Like many of you, I learned how to color as a child. My mother is the one who taught me how to hold crayons and markers in my hand to draw versus eating them or sticking them up my nose.
She taught me how to (somewhat) stay within the lines and gently tear the completed masterpiece out of the coloring book for admirers to gawk over when they passed by our refrigerator. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I understood how even the sloppiest of paintings are beautiful when created with your child’s hand.
Last summer, my mother taught me another lesson in coloring — the last lesson she would teach me, but perhaps the most important.
Much like holding a crayon in my young hand, sometimes so tight it would break, I began the journey of living with my mother in her last few weeks, holding her as tightly as I could. I held her hand during the moments of confusion and fear when the doctors did their best to explain her diagnosis of inoperable ovarian cancer.
I held my mother tightly as she began to fail
I held her in the moments when Alzheimer’s robbed her of the ability to process the devastating news. I held her in the moments when cancer ravaged her tiny, little body and caused so much pain she screamed. I held her in the shower when she cried, held her head while she vomited, and held her mouth open when it was time for more morphine. I held her heart as close to me as possible, always hoping, always praying for miracles.
In the middle of those moments of pain, screaming, disbelief and questioning, we somehow found the time to color. And color. And color. Once an incredible self-taught artist, my mother lost her ability to paint, so coloring took its place. We colored while we watched old Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies, listened to good ole country music, and many times we lost ourselves in complete silence.
We helped one another pick out colors and discussed the difference in the shades we chose. Anyone who walked by her room would have thought we were creating the next Mona Lisa.
Coloring became our escape
Coloring became our therapy; we used it to escape reality versus accepting it. Coloring books became a time capsule that took us back to when I was a little girl, sitting at the kitchen table creating art while Mom made macaroni and cheese. They took us back to a time when cancer was a word people whispered, and Alzheimer’s was a word nobody understood, not terms that were a reality for so many.
Sometimes, in her moments of clarity, we talked about death, and her questions were always the same. Will it hurt? Will I be scared? Where do you think I’m going? Will you be there with me when I go? And my answers were always the same. I will do my best to make sure it doesn’t hurt. I don’t think you will be scared when the time comes. I know where you are going, and it’s beautiful. And of course, I will be here, Mom. I’m not going anywhere.
We watched my mother as she slipped away
As the days and nights blended seamlessly, my sister and I found ourselves sitting in her room watching her as she slept. We watched her breathing patterns, keeping a close eye on the slightest change. We watched her face for any sign of pain so we could call the nurse. We watched the last days, hours, minutes, and seconds with our mother on this earth drift away in utter disbelief that there wasn’t a damn thing we could do for her. And we colored.
We cried in the hallway. We begged the medical staff to give her pain meds even though it was “not time yet.” We got angry with them when it was late and for being unwilling to acknowledge that a person with Alzheimer’s cannot accurately describe the pain level. And we colored.
And then, amid the chaos that overtook our lives last summer, one of my life’s most beautiful moments arrived. I realized that even though we were watching our mother walk her final steps toward everlasting life, she was still trying to teach her youngest daughter a lesson in her gentle way. What was it? The same one she taught me when I learned how to color.
Remember not to hold on too tight; letting go is okay. And from that moment forward, I knew what I had to do. Mom was letting go, and I needed to as well.
My mother taught me that there is a time to let go, and I did
So I did. Instead of watching breath patterns by her bedside, I moved into the room outside her door, where I slept on an air mattress alongside my sister. We listened to the hospice nurse and created a serene atmosphere by keeping her room dim, with soft music playing, and minimizing visitors.
We watched Mom scream in horror for a day at the images she saw in the room. We listened to her infectious laughter as she spent an entire night talking to “people” in the room, introducing us, bragging about us, and reconnecting with loved ones who went before her. And we colored.
I sat beside her during her last moments, telling her how much I loved her, promising I would take care of everything, encouraging her to go and be with Dad, and thanking her for all the life lessons. And then, as gentle as her touch, as beautiful as her smile, the moment came. Mom closed the crayon box, and we both let go.
I often think about those last days and minutes with mom
Over the past year, I have mulled countless times over the last days and minutes, as many do when they go through the stages of grief. I’ve questioned everything. Did I make the right decisions for her? Was there anything I could have done differently? Did she know how much I loved her? Did she know how thankful I was for all she did for me? And was there something else she was trying to teach me in those last few weeks besides how to let go?
The answers are ones I wish to share with anyone going through a similar situation.
I learned some lessons from our time together
I made the right decisions based on the situation at hand and did my best to keep her pain controlled. You will, too. Listen to your loved one. If they can’t communicate, be their voice. Watch for nonverbal indications something is amiss. Remember…you know them better than anyone.
I know my mother knew I loved her and how grateful I was because I told her, not just in the last days, but always. I had “the talk” with her before it was too late. Knowing she heard me, I said everything I wanted to say one last time. You should, too. I promise you will regret not finding the courage to do it. Remember, you are stronger than you think.
The last question — What else was my mother trying to teach me besides how to let go? — it was answered for me in Mom’s final moments, though it has taken me a while to realize it.
What was my mom’s final lesson to us?
We are all born a blank canvas. It’s up to us to choose the shades that will color our world. Maybe it’s yellow, red, blue, purple, or orange. Maybe your palate is subdued, or maybe it’s as vibrant as the sun. If you’re like me, it’s a blend with some parts nice and orderly, while others are just a big, sloppy mess.
What life, with all its assortment of colors, comes down to in the end is just one thing. We tend to forget it as our busy days turn into busy months, years, and lifetimes. But in the end, what it comes down to is…Love.
It’s all that matters and all we take with us when we go. So go and love. Love hard. Love often.
And remember…it’s okay to stop and color now and then.
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