On September 18, 2004, my family was huddled in the nursing home room of my mother Anna Kelley near where we grew up in Rhode Island. She was 80 years old and afflicted with Parkinson’s and a weak heart. For the past three days she had been surrounded by her seven children (of which I am the youngest), their husbands, wives and children and other family members. It seemed all too familiar for us, as we had assembled in the same manner in December for my father’s final hours.
While the two events had made our extended family closer, we longed for a happy event to celebrate and on that last day pledged to attend the upcoming college graduation of my niece Rachel who was an honor student at the University of Maryland, Salisbury.
My mother had grown weary from her declining health. A few years earlier, I spoke with her about having seen the play, “Having Our Say: The Delaney Sister’s First 100 Years” and she could not fathom and certainly did not wish to live that long. She had not had an easy life. She was pregnant twelve times and, as my older siblings liked to explain, “she had 6 kids, 5 miscarriages and Bennet.”
As children we all know there will come a point when we have to bury our parents and live life without them. Even as adults, however, it is hard to fathom a world where the only constants in your life have vanished.
By late evening, my sister, a nurse practitioner, announced to a hushed room that my mother no longer had a pulse and began noting the time of death, as we somberly contemplated our entry into orphanhood. Then, as often happens following death, my mother’s chest rose followed by the sound of a snoring exhale.
At that very moment, my niece Rachel blurted in a perfect Monty Python-esque voice – “I’m not Dead Yet” (evoking the scene below from Monty Python and the Holy Grail). (Note: While we were raised in an Irish Catholic household, many of us had embraced the tenets of Pythonism.)
The tense room reacted by bursting into laughter, almost to the extent of cackling as the tension of the moment escaped our bodies as we laughed. My mother would not move again. Then my wife recounted how hearing is the last sense believed to go before death, leaving us to wonder whether my mother might have heard our outburst.
I immediately became concerned that she might have viewed her children’s laughter as disrespectful, but almost everyone I spoke with afterwards disagreed. They took pains to describe the great joy she took from hearing her children’s banter and laughter at the dinner table and would have been pleased to hear it. While it was her time to go, it remained our time to live and that is what she wanted most.