Today is Mother’s Day. Almost three years ago—and the last time I visited the USA— my mother passed away by my side at the age of 82. After three years I do not miss her any less—I miss her much more. Below, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my last moments with my mother, a story I shared with a few people before.
Above are a couple of snapshots of my mother taken when she was in her 20s. Mom and dad were both 19 on their wedding day (still from 8mm film). Her eyes and smile were engaging and remarkable then, and they remained so throughout her entire life. If you ask people who knew her — or met her even once — they will always describe her in terms of her sweet smile or happy, engaging eyes. They say the eyes are the window to the soul; in her case it is certainly true.
After suffering a major stroke in 1996, my mother’s final years on this planet were spent here in the Nahalem Valley (lower left in distance of photo). For years my oldest brother took my mom for long rides every week in this beautiful setting; she loved it. This spot on Neahkahnie Mountain was one of her favorite places to park and have a cup of coffee. I would visit Oregon every chance I could from Japan and also spend hours driving with her around this inspirational part of the world. Especially when the weather is good, it’s impossible to grow tired of the natural beauty here. I’m too young to remember, but when my brother’s were small, my family had a summer cabin on the beach pictured here (the second photo is a still from 8mm film of a trip mom and dad took with my oldest brother to Neahkahnie Beach in 1952, nine years before I was born.)
“Death ends a life but not a relationship”
Three years ago we rushed to Oregon from Japan to be with my mother on her final days. The day we arrived we introduced our daughter to her American grandma (above). As you can see in the photo, my mom’s eyes lit up like a christmas tree when she saw her new granddaughter. This was the last time she ever smiled.
The next few days we’d all take turns being by my mother’s side. On June 4, 2010, on the drive down from Seaside to see my mother, I stopped by Neahkahnie Mountain alone briefly to reflect one time more and to say a little prayer. The warmth of the sun juxtaposed with the cool breeze flowing off the blue Pacific Ocean far below was invigorating, even as all my thoughts were on my mother and all the times we had spent together in this exact spot many times before. After twenty minutes, I drove down to the Nehalem Valley Care Center a few miles away.
As I entered her room I was relieved to see her still breathing. Her breaths were shallow but thankfully less labored than the night before. She had been unconscious for days now. She looked peaceful. The staff had been very skilled and also remarkably caring throughout this entire process. They were very concerned for her and made sure that she was in no pain or suffering in any way yet very mindful that the family needed time with her. I kissed her forehead and told her that I was here, that I was not going anywhere, and that I loved her. I pulled up a chair next to her bed and opened up my book Tuesday’s with Morrie. For the next hour I read a page or two and then stopped to hold her hand or talk to her. The room was bright and cheery in a kind of bitter-sweet way due to the beautiful weather outside. Sunbeams were even kissing the edge of her white pillows. There was a certain calmness and peacefulness in the air that I can not explain.
After about an hour of sitting next to her in this way, I continued reading a few sentences in the book when I glanced over at her chest expecting, of course, to see that she was still breathing. I took notice immediately that her chest had suddenly stopped moving. But her breathing was very slow now so perhaps, I thought, if I just wait a few seconds I will see her inhale and her chest expand once again. Two seconds, then five seconds, then ten…nothing. I change my position and bring my face closer to hers. Nothing. Her mouth is slightly open, but still. Then one last very, very tiny breath from her mouth, halfway between a breath and a gentle gulp…and then complete silence, except for the bird chirping outside and the low hum of the oxygen tank next to the bed. That was it. I just saw my mother’s final, gentle breath of life. I entered the hall and quietly asked for the charge nurse. He entered the room with a somber yet empathetic look on his face. Without saying a word, he softly placed his stethoscope on her chest. After a few moments: “There is no heart beat,” he whispered to me. “I’m sorry.” The nurse then bent down to turn off the oxygen tank which caused the room to become completely silent save for the occasional bird singing in the garden next to the window. I did not hear what the nurse said after that, but I asked to be alone in the room for a few minutes with my mom. “Take as much time as you need,” he said, and then he quietly closed the door.
I grabbed a towel and covered my face as I wept next to my mother, using the towel to soak up the tears so that the staff would not see. After a few minutes I pulled myself together. I was feeling great sadness, of course, but also a strange sense of peacefulness and calm came over me. Perhaps this is what they call closure. In any event, I was happy that I can be sure now that she is not suffering or sad in any way. I am also feeling so blessed that I could be there to witness my mom’s very last breath of life. I will always remember and cherish the experience of being by her side at the end. I was able to witness the last breath of the woman who gave me my first. This is the circle of life. Yes, it is a very sad, sad feeling, but it is also a beautiful one at some level which I am not clever enough to put into words. I do not feel that she is gone in a sense. Her body, which is after all a kind of ephemeral vessel, is dead, but the relationship does indeed live on. My mom will always be a big part of my life.
ABOVE: When I arrived at the care center, about 10 days before my mother passed, I noticed a picture of my mother on the wall: “Resident of the Month” it said on the frame. Below that was a sample of some of the thoughts that people had written about her. Even though she could not speak, it was her happy smile and gentle eyes that made such an impression with people. She had a way of making people feel better about themselves. Mom is an inspiration for me and always will be. If I can be 1/10th as “amazing” as everyone thought mom was, I’ll consider myself very lucky indeed.
Happy Mother’s Day, everyone. There is nothing more important than (a) mom.