For as long as I could remember, my mother had been sick. She had emphysema and had suffered enormously for years, the disease progressing until every day became a struggle, every breath a gift. Yet, despite her certain fate, she was kind, optimistic, and joyful. Brilliant and accepting, my mom raised her kids to be independent thinkers, to question, and to love without fear. The single best piece of advice she ever gave me was, "Trust yourself and you'll do just fine." She was right. Those words were emblazoned on my psyche at a young age and to this day, I find that when I trust myself, everything turns out okay.
One night in the fall of 1978, I woke to the sound of sirens. By the time that I made my way to the dining room, the paramedics were surrounding my mother, who was on the floor, drifting in and out of consciousness. My brother held me back from barging through the circle of uniformed men, and we followed the ambulance to the hospital.
My mom fell into a coma and her condition remained unchanged for the next few weeks. The doctors told my father that they had no idea what was keeping her alive. Years of smoking had taken their toll on every system in her body and she was not going to recover. She hung in there, baffling the medical staff simply by virtue of remaining alive. While they didn't understand why she hadn't passed, I did.
For much of my childhood, my mom tried to prepare me to live without her. I objected to the idea that she wouldn't be around to see my kids, but whenever I did, she'd just smile in a sad way, and I knew in my heart that she was right. She was determined, though, to see me graduate high school and head off to college, and mentioned that wish repeatedly. In the years immediately preceding her death, it seemed unlikely.
A few days into her coma, my dad made me go back to school, but every day after class, I went to the hospital, sat by her bed, held her hand, and told her about my day. One of her nurses (bless those women) encouraged my efforts and told me that although one of the others had said that my mom couldn't hear me, she believed differently. "Talk to her, honey. She knows you’re here."
As the weeks continued and I looked at my mom, once so animated and full of life, lying still and emotionless in that bed, I came to a decision. I knew that she was hanging on for me, and I decided to give her permission to go. The next afternoon, I sat by her hospital bed and lied to my dying mother.
I told her that I had just come from my high school graduation and I talked about my plans to leave for the university in the fall. I said that I’d be okay. I thanked her, told her how much I loved her, and I kissed her goodbye.
The next morning, I was called from class. The teacher walked with me to the office, telling me that my father was waiting for me. I didn't have to ask. I knew why he was there.