This Is Hospice: My Last Days With Louise

We are all dying. All of us, right now, as we squabble over dinner plans and run our kids to baseball practice and put on mascara and binge-watch Netflix, we are all inching closer to the end.

We know this, of course. But there are people in rooms all over the world who are closer than most of us to getting there. I spend my Saturday afternoons with them. When I tell people I’m a hospice volunteer they say things like “I don’t know how you do it” and “It must be so hard,” and that stuff makes me wince because it’s not at all. It’s actually a beautiful, soul-satisfying experience, and many times the highlight of my week.

So I’m sharing a snapshot of my last two visits with one of the patients I’ve been seeing since December. I should note that it’s not always like this. Often my visits with patients are filled with laughter and conversation and quiet companionship. But this is what it’s like when our time together is coming to an end, which is the part I think people fear – and shouldn’t. I hope that reading this might entice even one person to consider spending a tiny bit of their free time signing up to become someone’s last new friend. You will not regret it.

 

Sunday, July 17:

“Good morning, Louise!” I say as I walk into her bedroom, past the sign taped to her door that says “LOUISE’S ROOM.” The same reminder is on the wall opposite her bed. Mid-morning sunlight shines through the blinds facing her, a silent admonishment over her still being under the covers on such a gorgeous day.

I set my hazelnut coffee in its paper Panera Bread cup on her nightstand and pull her wheelchair up to the bed before plopping down on it. This is usually where I sit. She is usually awake.

A country music song plays on the radio atop her dresser, nearly drowned out by the steady drone of the oxygen machine behind me, its long green tube snaking and curling its way to Louise’s nostrils. I glance down to make sure I haven’t run over it with the wheelchair, cutting off that extra bit of air she needs to help her lungs inflate. She’s about to die, but I sure don’t want to have a hand in it.

I lean over her bed rails and stroke her wispy white bangs. They are soft and fine and finally not hanging in her eyes; someone must have cut them.

“It’s Robyn. I wanted to come back today to see you again.” For all the months I’ve known her, she’s never said or, to my knowledge, remembered my name. I feel silly saying it now. The last time I had a patient with Alzheimer’s, I had to reintroduce myself every other week when I visited her. “Oh, come in. What do you need?” she’d ask, and I’d tell her who I was. We’d go over the same details, that I have two kids, that she has one son, a retired teacher. That I’m a writer. That her son wrote a book. “Have you seen it?” she’d ask, picking it up from the table beside her the same way, so eerily, every time. “I’m just reading it now,” she’d say as I marveled. The bookmark never moved.

Louise wasn’t like that. She never remembered who I was from one visit to the next, but she didn’t seem to care, and her face always lit up when I walked in. “Well look who’s here,” she’d say, then ask me if I saw her car in the parking lot, or tell me she needed to get home soon to help her mother, who really was working too hard in the garden. She’d lived at the nursing home for at least two years, hadn’t driven in forever, and her mother was long dead.

It was disorienting at first, but I grew to anticipate the unexpectedness of the visits. I knew I’d be joining her on the roller coaster that was her brain, along for the ride for an hour or so. Arms up, we’d go wherever the tracks took us, me holding her hand when she got scared, when her world dipped and spun out of control. “When can I go home?? I don’t understand where this is. Why isn’t anyone coming?” It happened more and more as the months wore on.

But the coaster sits idle on the track today. I rest my head on the bed rail and watch her breathe. Her eyes are closed; there is no movement behind her eyelids. Her mouth is open in the shape of an oval, lips curled inward, jaw slightly slack. The left side of her face is swollen and bruised from a recent fall, splotches of purple and red and green and yellow that run together and down her cheek and chin and across her chest. I wonder where she was trying to go when she tumbled out of bed last week. To the bathroom? To her mother’s garden? To the post office where she worked 40 years ago?

I take a long sip of coffee. “I met your youngest son yesterday.” I put down the cup and pick up her hand. It curls around mine and I glance back at her face, but see no flicker of anything. I notice her mauve nail polish has been removed, but whoever did the job wasn’t thorough. Just enough for the staff to watch for the fingernail beds to change from pink to blue, I imagine. Her fingers are cool, though they’ve been under the down comforter. “Wayne was here to see you!”

Wayne, the first family member I’d met in eight months of visiting her, who wasn’t sure how long Louise had been living there or when he’d seen her last.

“He loves you very much.”

