FIVE MINUTES by Sue Coletta
Perched at Mom’s bedside I watched her struggle to breathe, my body covered in welts, divulging my pain to the world. Stress hives, the psychologist called them. I loved her so much. This was the toughest thing I’d ever witnessed. The cruelest torture a daughter could endure. She was my whole world. My brother, Frank, was over seas in the Navy, so it was just Mom and I for the last few years. We’d survived so much together. Tragedy, illness, death, rejoicing at remission points, crying each time the cancer returned.
Mom was silent for a moment.
And I thought, Great, she’s beating this. She’s finally got her breathing under control.
My optimism was not long-lived.
She suffered another heavy gasp, which instantly made my heart twist. Why was this happening? She didn’t seem bad during my morning visit. Why had so much changed in the short few hours I was gone?
My usual visiting schedule: arrive before she woke at six a.m., stay until ten, then off to the salon for a few hours of work. Return at noon until two-ish, then leave again until five, when I’d stay until she fell asleep, usually with me snuggled by her side. This day, however, I couldn’t leave at two. Something was wrong. She was different. Weaker. Not my usual strong, virile Mother.
I reached for her hand to show my support.
Between heavy gasps, Mom regarded me seriously. “I don’t want to fight anymore, honey,” she declared. “I’m tired.”
Tired? No! You have to fight, I raved silently. What do you mean you don’t want to fight?What about me?
We’d just celebrated my nineteenth birthday the day before her doctor admitted her. The day that started the end of my life as I knew it. The day, I’d soon realize, I needed to mature in a hurry. I certainly wasn’t ready to life live on my own. What could I do? Cancer waits for no one.
I can’t live without you, Mommy, I yearned to express. Please, no. Don’t do this. Don’t leave me.
Before I could answer, she softly added, “I want to be with Daddy. He’s waiting for me in heaven. I’ve fought this battle for over a decade. I can’t take much more. Please, sweetheart, tell me you understand.”
Understand? How can I possibly understand that you want to die? I’m too young. No. I can’t do this alone. I’m sorry but I don’t understand.
I raised my eyes to hers, ready to voice my concern. That’s when I saw it: a devastating truth. For the first time in the two months– Mom was in the hospital for two months– I finally saw what she felt. Truly grasped the severity of her plea. She had a look in her world-weary eyes. An expression I’d never seen before. Total exhaustion. A debilitated woman who’d fought valiantly, suffered through chemotherapy, radiation, multiple surgeries, and every other treatment known to man, and now was done. Spent.
I knew the fight in her had quelled. Now, she was ready to die. But I also saw something else, an unexpected reaction to her decision– peace. She was peaceful. She’d made her decision and was comfortable with the consequences. What I witnessed floored me. It confused me. At the same time I was grateful for the serenity she experienced. At least she was content; I sure wasn’t.
I realized she was eager to begin the next chapter in her life. A life without her children, her friends, or her work. A life not of this world but another in heaven. A life free of illness. Free of hatred, violence, and sadness. Where no one ever aged past thirty-three. Where you didn’t want for anything. Where you became all-knowing. Where awesome beauty and serenity enveloped you. Where Daddy, the love of her life, awaited her. It was her time now to experience the magic of being in God’s presence. Her time to laugh, dance, or run in flower-filled fields barefoot, if the mood struck her. Lie on crystal clear, pink-sanded beaches. Swim in heavenly waters blessed by the Lord himself. A place she could wait– joyously– for the day we would all reunite for eternity.
Mom struggled for air.
I could tell each agonizing breath grew more difficult than the last. Then she quieted briefly, regarded me lovingly. “I don’t want you to watch me go.”
Excuse me? What does that mean? I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. I was completely baffled by the idea of leaving her alone to die.
“I want you to give me a kiss goodbye, and then leave the room for five minutes.”
Absolutely not! What sort of daughter would that make me? No way. I won’t do it. How could she even ask this of me? How could she deny me these last precious moments?
In the middle of my soundless rant it dawned on me. She wasn’t punishing me; she was protecting me. Shielding me like she had my whole life. I’ll grant her five minutes. Not a second more.
I took hold of her hand, gazed in her tired green eyes. “Okay, Mom, you win. Five minutes. That’s it. Then I’ll be back.”
The corners of her lips arched to a smile. “Thank you, honey.” She sighed, relieved. “I know it’s not what you want, but it’s better this way.”
When the hives began to appear Mom made a call from her hospital bed, hired a psychologist to shadow me. Someone, she presumed, I could share my feelings with. A professional ear who could help me through this devastating ordeal.
