The room is tiny, but cozy. The walls are studded with photos and paintings that have been carefully curated by family members who know the room’s occupant well. A few ceramic roosters occupy spaces on shelves and bedside tables, each one lovingly selected from an overflowing collection gathered across the course of a whole lifetime. The blinds are pulled almost shut, hiding away the Portland rain, and the lights are dimmed. Peaceful piano music merges with the rhythmic hum of an oxygen tank – one of the few things that marks this room as “medical.”
In the very center, stands a hospital bed, surrounded by a rocking chair, an easy chair and several folding chairs. These seats are usually filled with visitors, who talk in soft tones and pray and sometimes cry. But mostly, they trade stories with the woman in the bed. She is tucked in beneath a fluffy white duvet so cloud-like it almost looks as if Heaven has come to meet her halfway.
Loretta is 87, but I’m pretty sure her mind is still 24. Named after a movie star, she is as aware and intelligent as anyone I have ever known. Her dark hair, fair skin and dancing blue eyes hint at her heritage, and when she speaks, there’s no doubt – traces of Ireland and Brooklyn lace and lilt her words. She has impeccable grammar and beautiful handwriting. She has an old world charm about her that is impossible to fake or to shake. Gracious. Elegant. The things I wish I could be, but I was born in the wrong era and the wrong country. I’ve seen the pictures of Loretta when she was young and they tell the clear story of a beautiful woman who loves fashion, loves fun and loves life.
Now, as I enter the room where she is living out her last handful of days, she is still that woman. Though she is in a great deal of pain, and though I am the newest member of her family, her eyes sparkle when she sees me. She takes my hand in hers and says, “Oh Bo, pray with me, please.”
I’m always struck by the way our lives gather in around us when we are nearing the end. Mostly, what gathers here is: people. Her people. Her six kids and 34 grandkids. My kids joined that big grandkid number when I married her son in 2019, and she did not hesitate to claim them, and me, as her very own.
I start to pray…”Jesus, you’re welcome here…” but I’m struggling. She’s struggling to breathe and I’m struggling to pray. The moment is thick with the weighty presence of things I cannot see. Anticipation for eternity. A little fear because this is uncharted territory. Hope for the healing that is coming. I am undone, as I consider all that is waiting for her just outside the confines of this hospital bed. I grab my phone and pull up Psalm 139 and start to read out loud. Oh, Lord, You see me and You know me. I see her breathing calm and her expression settle into something that’s not quite peace, but also not fear.
Throughout the morning, her kids come and go and so does her awareness of what’s happening in the room. Medication and illness have clouded some of her quick wit, but not much of it. When she wakes from a five-minute sleep, she almost always has something clever to say that makes us laugh or cry or pretend to be shocked at her faux-swearing (“It’s a melluvahess”).
When Cliff and his sister leave the room, she crooks her finger, motioning me to come up close. She looks me straight in the eye and says, “Bo, my children…I just want my children to be fine…”.
I smile and squeeze her hand gently. “Oh, mom, your children will be better-than-fine. I’m sure of it. You don’t need to worry.”
She fades from me for a minute, because holding focus is so difficult at this stage of life when sleep is always reaching in to steal her away. But her eyes flutter open suddenly and she lifts her head from the pillow and says straight to my heart: “I LOVE your husband.”
I want to cry. Partly because we share the very same feelings about my husband, but mostly because I am also a mom.
I have agonized over four humans more than I have agonized over anything. I have prayed and cried and thought and planned and manipulated and failed and forgiven and been forgiven a thousand times over. I have held their broken toys and their broken hearts, boldly promising that we can fix them both. I have felt like the best mom and the very worst. I have dreamed a thousand dreams for them and fought some ill advised battles for them. Now, I have added another six to the same space in my heart. When my story moves toward the door of heaven, and my life begins to gather in around me, these are the faces that will hold my attention. They carry the full weight of my love in a way that no one else does, no one else can.
When Loretta Brady looked in my eyes and said, ‘I love your husband,” she was trusting me with something so dear to her, so invaluable and incredible that has always belonged to her in a way that he has belonged to no one else. But now, as she prepares to make her great escape to eternity, she wants to make sure that I am on her team. With the knowing and the dreaming and the fighting and the fixing. She has been a daughter and a wife and a cousin and a friend – but first and foremost, she is a mom. And moms do not let go until the very end – and maybe not even then.