Wayne, who didn’t speak to his mother or touch her. But he did preach to me for an hour about how my heart is black with evil and I need God to save me.

“He sounds like a very passionate man, Louise. He sure loves God. I bet you had a hand in that, didn’t you?”

Wayne, who lamented that when his mother dies he will be forced to move out of her house so his siblings can sell it and divide the estate.

“I know you did your best raising them,” I tell her, my face leaning toward hers. I hope she can hear me. “Being a mother is just the most amazing job in life, ya know?” My voice chokes. “And you got to do it. It’s a hard job, too, I know. It’s so hard. And you did it four times. They all love you so much.”

I’ve only met Wayne, but I still believe what I say. It is a hard job, and I’m sure she did her best. I know they love her, I see traces of it here and there: A Mother’s Day card propped up on the shelf. A new box of Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies on the windowsill. Wayne asked me if his mother ate those; I said I’d never seen her eat anything. “I bet people who work here are coming in and taking them,” he said suspiciously. He had deep concern for the crème pies.

I caress her forearm, our hands still locked, while my eyes take in the room one last time. The calendar on the wall still showing May. The photos of loved ones on the windowsill. The framed black and white portrait of her husband in his uniform on the dresser behind me. For awhile she knew it was her husband. Then one day she said it was her brother. A month or two after that she wasn’t sure who it was.

“Hmm,” she’d said, noticing it suddenly and squinting at it from her bed 6 feet away. “Is that?” And then, nothing. Wayne told me his father died in 1988, which is a long time to live with the memory of having a spouse.

I pray aloud for her, with her, on her behalf, thanking God for her, for this friendship, for her life, for her peace and pain-free body at the end. I ask God to take her, to wrap her in His arms, to reunite her with her loved ones.

Amen.

Then, for a long while, I just sit there quietly. My mind wanders to my life. I resist the urge to check my phone, to mindlessly scroll through social media platforms looking at people’s vacations in progress, political rants. I love that for this hour I get to leave my life and most of my identity behind. Nobody here cares who I am, what I’ve accomplished, what I’m wearing. I’m just a warm hand to hold, an easy smile to flash in a lonely person’s direction. That’s it. It’s perfect in its simplicity. I do so little here.

I watch her chest rise and fall. At one point I lean over her again and whisper, “It’s OK to go, if you’re ready, Louise. I’m right here with you.” Selfishly, I want her to leave this world while I’m here, so I’ll know she didn’t draw her last breath alone. I don’t know why this matters. She might not even know I’m in the room, and it’s sadistic, morbid, totally messed up to wish for someone to die. But the end is coming anyway.

We don’t control such things, though, and after an hour I need to leave to pick up my kids. I kiss her forehead. “I don’t want to leave you.” I start to cry. I watch her chest rise and fall. “I love you, Louise. I will never forget you. When I see you again, will you remember me? I hope so.”

I walk out of the room slowly, watching. Just in case. Her chest rises and falls, her mouth still hangs open. I sniff and wipe away tears as I head out the door. I wonder when the end will come.

 

Saturday, July 23:

I didn’t expect to see Louise again after last Sunday, but I’ve kept tabs on her throughout the week and by Saturday afternoon I hear from her hospice nurse that she’s still alive. “I’ll be surprised if she makes it through the night,” she tells me over the phone, so I decide to head back one last (last) time.

I’m careful to remember my hospice badge today, as I expect a vigil of some sort by family members who don’t know who I am or whether I belong there. But when I enter her room, it is empty. It is also disheveled. The closet doors are open, as is the nightstand drawer. Louise’s bed has been pushed away from the wall, I assume to give the aides better access. Her family photos have all been piled on one end of the windowsill to make room for extra linens and medical equipment.

Her room is in transition along with her body, and I am unsettled to be inside it more than I am to be beside it.

Louise is lying on her back, her face angled straight up to the ceiling. Her mouth is wide open but her breath is quiet; I don’t hear the telltale rattling in her chest that sometimes happens near the end.

“Lou-iiiiise,” I sing-song playfully, sitting down in her wheelchair, maneuvering around the O2 tube. “I’m so glad I got to come back and see you again.” I comb my fingers through her bangs, caress the side of her face. The bruises look a bit lighter, but now I can see there are bruises on her left ear, too. And as my fingers comb through the hair framing her face, I feel a knot the size of a gumdrop right above her ear.