I wasn’t thrilled about it. Actually, I was darn right pissed off. After I voiced my protest, I reluctantly gave in. Caroline– the bubbly shrink– was nice enough, I suppose. A bit cheery for my taste, but I dealt with the lack of privacy, even though she irked me to the point of wanting to strangle her.
“Let’s give your mom the time she’s requested,” Caroline butted in.
Wrong time, lady. “Look, Caroline, the only reason I’m putting up with your crap is for Mom. Don’t push it. I’m not a child anymore.” I moved toward Caroline and threw my darkest scowl. “Why are you even here? This is private between me and Mom. Why don’t you take a walk, lady.”
“Honey, be nice. Caroline is just trying to help. You might need her once I’m gone.”
“Her?” I sucked my teeth in disgust. “Doubtful.”
Caroline didn’t retort. Good thing too because I wasn’t in the mood.
“Could you please give us a minute? I need some time alone with my little girl, you understand.”
“I’ll be right outside the door if you need me.” Caroline buttoned her paisley cardigan around her shoulders and crossed the private room to the door. Her brunette bun pulled so tight it appeared as if it kept her in a constant state of awareness. Or gave her a headache. I wasn’t sure which. And honestly, I didn’t care.
“Close the door behind you!” I called out. “Mom, why does she always have to be here? I’m not a baby anymore.”
“No, you’re not. You’re a beautiful, intelligent, amazing young woman, and I’m so proud of you.”
Clever, I thought, praise me to avoid the question. Typical Mom.
Mom was the sweetest person I’ve ever known. Brilliant. Man, she was smart. Skipped two grades in high school. High school! Not an easy feat. Graduated at sixteen and went off to Harvard University. Back then they had a women’s section called Radcliffe.
Mom was polite, almost to a fault. She never had a cross word– or dirty look for that matter– to say about anyone. An impossible role model to aspire to.
“Please reconsider, Mom. I really want to stay. I won’t be in your way; I promise.”
“You could never be in my way, honey. That’s not why I’m asking this of you. I’d simply rather you remember me this way, alive, smiling at you. Besides, it will scare you. Trust me on this.”
“But I–” I stopped myself. I won’t argue with her.
Her gasping became more frequent, heavier. She inhaled short, quick, bursts of air, but not enough to sustain life.
“Sue, come give me a kiss. I love you so much, baby.”
“Now? No. I’m not ready. Wait! Please, just hang in a little longer.”
“Daddy’s waiting for me, honey. Come. Give your mother a great big kiss. It’s time.”
Tears poured down my cheeks as I slowly climbed on to her bed, pressed my body against hers, wrapped my arms around her, and kissed her goodbye. Then I laid my trembling head on her shoulder and tried my best not to bawl. There was nothing I could do about the tears, but I didn’t need to blubber all over her, either. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
My mantra became: I must stay strong. I won’t fall apart yet. I must make this easy on her. I held on to her as tightly as I possibly could and prayed somehow my embrace could prevent her leaving. If I held on tight enough I’d never have to let her go.
She wheezed, panted, and then gagged, grappled for every ounce of air she could muster. “Honey, I can’t breathe.”
That was her polite way of asking me to remove my weight from her lungs, even if I was only one hundred pounds soaking wet.
The next sound I heard terrified me. The death rattle, the doctors called it. It’s a very distinct sound. A noise unlikely confused with any other. An inner turmoil the body resonates as it runs out of life.
Almost as if on cue, Caroline rushed into the room and hurried me out the door.
“I’ll be back in five minutes exactly. I love you. I love you. I love you,” I called out — now hysterical– my vision locked on Mom as I watched her struggle to maintain a perfect smile until I was out of sight.
Once in the hallway I checked my watch. It was Thursday, December 3rd, at exactly 3:04 p.m. Since Caroline refused to allow me to wait outside the hospital room door, I stormed up the
hallway, Little Miss Sunshine trailing behind.
3:04 p.m. and five seconds. This is going to be a long five minutes, I thought.
“You know, Sue,” Caroline said. “Sometimes people need to feel like they have control over their departure. It empowers them. Thereby allows them to feel less frightened about the inevitable.”
I threw daggers at her. “Fascinating,” I countered, my upper lip curled. “You talking from experience? Did your mother tell you to leave the room for five minutes so she could die?”
She didn’t have a response, but I did. “And, by the way, I don’t require a babysitter; thank you very much. Give me some space, will yah lady? Screw!” I didn’t wait for her reply. I faked a half-smirk, then marched away. Several long strides later, I plunked myself down in a blue-padded chair across from the nurse’s station.
