, not an actual heartbeat. Mother had very peacefully slipped into eternity.
The medical staff gave us a couple of minutes alone with her, and then the emotion was abruptly displaced with business. Documents had to be signed, the mortuary had to be contacted, arrangements needed to be made for the disposition of Mother’s remains. In the midst of that, a nurse remembered to take the wedding rings off of my mother’s finger and give them to Sally.
At the mortuary there was more business to conduct: pick a casket, choose flower arrangements, select a time for the service. Did we want them to provide an officiant, or did we have one? Would we be paying for all this with check or credit card? And so on, for what seemed like hours.
Sally and I were emotionally spent when we finally completed the arrangements, but then humor came to our rescue. As we were leaving the mortuary, an employee gave us a jaunty grin and said, “Have a nice day.”
The absurdity of his remark struck us both as hilarious: Have a nice day!? Too late for that, pal — you are aware that this is a mortuary and we’re not here for a picnic, right!? It was all Sally and I could do to suppress our laughter until we were out of his earshot.
Once we exited the building, though, we let go — we were doubled over and gasping for air, we were laughing so hard. Our shoulders shook; we practically had to hold each other up; tears were streaming down our faces.
Eventually the laughter subsided, but the tears — real tears — lasted a while longer.