It hits me then that the fall is why we’re here. I mean sure there’s the Alzheimer’s, and the cancer, but for such a frail body to have suffered such a physical blow … her compromised immune system does not have the strength to come back from it.

I don’t make small talk, yammering on about how hot it is outside or what my kids and I did yesterday. It would seem almost disrespectful to do so. This is her time.

I find her hand under the covers and take it in mine. It is much stiffer than last week, but very warm. I lean over her and pray aloud, heartfelt words that come fast from my heart to my lips. We never talked about religion, she and I. Doesn’t matter. It’s at least making one of us feel better.

I watch her chest rise and fall for an hour and a half. Every time I take my eyes off her for even a second, when I look back I think for a moment that she is dead, that she has drawn her last breath while I was studying the pattern on her curtain valance, or contemplating what I’ll have for dinner. But always there is the slight rise again of her chest, and my shoulders relax.

I can’t get over how warm her fingers are, almost sweaty. When a nurse comes in and I comment on it, she pulls the bottom corner of the comforter back and shows me Louise’s feet and legs, cold to the touch and bluish-gray, death slowly creeping up from her toes, now past her knees.

“She woke up two days ago,” the nurse says. “Got up, had a little oatmeal. She told me she loved me. Told a few of the other girls she loved them too. She told us that night it was her last night. That was … Wednesday, I think. We all kind of expected her to go then.”

But she didn’t go then. She hung on, tough girl, and now it’s Saturday evening, and I’m so glad she hung on because I got to see her again. I got to drive here one last time and sit in this room with the incessant country music playing, and the oxygen tank humming, and her stuffed bear smiling, his little pink tongue making him look playful, excited, like an adventure is right around the corner. She sometimes said more to that bear than she said to me. I wonder who will inherit him. I hope it’s a spunky great-grandchild who will take him on adventures. He’s been in that bed for two years, too clean, too perfect. But definitely loved.

The nurse says her older son came by for a bit on Wednesday, cried, asked to take her home. “He said he wished he’d done things differently,” she says, pulling her mouth to one side.

After the nurse leaves, I have an urge, very small, that seems crazy but feels right.

“Would you like me to sing to you?” I ask Louise. “I was thinking I could sing you a song.” Amazing Grace, I hear inside my head. Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ to her.

I lean back and glance out the door to make sure nobody’s coming, or in earshot. Then I lean in real close. “I should warn you, Louise, I’m really not a good singer. Like, if anything’s gonna make you either wake up from your coma or follow the light, listening to me sing might do it. So pick a side.”

I start trying to run through the verses in my head but decide it’ll come back to me once I start. I sang this classic to both my babies for countless months while rocking them to sleep. Singing an old song is like riding a bike, I reason.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like meeeee….” I start quietly, tentatively, perhaps slightly off-key. She doesn’t move a muscle.

After the second verse I stall out. “When we’ve been here 10,000 years.. wait, no.” I stop cold. That’s not the third verse. That’s like the fourth or fifth verse.

We sit in silence for a moment. Part of me is relieved to be done singing. Well, I tried. I look at her. It feels unfinished. This is the last time she will hear a song. You can’t half-ass it, Robyn.

Dammit.

“I can’t remember the words, Louise,” I say. “I’m gonna have to look them up.”

I pull out my phone, Google the song, come up with the lyrics, glance again out the bedroom door, see no one, then lean in and start from the third verse. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. …”

I sing two more verses, then the first one again for good measure. When I finish my little concert for one it feels extra quiet in the room. Then the country music comes back on – I swear it wasn’t playing a minute ago – and some guy is drawling about a woman needing directions, something about sweet tea.

Louise’s body jumps a bit, small tremors involuntarily jolting her muscles. I watch and wait. She settles. I think about what an enormous privilege it is to be present for someone’s final hours. Who would have foreseen that? Obviously we all know who we spend our first moments of life with, but nobody knows who will be with them at the end, whose is the last voice they’ll hear? Louise certainly couldn’t have imagined it might be a random middle-aged single mom with no ties to her family or even her hometown.

But I think there’s incredible beauty in that, in an anonymous hand of humanity reaching out, on behalf of this world, to say goodbye and well done, to whisper “you have been loved, and you will be missed,” right into her ear.