The hallway was a putrid gray color. Powder blue linoleum had so many wear and scuff marks it made the unit appear run down, like the hospital didn’t care. Actually, the entire Oncology ward was depressing, emanating a dreadful air of death and despair.
It didn’t brighten my day, I’ll tell yah that.
I removed my compact and Kleenex pocket tissues from my leather bag and attempted to pull myself together. Staring at my reflection I saw a hot mess. My dark-chocolate eyes were bloodshot and puffy, black eyeliner and mascara streaked down both cheeks. I looked like Alice Cooper in his heyday. No wonder all the visitors were staring at me.
I pushed a few of my chestnut strands behind my back. As a cosmetologist, I normally took pride in my silky mane. Lately, however, I didn’t care much about my appearance. My mother was dying!
With Mom in mind, I ran my fingers through my hair and straightened my bangs. I knew she’d be happy if I at least tried to look presentable. It was the least I could do.
Zipping my purse closed I caught a glimpse of a tall, dark-clothed man from the corner of my eye. He wore a tall black hat atop a skeletal pale face and strode proudly– slowly– his hands tucked in the pockets of his full-length, jet-black wool coat. As he moved past, his ghostly pale blue eyes slid toward me, then quickly snapped away.
A frosty chill ran down my spine. Is he death, the grim reaper? Is he here to take Mom? A coil of panic tightened in my stomach. I took a long breath in, let a long breath out and tried to steady my pulse.
The dark man passed room 315. Mom was in room 319, only two doors down. Then he stopped, turned, those crazy eyes glowered at me.
I spun in my seat to check behind me. There was no one. That must mean– He’s looking at me. Warily I swiveled at the waist and faced him. I had to discover why he was here.
The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention when he glared at me, crimping his eyes as if narrowing his sight. Slowly his shiny black wingtips twisted in my direction. And there he stood, scowling, not saying a word. When out of nowhere it seemed as if I could read his thoughts.
Is this ability mine or his?
“She’s coming with me,” he stated. “Don’t try and stop me.”
“No,” I telepathically begged. “Daddy’s coming to escort her to heaven. Please, let her go with someone she loves.”
His thin pale lips arched into a Cheshire cat-like smile and bared his yellowing teeth. Then his head reclined back and displayed a throat of darkness.
I felt my facial muscles cascade with quickly shifting thoughts and feelings of disbelief.
He stepped closer.
A prickly cognizance told me anything could happen, but I didn’t wait to find out. I took off up the hallway. My new inky black leather boots screeched across the damp linoleum as I burst through the ladies room door. I searched for a hiding spot, my eyes shifting back over my shoulder every few minutes. I ducked into the handicap stall, climbed up on the loo and hugged my bent legs. What does he want? Why is he here?
Heavy footsteps entered the ladies room. Clomp, clomp, clomp echoed through the cold walls of the bathroom.
My body trembled as I tried to balance on a porcelain lid.
Slow, precise footsteps stomped along the edge of the stall doors, and then stopped outside the handicap stall.
I carefully peeked under the door and saw long shadows of tall, thin legs.
“Are you all right, young lady?”
“Go away! I mean it! Get away from me!”
“My child, I’m only here to help,” he said softly, a kindness in his voice. “Your mother sent me. Please, open the door.”
I lowered my cramping feet to the floor and peered through a crack in the door.
The dark man took two steps back.
“If you try anything. . .”
I swung open the door and my sight fixed on the dark man– quivering– unsure of what to expect next.
He smiled warmly and unbuttoned his coat.
That’s when I knew I had made a total ass of myself. In plain view was his clerical collar. I didn’t notice it when I gazed at him earlier. But that didn’t explain his threatening words.
“But you said–” I began.
“I didn’t say anything. You never gave me a chance to speak. I’m sorry if I frightened you. Your mother thought you might want to talk. She said you didn’t get along with your psychologist, so I offered my services.”
“You know Mom? Oh no, Mom! What time is it?” I ripped up my sweatshirt sleeves in a panic. “Phew! 3:07. Two more minutes.”
“I don’t understand, child. Are you waiting for something? Actually, why don’t we speak in the hall. This is no place for a man.”
“Oh, sure.” I chuckled, gazing around the bathroom. “I guess you’re right.”
“So,” Father Chester began, settling into the uncomfortable blue-padded chairs, “I understand your Mom is sick.”
“When did you say you spoke to her?”
He cocked his bony head, clearly perplexed by my question. “The day before yesterday. Why do you ask?”
