In our bathroom we have a wall hanging with that well-known passage from Ecclesiastes 3 embroidered on it. You know, the one the Byrds made famous. More times than I can count I’ve stood drying my hands on a towel, staring at those words on the wall.
When I think about my mother’s death, the “time to be born, time to die” dichotomy comes to mind first. These opposites makes sense. But right behind it comes “a time to weep and a time to laugh”—and the more I think about it, the more I understand that weeping and laughter may not be opposites after all.
My mother died in September 2014, six weeks after her liver cancer diagnosis. Those weeks my whole family was living intensely and deeply at the heart of life, not just skimming the surface of existence. Never before had I had the experience of spending hours at a person’s bedside, watching for signs, counting breaths. These long hours were full and fraught with emotion: sorrow, exhaustion, gratitude, hope, fear . . . and laughter.
The day Dad and I took her to the hospital, she was very weak. As we helped her into the van she said, “Well, I guess they’ll be able to tell we’re from the country.”
“Why?” I asked, looking around. Was it the bits of straw from the farmyard on the floor mats? The dirt-road clay on the hubcaps?
“We’re all wearing plaid,” she said. And so we were. It wasn’t unusual for her and Dad both to appear in plaid shirts, but I had one on as well. As anxious as we were about Mom, it was good to laugh.
In the early days after she was hospitalized, Mom was confused. She had high calcium in her blood, and was given fluids and IV meds to bring it down. During that time she said some very strange things. Now, I know that if someone were in a chronic state of hallucination and confusion due to mental illness or dementia, it would be terrible for that person and his or her loved ones. I don't want to make light of that. But there were so many times when we couldn't help laughing.
Mom kept talking about letters—“It was strange how the Ds and the Fs were all coming in waves”—and at one point she looked right at me and said, “And I just didn’t know how to interpret that.” Me neither, Mom.
Another day she said to me, “It must be snowy out there; they’ve put these green leggings on me.” (The hospital staff had NOT put green leggings on her.) Then, “Oh well, my legs always were my best feature.”
Another time, she pointed at one of my brothers and said, “He’s the sign of the Promised Land, you know”—yet the next time she saw him she made a shooing motion with her hand and said, “Now, you scoot.”
When the medications reduced her blood calcium levels, Mom started to seem more like herself and was able, from her hospital bed, to help direct the packing for her and Dad’s move from our family farmhouse to an apartment. She told my brother that she really should be at the house herself to make these decisions. “After all,” she said, “It was my kingdom.”
In the final days before her death, lucidity came in short bursts, sometimes with amusing results. Her home care nurse arrived one day and introduced the young nursing student she’d brought with her: “This is Katherine.” Mom perked up, looked at the younger woman, and said with a smile, “All you gorgeous are so girls!”
Not long before she died, Dad told Mom that she was the best woman he’d ever met. Her dry response: ”Well, you haven’t met many women.” It was so like Mom to get a one-liner in at the perfect moment.
The Co-mingling of Moments
Four years later, when I look at that wall hanging and read “a time to weep and a time to laugh,” I no longer see sorrow and laughter as contrasting emotions that can only take place at distinct, separate times, but as partners that sometimes coexist in the same instant.
We suffered so much loss, but we also really lived. And oh, how we laughed.
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