And that’s what I do next. I stand over her and whisper those things and more, things for only me and her to know. I kiss her forehead many times. I caress her face and her shoulder. I watch for signs of recognition, any twitch or flutter or smile that would show she can hear me, feel me, will miss me too. There is nothing. It doesn’t matter.

“I’m gonna go now, Louise. But I’ll be thinking of you. You’re in my heart, OK? You are not alone. I’ll be right here.” I touch her chest gingerly; the words and gesture make me think of E.T., and I chuckle through my tears.

“I love you, sweet friend.” We cannot hear that enough, I figure. One more glance at her chest. Yes, still breathing. I walk out of her room, past the sign that for so long reminded her where she was. “LOUISE’S ROOM.” She could never remember it; I will not forget it.

(Louise died early Sunday, July 24; she was 94.)

Louise's constant companion, Russ. She believed the brand on his tag was his name. She was right.
Louise’s constant companion, Russ. She believed the brand on his tag was his name. She was right.

 

[Note: Names were changed for privacy purposes.]

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A Mother’s Day Masterpiece

It started with an innocent manicure. I told my younger son, who’s 7, that he could paint my nails for Mother’s Day. He’d done it last year on that day – each finger a different shade – and he hadn’t forgotten about the special treat of playing with his mother’s polishes.

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So I sat at the kitchen table last Sunday afternoon while he lovingly globbed bright orange polish on my nails. It made both of us exceedingly happy. About 90 seconds after he finished, he asked if they were dry so he could add another color. I touched them gingerly and reported that no, they were still pretty wet. That’s when things started to go awry.

After rebuffing his offer to paint my toenails too, he retrieved a hairbrush and water bottle spritzer from the hall closet and began spraying and brushing my hair. Tiny droplets trickled down my forehead and I closed my eyes as the brush pulled my head back. I tried to relax, soaking in all this sweet pampering by my first-grader as my third-grader sat reading in the other room. This is a perfect Mother’s Day, I thought. And we had frozen yogurt sundaes to look forward to, as I’d promised to take them to Sweet Frog for a dinner treat that evening.

My eyes were still closed a few minutes later when I felt the cold water misting my bare feet. I jumped, eyes wide open, and he looked up at me and smiled. He had the kitchen towel in his hand. “I’m washing your feet,” he said, and continued his ice water assault on my toes. I grimaced and let him.

After Round 2 of nail polish – this time a shade of royal blue added to half of each orange nail – he disappeared again and returned with a shade of lipstick so bright I keep it in the bathroom for the sole purpose of writing messages to them on the medicine cabinet mirror.

He uncapped it and looked at me matter-of-factly. I think by then he had a whole plan in mind, but I was still oblivious. He told me to hold still. Then: “Oh man,” he smiled at his handiwork, shoving the cap back on before twisting the tube down. I stood up and checked myself out in the mirror: I looked like a middle-aged hussy who’d tried to “freshen up” after having a few too many vodka tonics. He waited for my reaction.

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“Wow,” I exclaimed, wondering silently how long I needed to wait before wiping it off. Then he asked for the rest of my makeup, and I thought Eh. We’ve come this far.

I have two makeup bags: A small one of stuff I use every day – concealer, pressed powder, mascara – and a bigger bag of odds and ends I’ve mostly gotten from Ipsy that I never wear but won’t throw out because you never know when I might need six shades of gray eye shadow, or dual-color blush crème, or something ridiculous called “eyebrow mascara.”

That is the bag I pulled out for him.

When he was finished painting my face, he asked me to put my hair up in a ponytail, then retrieved the five small flowers he and his brother had presented to me in little vases that morning and stuck them, one by one, in my hair. He took a step back from me and smiled, delighted with his work thus far. “Now, would you like something to wear?” he asked in a tone of voice that suggested he was now my personal stylist, not my son.

I looked down at my jeans and T-shirt. “Why, yes, I think I would. Do you have something special in mind?”

“Ohhhh yes,” he said. “I will return in a moment.” He disappeared into my bedroom, and I thought, This is so fun. Until he came back holding a pair of black and white tie-dyed running tights; an orange, black and white patterned bikini top; a multicolored sleeveless blouse; and a red, white and blue flannel shirt to go over the whole thing. “If your nails are dry, I can show you to your dressing room,” he said, all business.

I checked the blue polish; it was a bit tacky, but congealed enough. “Yes, thank you, sir,” I said, standing up. He led me to my own bedroom, placed the clothes on my bed and left.