“She’s not just sick, Father.” I lowered my eyes to the floor, my voice faltering. “She’s dying. She’s dying right now.”
“I’m not following.”
“Mom told me to leave the room for five minutes so she could die alone.”
He was speechless, but I couldn’t blame him. I found the request absurd, too. “It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.”
“Would you like to discuss heaven? Do you have any questions?”
“No. I’d really like it if we could just sit here and not talk, if you don’t mind.”
He nodded deeply, understanding.
I checked the time again. 3:08. One more minute.
The smell of antiseptic sent a wave of nausea through my bones. I knew then I’d never be able to step inside a hospital without the memory of this day flooding my thoughts.
When I looked up I saw a young girl skipping down the hall, her blond locks jouncing behind. She could not have been more than five years old, holding her mother’s hand, humming a little ditty undoubtedly taught to her by a loved one.
My mind drifted back to when Mom and I flew to California to visit Frank on his Naval base. I was fifteen at the time. After we got settled in our hotel we went out for ice cream. Mom and I were both freaks for ice cream. It was a buffet style creamery where you created your own sundae. What a treat. I had my usual: mocha almond ice cream with caramel, marshmallow, whipped cream, and nuts. Mom put nearly every topping on her butter pecan. Her sundae was a massive, dripping mess, but she loved it.
Her black curls bounced as she lapped up a melting spoonful before it toppled over. I took a picture of Mom’s enormous sundae just as she leaned forward and stuffed a giant spoonful in her mouth, her cheeks puffed like a chipmunk’s. Action shot, I called it. She wanted it destroyed, but I couldn’t obey. She was sick again so I needed to collect as many photos as possible. I knew those pictures would be all I’d have to remember her by.
3:09. “Oh my God!” I jumped up. “Sorry, Father. I’ve gotta go.” I bolted down the hallway as fast as my feet would allow.
Caroline was outside the door. “Maybe you shouldn’t go in there.”
“Get outta my way!” I pushed open the door, and my life shattered into a million pieces, like broken glass after a car crash. I was certain my heart could never be repaired.
Mom’s empty shell of a body laid on the hospital bed. Her jaw had gone slack, her mouth open in abandonment. Her sparkling green eyes lost their shimmer. They were dull, empty, as if no one was home. They stared straight ahead– vacant.
My chest heaved heavily as I gently lowered her lids and wailed over my loss. I’m all alone now. How can I survive this? “She really did it,” I uttered. “She really left me. I can’t believe she actually went through with it.”
“It’s not like she had a choice,” said Caroline, hovering behind me. “Marcia was a brave woman.”
“Shut. Up! Get. Out!” I leaped on top of Mom. “Mommy!” I bawled. “Mommy, I love you. Mommy, come back. I’m sorry for everything I’ve ever done. Please, Mommy, come back to me.”
Caroline rested a supportive hand on my back.
“Don’t touch me. Get out!”
“But, Sue, your mother asked me–”
“I don’t care what she asked you to do. She’s dead! If you want to help me, leave me alone!”
She left the room.
I didn’t glance back in her direction. I heard the click of the door as she pulled it closed. Seconds later, a nurse strode in. She checked Mom’s pulse without disturbing me, then stood at the end of her bed and cried. A few seconds ticked by. A second nurse walked in. She too stood at the end of Mom’s bed and cried. Moments later, a third nurse came in. She took one look at the three of us and started to bawl.
It took me by surprise. Weren’t nurses– especially in the oncology unit– hardened to this type of thing? My tears slowed as I turned toward the three of them: a blond, a brunette, and a redhead. Mommy’s Angels?
“Your mom was the most wonderful person,” the redhead piped up. “I fell in love with her over these past two months. She helped me with my son. He was acting out at school.”
Typical Mom, I thought. Always there for a non-judgmental ear or to offer advice, but only when asked.
“I loved her too,” the blond stated. “She helped me through my divorce.”
“She helped me with my mother. . . Alzheimer’s. It was hard on me. Not only that, she volunteered to speak with other cancer patients. She’d help them cope with their disease. Did you know that after your father passed away your mother started a Widows and Widowers Group in this hospital? It’s still active today. It’s helped thousands of grieving spouses deal with their pain. That’s why she installed an extra phone line in your home. She made herself available to them twenty-four hours a day. And all the while still grieving herself. What a woman. What an incredible woman your mother was. She left us with so many selfless gifts of love.”
