The past two weeks have been a lesson in life and death for my family. My wife’s mother was in declining health. She died on Christmas Day, one week after her 90th birthday.
The family had planned to gather prior to Christmas for a birthday celebration. As a result, my wife and her sisters spent a significant amount of time with their mother in her final days. Their husbands, myself included, were also there for a few hours each day.
The hospice staff gave us a booklet about the dying process called Gone from My Sight. We witnessed the symptoms that the booklet told us to expect as my mother-in-law made the transition from this world to the next. Her arms occasionally reached out and she spoke to people we couldn’t see. Her breathing became more labored.
The sisters took turns spending the night with their mother in the last days. My wife went to the nursing home on Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning, she greeted her mother and then left to meet up with me and the rest of our immediate family.
My wife, our son and I returned to the nursing home in the afternoon. I saw that my mother-in-law’s symptoms had intensified since the day before. The staff gave her some medicine, which helped her quiet down. My son and I left to help prepare a Christmas dinner at one of the sisters’ homes. My wife stayed behind until another sister could take over the vigil.
As my son and I drove away around 3:00 p.m., we heard the beginning of Handel’s Messiah on Classical WETA. The station was also playing on a clock-radio in my mother-in-law’s room.
About 90 minutes later, the piece had progressed to the Hallelujah Chorus. My wife sang along with the radio, creating a private concert for her mother. When the Chorus ended, my wife told her mother, “I’ll leave you with that.” Another sister and her husband had arrived.
My wife got in her car and had barely made it out of the parking lot when her sister phoned, telling her to come back. In those few minutes, my mother-in-law had quietly stopped breathing.