When I emerged, my pint-sized stylist gasped. I don’t remember him ever looking so proud. He called his brother in to see his masterpiece, and one of them said, “We need to get dressed up, too!” That’s when I knew that this wasn’t some silly afternoon game; this was careful preparation for a special outing.

And I was going to be leaving the house looking like this.

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Evan wasn’t quite done with me, turning his focus to my jewelry. He asked me to remove my rings and found two other, fancier ones for me to wear. He selected the largest earrings I own, and chose a necklace for me too. Then he placed brown pumps and white sandals at my feet, and told me to choose.

When all was in place, he took a few steps back, stared hard at his creation from head to toe, and announced, “You’re done.”

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Kostyn took my phone and snapped a full-body photo. As he handed it back to me he whispered, “You look amazing.” I beamed.

As they rushed around their bedroom, donning collared shirts and khakis and looking for accessories to dress themselves up even further, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror and noticed I couldn’t stop smiling. I thought about all those times I’d scoffed at the notion that women “give up” once they become mothers, that “mom jeans” become the norm and fitness takes a back seat, that we moms no longer care much what we look like. I’ve always known that to be a load of crap.

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The truth is we still care very much, I thought, smooshing my lips together to even out my horrendous lipstick. But we also care about other things, things that mean more than perfect manicures and flat stomachs. And sometimes, those things make us feel the most beautiful.

On that day, at that moment, I felt ridiculously beautiful.

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When they presented themselves, dapper and ready, we took a few selfies to document the day.

“Mommy, do you think everyone at the Sweet Frogs will think we were just at a wedding?” Evan asked with such sincerity I had to keep myself from squeezing the daylights out of him.

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Kostyn answered for me. “Oh yes,” he said. “Every head will turn our way!” I glanced down at my running tights and grabbed my keys and purse. “You betcha,” I said, and we were off.

The place, of course, was packed.

I am not a bold person; I prefer to blend into a crowd, not do or say or wear anything that will turn the spotlight in my direction. There was no hope of blending that day. But it didn’t matter. You know how some people make you feel beautiful just by the way they look at you? Every time my boys glanced my way, I felt beautiful. I was beautiful. I walked in with my head held high and we waltzed straight back to the frozen yogurt stations to start making our gigantic sundaes.

Once our bowls were piled high with sauces and candies and sprinkles, we claimed the only free table in the joint and I went back to the counter for water. I could feel other eyes on me, and for a moment I shrunk inside, momentarily embarrassed. But then as I walked back toward my sweet sons I saw them high five each other. When I sat down, Evan held up his hand and said, “Good Mother’s Day, Mommy,” and we high-fived; Kostyn did the same. And once again, I was beautiful.

“This is a perfect Mother’s Day,” I told them, and they nodded matter-of-factly. They knew it.

“Fist bump,” Evan commanded, and we both obliged. The neon orange nail polish created the perfect fireworks.

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Dandelions Are Nature’s Reminder That Survivors Will Always Rise

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I watched a man attemping to murder dandelions yesterday with calculated precision, holding a canister of weed killer and soaking each yellow flower on his otherwise perfectly manicured lawn.

I know people like lush lawns, and dandelions are considered weeds. I know some look down upon front yards like mine, with clumpy grass mixed with patches of moss and clover and plenty of puffy, sunny blossoms. I know dandelions grow taller and faster than grass, which exasperates those who like the outdoors to be tidy and trimmed, fastidious homeowners who spend time worrying about whether or not their neighbors think it’s time for them to mow.

I know in many yards dandelions are routinely yanked out, cut down or drenched in chemicals until they succumb to the bullying – for a time. But only for a time.

Because dandelions are nature’s survivors. And resilience is a superpower.

Last Saturday I stood in a room full of survivors – dozens and dozens of people who’d suffered unspeakable crimes against them, crimes that were often perpetrated when they were too young to understand or even identify such acts as crimes.

All grown up now, some were still as tentative as children; many were sorrowful, or angry, or awash in the remnants of shame and guilt and confusion that stain the psyche. But they were there. They were there to seek comfort, to find a voice that is no longer muted by fear or insecurities. They were there to begin, or continue, the long task of rising from the wreckage somebody else caused.

But they weren’t just surviving despite all those toxic memories and years of cutting themselves down, decades of trying to blend with the unblemished blades of grass around them. No, they weren’t doing that. They were thriving. They were hopeful and empathetic and could not have been more beautiful. Their courage was majestic, their compassion inspirational. Their resilience was – and is – food for the world’s soul.