My mother did all that? I knew she was an incredible human being, but. . . The entire hospital knew how special she was? That’s why I heard cries in the hallway? The rest of the staff was grieving along with us? I turned back to my mom’s empty shell. I’ll never be able to live up to the person you were. But maybe, I thought, I could try. Maybe, if I model myself after you; if I treat others as you would; if I try a little understanding; maybe I could be half the person you were. That alone would be an accomplishment. That I could live with.
Staring at Mom, dead, gone from this world, I realized that I too could make a difference. I would make a difference. Starting today I would be a kind, patient, loving person. Help wherever or whenever someone needed me. Do whatever I could to assist people. Be the person Mom knew I could be.
“Thank you,” I said to the nurses. “Thank you so much for taking such good care of her. If you ever need anything, you know the number.”
I unclipped the gold earings from Mom’s lobes, slipped off her rings, and slid them over my fingers. Dried my eyes with the heels of my hands, hugged each sobbing nurse, and held my head high out as I strode the door, proud that I had such a wonderful mother.
Caroline was in a chair in the hallway crying softly to herself. I took the seat next to her. “Are you okay?”
She gazed at me with watery eyes. “Are you?”
“Honestly, no, but I will be. I’m my mother’s daughter.”
“You truly are.”
I hugged her goodbye. “Thanks for trying. I’m sorry about–”
She didn’t let me finish. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I cried all the way home, alone in my Hyundai Tucson. “I don’t know if I can do this, Mom. Will you help me?”
She didn’t answer. I knew she wouldn’t, but it made me feel better to talk to her. I did, however, have a bone to pick with God. After all, he’d taken my father when I was a mere nine years old, and now, my mother ten years later. It wasn’t fair. I had friends who had parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and brother’s, sister’s, niece’s twice removed. I had no one. Sure, I had a brother, who didn’t even bother to show up at the hospital because, in his words, the equipment “scared” him. And he’s five years older than me.
“Get a grip,” I told him. “She’s your mother.”
Needless to say,I never convinced him.
Walking into the house was difficult. Reminders were everywhere.
My crying jag turned to anger. “Why did you have to take her?” I cried out, facing the heavens. “She’s pure. She never sinned. She never harmed a living soul.”
God did not answer.
I screamed louder. “I hate you. I hate you.” I knew that was a terrible thing to say, but I didn’t care. “Why, God, why? Answer me, you bastard!”
Out of nowhere I heard a voice. A soothing, calm voice that said, “She asked me to.”
Instantly, I quieted. His words cleansed my soul, my heart. A warm, loving sensation of peace enveloped me, mind and spirit. I stood in awe and wondered if I had actually heard the voice of God.
“She asked you to?” I asked, a hesitation to my tone.
“She was in pain. She asked if she could come home.”
What could I say? Mom asked to come home and God granted her request. If anything I was grateful.
“I’m sorry, Lord. I didn’t mean to– I will never– Well, you know. I’m sorry I screamed at you. It won’t happen again.”
Right then and there I knew I wasn’t alone in this world. God would always be with me. Mom would always be watching.
Rocked by my revelation I moved into Mom’s bedroom, where she’d hung a plaque I made in ceramics class. The background was of a sandy beach. One set of footprints crossed beige crystal sand. The old poem, Footprints in The Sand by Mary Stevenson (Zangare) printed in script across the plaque.
I took it off the wall and read it aloud. “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.” No truer words have ever been spoken, I thought.
As I re-hung the plaque, I accidentally bumped against Mom’s nightstand. The drawer was partly ajar and several sheaves of paper scattered to the floor. I glanced down and noticed a paper Mom wrote during a class on Death and Dying. A will-type document stating her wishes in the event of her death.
I got comfortable on her bed, propped her pillows behind my back, and read the entire ten page document in minutes. Tears soaked my face by the time I finished, but strangely, the words comforted me. For the first time since I ordered the doctors to disregard any life saving treatment, I knew I had made the correct decision. I was thankful to discover I did exactly as Mom wanted.
I had myself another good cry, folded up the papers and started to stuff them back into the nightstand when I spotted a worn-down corner of an old photograph. Carefully I slipped it out of the drawer.
It was a picture of Mom and Dad at a bowling banquet with a horseshoe suspended high above their heads. In the horseshoe were two bold block-lettered words. IN HEAVEN.
Mom had sent me a message. A message that meant, “Everything is fine. Daddy and I are together and are happy. We are in heaven with God.”
What more could I ask for? Mom made it to the other side. And even though I had been left behind, I knew I’d be all right. I knew I’d make it on my own. I would be just fine. After all, I am my mother’s daughter.
This story was a tough one for me to write. It’s a true story. I have lived by those mission statements ever since.