I found her in the rocking chair outside her room. Her eyes were vacant, red-rimmed, and tired. She seemed thinner every day, her cheekbones sharper and her collarbones more protruding.
Today she was babbling a lullaby. I recognized the tune but not the words. She used to sing it to me as a child. I think somehow she was still connected to reality. Like her mind was barely hanging, clinging to the most random memories of her past.
As I stepped closer, she stopped singing and focused those paled blue eyes on mine. She knew why I was here. The doctors had called, she refused to sleep, to go anywhere near her bed. They think my presence may help, may soothe her. I thought the opposite.
My mother was a 56-year-old schizophrenic patient. She had a late-onset which made diagnosis difficult and delayed treatment. My father passed away two years before she was diagnosed, and doctors believed his death could have triggered her symptoms. Grief is a powerful force, they said.
It all started so slow, with a couple of strange comments here and there during family dinners. I remember thinking she was on the phone often, but she had been fighting the voices before anyone realized something was wrong. Then, she disappeared for days at a time, without texting or calling. My brother was sure she was dating someone, and she didn't want to tell us. The idea made me so mad, we had just buried our father. Oh, if only it had been just that.
When we could no longer pretend everything was fine, we convinced her to see a doctor. We told her it was just a routine check-up. But our deepest fears were confirmed right away.
We did try to take care of her. We tried to give her her meds and keep her as comfortable as possible. But the voices in her head were louder than ours. The last strike was when she tried to attack my daughter when they were playing. One of the voices was not fond of my four-year-old. Her psychiatrist recommended hospice care for the sake of the family after that. It was hard to explain why Nanna would do such a thing, so we all knew it was the right choice.
So here I was, in this place that was costing me and my brother a fortune a month. Fighting demons that weren't even mine.
“Mom, how are you? They say you`re not sleeping.” My voice sounded hoarse and hesitant. We used to be best friends, but I did not recognize the woman in front of me anymore.
She didn't reply, but her eyes regained a bit of their former shine. She was assessing me like she was calculating her words, how much she trusted me, “I am not ready to say goodbye. If I do go to sleep I would have to. I need silence to say goodbye”. The melancholy in her words startled me. She sounded so coherent, so present, so like her old self.
“Mom you need to sleep, you look so tired. You need to rest at least for a bit. I can stay with you to make sure nothing happens, ok?" my words seemed to placate her a bit, but she was still unsure.
I took one of her arms in mine, trying not to flinch because of how bony it felt. We went inside, and I sat her at the edge of the bed while I pulled the covers and arranged the pillows. She wasn't looking at me anymore, but she seemed calmer. I helped her get into the bed and promised to stay with her while she rested. Her eyelids were drooping against her wishes, and her body went limp the second her head hit the pillow. Exhaustion had claimed her.
I sat on the chair beside her bed and took a book from my purse. I had taken the day off from work and let my husband know I might get back late. I might not recognize the woman sleeping beside me, but once she had been my best friend, my confidant, and I owed her everything.
I must have dozed off when a gasping sound startled me. My mother was trying to scream, but something was not allowing her to breathe. Her eyes were wide open, and her terrified expression froze me on my spot. I managed to get out of my stupor. I climbed into bed with her and tried to calm her down.
“Mom! Mom! It`s ok. I am here. Everything is fine. Please breath!” I tried to keep my voice level, but as time passed and she kept gasping and wheezing, I started panicking as well.
A nurse came into the room, put an oxygen mask on her, and injected sedatives on her arm. I sat on the chair again, my heart was racing, and my breathing came in short gasps. I was so scared for her. I felt so helpless.
“This has been happening every time we convince her to sleep. Doctors think it's night terrors, but...”, her voice sounded worried and hesitant as if she didn't know if she should keep talking or not.
“But you don't think it's night terror right? Has she told you something?”, I sounded more snippy than I intended, but if she knew something about what was going on I needed to know.
“She has these moments when I think the voices shut down, and she is more herself”, she sounded fond of her. “She talks about you and your brother every time it happens, she loves and misses you so much, but she is aware of how dangerous it would be for her to go home.”
Tears started clouding my vision. I didn't know she had these moments. I should have come more often, but it was so hard to see how this woman who was once so strong became just a shadow of her old self.
The nurse kept talking.” I think she wants to say goodbye properly”, there wasn't any judgment in her voice, but she looked at me with sadness in her eyes, ”she said you were never able to say goodbye to your father, and she doesn't want to leave you the same way.”
By then, the tears were streaming down my face. There was pressure on my chest that made my breathing labored. I looked at my mother, she looked peaceful after the sedative. Artificial dreams had claimed her.
“You should call your brother. I don't think she can fight it off for long”, the nurse said in a hushed, timid voice before exiting the room.
I called my brother the minute the door closed. I was crying so hard I could barely get the words out. He was in the room in the next hour. We said nothing. He understood what was happening, and just held my hand. We both waited for her to wake up.
It happened in the middle of the night. My mother opened her eyes, and I instantly knew she was alone, the voices hushed in the darkness of her mind. She looked at us both and smiled, a genuine, startling smile.
I hopped on her bed like I did when I was a child and curled around her embrace, my brother on her other side. We hug like we haven't in years. We made small talk, but we all knew what was happening. We were running out of time.
After a small silence, she signed. I could feel her chest expanding under my ear. I could hear her heart beating slowly.
“I am glad we had this moment, and I am so sorry for all I put you through. I never meant to be a burden for you so early”, my brother started to protest, but she shut him down with a gentle press of her fingers on his face.
“Please let me finish. I don't know how long I have, and I need to say it all this time.” She hiccuped, and I realized she had been crying all along. I couldn't look at her. It hurt too much.
“After your father passed away, I promised myself I would do all I could to protect you from that pain. I promised myself I would take care of you for as long as I could. I just didn't know it would be for such a short time,” my brother lower his head to her chest and I knew he was crying too.
“You are my most precious creation. You have made me proud every single day. My life had meaning because of you two.”
Her breath started to get ragged, and her voice was weak, “I never wanted to do what the voices said, but it was so hard to deny them. It's so hard to separate your mind in two. So hard to know what is real and what is not.”
I then realized the battle she had been fighting all these years. I always thought she just gave up when my father died and succumbed to her illness. I just realized I resented her for not fighting, for leaving us like my dad did. Now I knew better. My mother never stopped being a fighter, even when everyone else had given up on her.
“I will always love you, in this life and any other.” There was a big pause after that statement. All of a sudden, her chest stopped rising and falling, her heart stopped drumming inside her chest.
For the first time since she had started talking, I raised my head. She had the most peaceful expression I had ever seen on her. She was smiling with her lips closed, content. She had said goodbye as herself, and now she could sleep for as long as she wanted.