Many had come from families where silence is heralded, and from circumstances where justice was never served. They still came. They came despite feeling, sometimes for their whole lives, that they are bad. Wrong. Worthless. Weeds.

But they – we – are none of those things.

Dandelions are magic. Their leaves are among the most nutritious of all greens. Their blossoms are a toddler’s favorite gift to give. Their heads can be made into wine. Their seeds can grant wishes on the wind.

I believe that lawns without a pop of yellow in the springtime are not only soulless and sad, but distortions of the truth. They are carefully constructed cubic yards of overachievement and under-imagination. And as with so much in this life, the illusion of perfection almost always masks something toxic.

But nature knows, and so do I, that survivors can appear to be drowning in the invisible poison of our circumstances, but we will rise, and we will bloom. Again and again. And the world is better for it.

Have you ever seen a field of golden dandelions on a sunny spring day? I saw one last Saturday, and it was breathtaking.

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Birthday woes? Forget about it.

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I think the glow stick border makes my mangled birthday brownie sundae look a little extra special.

It’s 10:38 p.m. Friday, and I’m sitting on my bed listening to my kids outside my bedroom door. They are decorating the house for my birthday tomorrow, and they are not exactly doing it stealthily. There is a lot of muttering and “shhhhhh!”-ing and scraping of dining room chairs against hardwood floors.

It is making me cry the good kind of tears, even as I listen to them argue about where things should go and how much tape the little one is wasting.

It is the second time I’ve cried tonight. Just a few hours ago we were sitting at dinner reminiscing about the time I ate a chocolate-covered ant at a Bug Show we went to in town. When that turned into them dreaming up disgusting chocolate-covered things and asking me if I’d eat them, I finally said, “The only way I’d eat that stuff is if your lives depended on it.” That shocked them, and Kostyn said, “But what if you died eating it?”

That was a bit more morbid than I’d anticipated for pre-birthday dinner conversation, so I breezily said, “Well as long as you guys were alive that would be OK. I’d do anything to save you.” Then I smiled, eager to lighten the moment. “I hope you’d miss me.” That’s when my sweet 6-year-old, in all innocent seriousness, said half-apologetically, “Actually, Mommy, if you died I probably would forget you. Because I’d be with Daddy all the time.” I stared at him. I tried to keep my smile frozen as I envisioned my heart splintering jaggedly down the middle like a cartoon character’s might.

“But I would try to remember you,” he said while popping another raspberry into his mouth, not having any idea what he’d just done to me. I mumbled a few sentences to turn the conversation in a different direction, then excused myself to the bathroom before my heart splattered all over the table.

A half-hour later, eager to shake off the heartbreak and enjoy the only night they’d be with me this weekend, I suggested a special pre-birthday dance party, which typically involves lots of glow sticks and very loud music. In the middle of the second song, Evan jumped up and smacked my face with his head. Blood gushed from my nose, and we reluctantly had to cut the dancing short.

But I still had brownie sundaes coming! I’d looked forward to them all day, and after filling their special sundae bowls with exactly the kinds of toppings each one wanted (“Two cherries for me!” “Only the green sprinkles, Mommy!”), I made my masterpiece – a warmed homemade brownie topped with ice cream, hot caramel sauce, Hershey’s syrup and a candle. I picked it up and promptly dropped it, upside down, all over the stove and kitchen floor.

It will not surprise anyone to know that after I made a second sundae, joined the boys and lit the candle, I inadvertently blew it out right before they started singing to me.

It was, by all accounts, not the night I had envisioned. And then, as I tucked them in, Evan asked out of nowhere, “Where do you keep the streamers?” I smiled in the dark.

“Honey, you don’t have to decorate for me, you can just come into my room in the morning and snuggle with me and wish me happy birthday, that would make me so happy.”

“But you do that for us,” Kostyn said from under his covers. “On our birthdays you stay up in the middle of the night and decorate so when we wake up there are banners and streamers and balloons everywhere.”

I tried to explain how that’s different, that I’m their parent, that I want their birthdays to be special in big ways like that and that mine is special just because they’re here. They were not having it. After a few minutes of arguing about whether I would agree to wake them up when I was going to sleep, I finally let them get out of bed and decorate tonight.

