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At My Mother's Bedside

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Gazing out the window next to my mother’s bed, a pair of cardinals took refuge in the lilacs lining the hospital parking lot and flitted between branches. Splashes of purple confirmed the lilacs were in full bloom. The recollection of their fragrance ushered in a flood of memories of past springs. Lilacs always were her favorite, I mused.

The beeping of Mom’s IV infusion pump scattered the memories of Mom and summoned the nurse to her side. The RN introduced herself and checked Mom’s saturation monitor and oxygen line. As she hung a new bag, she commented, “Your sister said you’d be here today, how was your flight?”

“Flight was fine, traffic not so much.” 

Despite my hushed tone, Mom stirred, looked over at me, and smiled. Standing up, I leaned over and kissed her lightly on the forehead. I scooted the chair closer to her bed and took her hand. The thinning skin revealed the ecchymosis of her debilitated state, a result of end-stage COPD and electrolyte imbalance. Before anything further was said, she dozed off again.

It was my brother’s phone call that brought me to Mom’s bedside. He’d said she wasn’t expected to linger much longer. Accordingly, her episodes of lucid thought had become less frequent.

Mom and I could communicate in a unique manner. We would answer each other’s questions or respond after only a few beginning words were uttered. She would ask, “Have you …” and I would interrupt her by saying, “I haven’t heard from him since Christmas.” And there wouldn’t have been any preliminary event or conversation prompting such an exchange, yet I knew what was being asked. It was something we both would do, and it was always spontaneous. Sometimes a question would be interrupted by the events of a busy day only to be answered a day or two later, again without prompting. The answer would be uttered spontaneously yet with full comprehension of what the original question was.

In the fall of 1959, I was in kindergarten and the youngest of three siblings. Tragically, that July Mom suffered a stillbirth from a complete placental abruption, massive hemorrhage, and near-fatal coagulopathy. I still recall our father seated on the couch one evening explaining to my brother and sister and me that our mother wouldn’t be coming home from the hospital and that our baby brother Paul was in heaven. 

Fortunately, Mom survived and came home after a six-week hospital stay. Each day that fall, I would wait by the mailbox as the yellow Bluebird school bus stopped to pick me up. My mother always watched me climb aboard and dutifully take my seat. Before the bus surged forward, the bus driver would lean to her right and swing the door shut on bus number 16 with a loud swoosh. It was then I would look out the window and wave goodbye to my mother standing on the porch. One day — not too long into the school year — the waving ritual ceased when I realized I failed to turn and wave. Far too young to realize I left her to an empty home and the haunting memories of a life that never was, I now know she would have slowly turned, opened the screen door, looked back briefly one more time, then found her way to the couch and, with her hands cupped over her face, sobbed. My failure to wave haunted me for years, the memory of my mother on the front porch waiting to wave seared into my subconscious like a branding iron. Regardless, neither of us ever mentioned this unintended stab to her heart, but that day, I moved one small step closer to the independence every mother nurtures and at the same time dreads. 

Midway through the afternoon, Mom woke up. The lunch tray that had been brought in earlier failed to interest her. I realized this would probably be our last conversation. I thanked her for always being so kind to my friends. I thanked her for encouraging my education. We shared a hearty laugh that caused another frothy coughing spell, when I recalled the time I had let Charlie, our miniature poodle, out the back door only to see him a while later dragging the neighbor’s uncooked turkey up the driveway, a turkey that had undoubtedly been left in their garage to keep cool for Thanksgiving. I thanked her for being the best mom ever.

Before the eventual sun-downing set in, I gently grasped Mom’s hand, caressed it, and said, “Mom, I’m sorry …”

With her eyes still closed, she raised her hand to cut me off and said, “You didn’t wave.”

The next day, Mom failed to regain consciousness, and by the weekend she was gone.

With Mother’s Day upon us, I urge you to take a moment to reflect upon a shared memory, keeping in mind that the days drag while the years fly. Then take the time to honor your mother in a fitting manner, be it flowers, a visit, a video call, a card, or a letter.

Do you have a memory with close friends or family in a clinical setting? Share your experiences in the comment section.

Lloyd Holm is a retired obstetrician who lives in Cottage Grove, Minnesota with his wife, Gretchen. He has authored two novels and a children’s book and his writings have appeared in the Omaha World Herald, The Female Patient, Iowa Medicine, Contemporary OB/GYN, Hospital Drive, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Obstetrics and Gynecology. While a member of the teaching faculty at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, he received the Dean's Award for Excellence in Clinical Education and The Hirschmann Golden Apple Award. Dr. Holm is a 2021–2022 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Image by Cavan Images / GettyImages

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