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For a Long Time I Thought I Made My Mom Die

A personal story about what it means to make the choice to let go.

Photo of Ned Buskirk
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For a long time I thought I made my mom die.

Thanksgiving week, she slept so deeply, dying rapidly next to a small plate of mashed potatoes and stuffing, in her room on a tiny twin mattress that moved far too easily. If you sat on it or leaned against, it would slide like a doll’s bed across the room. I thought I stayed away too much, but she was doing the work of departure; I couldn't be near her, for I'd have had to hold on to her and that bed too hard for her to go... So she went that week and quickly.

When we got her to the hospital, the day after Thanksgiving, somehow finally realizing, like we’d seen it on that morning’s news, the great undeniable surprise that she was dying, the last stretch of her life happened in only a handful of hours. I know I was young and did it the only way I knew how... dramatically, emotionally, out of my mind. I moved when I was told, out of the way of suddenly frantic, scrambling nurses [“Why are you all moving so quickly? Are you as surprised as I am?”]. I called everyone I could think of, not to just tell them what was happening, but to escape, alive, hysterical, sobbing, notifying diligently, but existing, one raving call at a time. And when it was time, I bowed my head for prayer because someone older brought a priest in and said we should. For years I thought I’d been more swept away by her death than present to it.

But ultimately, in retrospect – no – not retrospect – what an inadequate word to use when your mother rips out of your life, dragging your being halfway through the death portal, changing you completely and forever. Not retrospect. It’s revelation. Specifically revelation defined as: the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world. I realize in revelation, unearthed from great reality-destroying loss, that we were there, my sister and I, leaning over that mother exit that lay between us, crying, helpless, but massaging her legs and loving her. I learned then, if I was ever to have the honor of being at the edge of someone’s deathbed, that’s just what I’m supposed to do. Be there.

And then I made my mom die. Or so I thought for years. When she looked at my sister and I from her hospital bed, across the greatest of chasms, spanning from the edge of me to her little face, in the smallest, whitest of rooms, in the one moment of clarity I recall her having, the one single thing I remember her saying to us that entire last week of her life, she asked us what we thought about life support. And all I could do was wordlessly stand and cry. And not long after that she died. My mother died. Behold my tears. But that was my answer. And that was my job, too. Only now I understand that I did it well. I helplessly wept and let go well. She needed permission and my tears told her it was okay. And I got to whisper, "I love you. It's okay," into her ear over and over. That's what I was supposed to do. And that’s all.

I didn’t make my mom die. I let her die. 
I loved her and told her so. I told her it’s okay. And it is.
And for that, I know now, I am her good son.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Be vulnerable.


Ned Buskirk


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chandra Shekhar

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Ned for sharing your story. Being there and letting her leave was the best you could do. It is not an easy thing to say bye.
One of my friends passed away last summer only a few hours after her children called her on the phone. Her teenager daughter with whom she was always fighting told her that she loved her. ... 
You are making a great point about the need to learn to be vulnerable. The question for this challenge might be how to support this sense of vulnerability, giving people permission to be vulnerable in situations where they often don't feel they can / should be.

Photo of Ned Buskirk

Mmm. Yes. Supported vulnerability. A system that keeps this at its main focus. Our patients must be held in that tender way & the family/friends/community that surrounds them, too.

Photo of Hattie Bryant

You are so right now and you were so right then.  The $2.9 million medical industrial complex does not have what we need to have a peaceful death.  You gave your mother just what she needed.

Photo of Ned Buskirk

Thank you, Hattie...