My laptop clock now says 11:17 p.m. It is way, way past their bedtime. I can tell they are trying mightily to hang streamers from the top of my bedroom door frame, so that I might walk through them tomorrow morning, on the 43rd anniversary of the day I entered the world.

“My tip-toes are hurting like crazy,” Kostyn says quietly, and I feel the urge to go out there and hoist him up so he can easily reach it. But I know they want to do this on their own. And I want them to.

“That’s what Mommy always does on our door, so we need to do it to her door,” I hear Evan whisper encouragingly, and I sigh and breathe in the best birthday message the universe could send: There is no forgetting a mother’s love.

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When the Hug Is More Than the Goodbye

Hugs are great any way, anytime, anywhere.
Hugs are great any way, anytime, anywhere.

Sometimes it’s only after they’ve rushed out the door and climbed into their father’s car that I realize I didn’t hug them goodbye, not for any real reason except that Evan was complaining about his shoes again and Kostyn was chasing after a squirrel, and there were jackets to remember and backpacks to exchange and reminders about Picture Day tomorrow at school. And then the car doors were closing and I was yelling “I love you guys!” and they were yelling back “Bye, Mommy!” and “Love you too!”

Every time they leave, I stand just inside the front door and watch them back out of the driveway and speed off. I wave every day, even on the days when I know they’re distracted, telling Daddy about their day or marveling at a new toy he’s left on their seats for them. I see their little hands fly up at the last moment and I know he has just said, “Wave to Mommy,” because he knows I’m standing there, and he knows what it feels like.

It’s not hard like it used to be, like it was last year. The goodbye hugs used to be dreaded embraces carefully orchestrated inside my heart. They had to be not too clingy and never sad. They had to express love and assurance without a hint of “please don’t leave me,” lest their little minds linger on the fact that one parent might be lonely without them. So the last-second squeezes with my wiggly boys would be motherly but quick, as I’d breathe them in and feel them nuzzle their faces into my neck just for a second. Many times I had to fight back tears, knowing that when I saw them the next day they’d be just a tiny bit bigger.

It is easier now. Some days I look forward to the silence, the sweet end to the bickering for a bit, and the ability to make dinner that nobody will complain about. It has become routine, this back and forth life we lead. It is not ideal, but we tell ourselves that they have adjusted beautifully, that they never missed a beat in school, never acted out at home. They know and feel great love from both parents, and they believe that we are still a family, just different. We’re grateful that they’ve had each other, that in a sea of changing lives and new homes and dinners for three, each boy could count on one constant – his brother.

When their silver car is out of sight I turn back inside and close the heavy front door, walking toward the kitchen to start the transition. There are always remnants of our day left to pick up, capes and Nerf gun darts and stray Trio blocks and always, always one more marble. On this day their snack plates and cups and crumbs are still on the table. Kostyn’s homework is in his dad’s car, finished and neatly tucked into his backpack, but his pencil is right here on my kitchen table where we were working on rounding up and rounding down. I smile thinking about how in the middle of adding and estimating my third-grader suddenly dropped that pencil, stood on his dining room chair and turned toward me, his brown eyes wide and his smile spreading.

“Mommy, stop what you’re doing and open your arms!” he commanded like some sort of pint-sized game show host, and I had two seconds to drop the backpacks and lunch boxes and take-home folders I was just gathering up at the table before he was flying at me, his bony legs grabbing for me, his arms around my neck. He clung to me like a koala cub, like those little stuffed animal figures whose legs and arms pinch open and closed and can snap onto just about anything.

For a second I had the usual knee-jerk parental reaction, huffing to myself that I was just in the middle of something and can’t he see how busy I am doing all these things for them and I know this is just his way of avoiding his homework and I am not some tree to climb whenever one of them feels like jumping on me. Huff. Sigh.

But I didn’t say any of that, I swallowed that first instinct and went with the second one, which was to hold on tight. Because he’s mine. And because he’s still young enough to want to jump into my arms, and he’s still small enough for me to catch him, and he’s still smart enough to know I always will. And math homework can wait.

Forty minutes from that moment I will realize that the flying leap of a koala bear hug, the one right here in the kitchen with his brother jumping up and saying “Mommy, my turn!” and Kostyn giggling into my ear and threatening to stay like that forever, that was our hug goodbye today. And I am grateful that it doesn’t have a hint of “goodbye” in it.

(This essay was published on The Washington Post’s On Parenting site.)

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