The Four Things I Told My Mother in Hospice by
50
(83 Stories)

Prompted By Forgiveness

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The call from my brother came on a Sunday morning. “Mom’s in hospice in Bradenton,” he said. She and her body, after defeating cancer twice over the years, had finally given up fighting Parkinson’s, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, psoriasis, and recurring pneumonia. “It’s time.”

The last person to know me from moment one was reaching the end. What did she want to hear from me? What did I want to say to her?

I booked a red-eye across the country, laying over at ATL, bustling and garish even in the middle of the night. I had a long time to think.

Our relationship hadn’t been easy. The apple of her eye as a child, and she of mine, I had made different choices than she envisioned, than she wanted, and suffered the consequences. Now the last person to know me from moment one was reaching the end. What did she want to hear from me? What did I want to say to her? By the time I landed in Sarasota, I had settled on four things.

In the hospice room, homey and spacious, my mom dozed in a hospital bed, a canula in her nose but otherwise unencumbered. My dad, three siblings, and a few of their spouses and children were already seated around her, making light conversation, bringing each other up to date. Others were due to arrive over the next couple of days.

When she awoke, I approached the bed. “Hi, Mom,” I said. She was pale, her hair wispy. I bent over and kissed her on the cheek. She was woozy but looked back at me. There was still light in her eyes.

“I love you and I’m proud of you.” That was Thing #1.

“Why?” she said, her voice hoarse.

“Because you fought so hard and so long, and then you knew when to stop fighting.”

She looked pleased, but it was hard to tell. She was still a little out of it. “It’s great that you came down,” she croaked out.

“Thank you for being my mom,” I said, “and for everything you did.” Thing #2.

“Thank you for being my son,” she replied.

The other two things were harder and more personal. I wanted to wait until I could be alone with her, if that ever happened. If I could bring myself to speak them.

My chance came that night after we returned from dinner. My sibs and their kids had taken off and my father went for a walk. My mom was dozing again, no longer lucid. I pulled my chair up to the bed.

“I don’t know if you can hear me,” I said in a quiet voice, “but I need to say this. I need to practice it.”

“I’m sorry for all the times I hurt you,” I said. That was Thing #3.

Her breathing was steady but shallow, like a ghost might breathe, over and over.

“And I forgive you for all the times you hurt me,” I said. Thing #4. The most difficult, because she had never apologized, never even acknowledged the hurts.

Her eyes were still closed. Had she heard me? The hospice nurses all said her hearing would be the last sense to go.

I’ll never know. But I said them. That would have to be enough.

*

Later, after I returned to California, after a snowy funeral in Michigan, I related all this to my friend Barr. He had been my therapist 35 years before, so he knew the history.

When I got to Thing #4, he raised an eyebrow. “Did you mean it?” he said.

I thought long and hard before I answered.

“I’m working on it,” I said.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    Oh, John, what a story. I am still brushing back tears. But as you say, you are working on forgiving your mother and you said what needed to be said, so I hope a burden was lifted. Given my own hospice experiences with people hearing me, it’s very likely your mother heard you, even if she couldn’t answer. May the rest of your journey be easier.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thank you, Marian. I’ve had this story in mind since my Mom died, but when the right prompt came up, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to tell it. It’s nice to think she might have heard me. I hope it did her some good too.

  2. Suzy says:

    John, this story is very touching and beautifully written. I like the way your title is “The Four Things…” and then you refer to each one as Thing #1, Thing #2, etc. Makes it easy for the reader to follow along while brushing away tears.

    After reading your story, and Risa’s, as well as the comments on Risa’s, I am realizing how lucky I was to have a wonderful, caring mother who gave me no need to forgive or be forgiven.

    • John Zussman says:

      Suzy, thanks for the kind words. You are indeed lucky, and I sometimes look wistfully at friends who view their parents with unalloyed joy. You’ve told us your mom’s story, so I know it’s true.

      Calling my talking points Thing 1 and Thing 2 were actually nods to MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who (before the pandemic) would use them to label odd related stories he would cover; and in turn to Dr. Seuss, who created them as mischievous characters in The Cat in the Hat.

  3. Risa Nye says:

    John, thank you for sharing this part of your story. The most a person can do is try to meet halfway, and you tried. I’m sure she heard you. Forgiveness takes a very long time. I hope you get there.

  4. I, too, like the “things”…and how you segued from four things to Thing #1, et al.

    “Her breathing was steady but shallow, like a ghost might breathe, over and over” took my breath away, and then I read it again, and again. Similarly, I think forgiveness might be a living thing…we remember the hurt, and then we remember to forgive, over and over.

    Beautiful story, John…thank you, and what a wonderful photo!

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks so much, Barbara. I love your insight that forgiveness is not an event but a process. Gotta remember that one. As a cognitive scientist, I’d like to think that each act of forgiveness solidifies the neural pathways in our brain, making the next easier.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    This is such a powerful story, John. I wish I had the opportunity to say my version of these four things to my father, but he died before I could get there. Forgiveness is for you to help you heal, whether or not she heard you. Thanks for sharing this poignant story. Now, you also have to forgive yourself.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    My dear John, having been there so long, and witnessed so much, I can barely read this, as my eyes are brimming. Forgiveness is difficult. I am not sure I ever forgave my mother for some actions she took on the day of my Confirmation (6/1/1968), as you will read in an upcoming story, though I took good care of her for the last 15 years of her life. As I will say, perhaps I forgave on her deathbed. Your words are beautiful and righteous. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

    I love your Featured photo. Your mother was a bit older when I first met her, but not too much. She had a wonderful smile. She was, of course, always lovely to me, but I was the nice girl from around the corner, which infuriated all concerned. You already have wisdom. May you also find peace.

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