Keeping Watch



It’s a torturous thing we humans do, keeping watch over the dying. We gather around a bed, sometimes as a family and sometimes alone, and wait for someone we love to ease into death … like an antique clock winding down, ticking slower with every hour that passes.

By the time you read this, my mother will have died. She has not eaten solid food in five days and has had only a few cc’s of liquid in the last 48 hours. Her body is finishing its course. My dad died 11 months ago. They were married 70 years. That’s an astonishing thing … seven decades spent together.

Fifty of those years were spent in this house where I sit and watch her life ending. Much has changed since the summer I turned 4 and we moved our family into this home. The house itself has changed, and so have the people who lived here together.

Furnishings have been replaced and replaced again since the 70s. Walls have been painted. Trees have grown. Fences have been built. Neighbors have come and gone.

For more years than I can count, my dad’s recliner sat at an angle to the couch, at the perfect position for television watching. I can close my eyes and see my dad from my favorite spot on the floor with his feet raised up, leaning all the way back. Sometimes he read the newspaper, often he watched TV, but always a nap was the end result. His snore was epic.

The small window next to the kitchen sink still has the same curtains my mother hung there when I was in high school. She never had a dishwasher, so she spent a lot of time gazing out that window at the willow tree in the backyard. I think a series of books could be written on what my mother thought about … the family she missed, the World War her family lived through, the things she may have wanted for her own life but never had.

The door to the bedroom that was mine still has a piece of tape stuck to it just above arm’s reach. A poster once hung there, some teenage heartthrob I’m sure. The day I took the poster down I fully intended to stand in a chair and remove the stray tape, but I never got around to it. Over the years, it’s become a habit to glance up and make sure that square of tape is still where I left it.

Over the kitchen table hangs a needlepoint picture my sister crafted when I was a toddler. It’s a picture of a basket of strawberries, and it must have taken her ages to complete. I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t hanging on that wall, in that same space.

In the living room, there is a display cabinet filled with things that may have no real value to anyone else but are precious to my mother. A music box shaped like a cottage that my sister brought back from Germany sits next to a wooden Christmas ornament shaped like a grandfather clock. I bought that ornament at a craft fair when I was 8 years old. I saved my allowance to buy that for my mother, and she treasured it as it if were made of gold.

There’s a crystal bird my dad bought her, a candle from one of my nieces and a drawing my son made when he was in first grade. There are pictures of my nephews in their Halloween Power Ranger costumes and one of my sister jumping on the trampoline in the backyard taken not long before she died. She was a grown woman, completely airborne, hands in the air and a smile that breaks my heart every time I look at that picture.

“Nothing turns out like we think it will, does it?” I asked Tim just last night when I walked back in my own front door.

“No, it usually doesn’t,” he answered.

And then he just held onto me and let me feel what I was feeling. He didn’t try to fix anything. He just patted my back and told me he loved me. He comforts me like no one else ever has.

My mother will leave this earth soon. My little family will be gone. This house I grew up in will belong to someone else. All that will be left are the voices I hear in my memories. That’s not enough, but it’s what we humans have left when all is said and done … the thoughts and dreams and hurts and love that we gather along the way from birth to death.

The clock is winding down, and we keep watch.


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