My momma waited until I left the room to die. She was sick, so sick, and had been for so long, and we knew the end was near. All the hospice nurses said it: “Just a matter of days.”
So I called my brother in Chicago and he came. And I called my sister in South Carolina and she came. And I called my aunt in California and she came. And all of us together held vigil at Momma’s bedside for a day, then a couple days, then a couple more days, then a week, then a couple more weeks. How long could she hang on – unconscious, unresponsive, wasted?
It was hell. Or, perhaps, purgatory. But my momma, in spite of her incurable lung disease, had the heart of a thoroughbred. And her heart would not stop, even after everything else – her digestion, her circulation, her mind – came to a grinding halt. That heart kept beating. I spent my 41st birthday scream-praying at God that She the hell better come for Momma right now, dammit. I was standing neck-deep in a box full of darkness.
When my aunts came up from San Antonio, I decided I needed a break. I hadn’t left for more than a quick shower and sleep in three weeks. So I went out for hamburgers with my boyfriend and my son. My son got sick on the way home, so I was cleaning up throw-up on my front porch when my brother called, saying Momma finally died. Without me.
My legs went out from under me. I was stunned. As if the last three weeks hadn’t happened. As if I was surprised.
I had so wanted to be there. I’d been taking care of her for years. I was her primary caregiver and her power of attorney. I took her to doctor appointments, fought her about giving up her car keys, found her when she got lost on the bus, bickered with her about how it doesn’t matter if you become a drug addict from hospice morphine. We went through it all together, but not the final step. I wasn’t there. She didn’t let me see her die. I hadn’t imagined that my box of darkness could get even darker, even more full, but it did.
I stayed in that box for months.
But then, when my friend Joanne’s mother died, I found I could understand her grieving in a new way. And when a church friend’s mother passed a few weeks after that, I was able to support her from a new perspective. I could give advice about hospice care to a friend of a friend and to recommend a lung specialist to someone else. I found that I could sit with death and dying differently than I ever had. And I came to realize that the box of darkness was my momma’s final gift to me. With it, she had given me an empathy and insight that I couldn’t have gained otherwise: I could see others in their own boxes of darkness, and talk to them inside. And I only gained it by standing in darkness up to my eyes, by almost being swallowed.
Don’t get me wrong – I still don’t believe suffering is salvific, or that God needs us to be in pain so we can grow, or anything like that. But I do think that the One we follow can take a box of darkness and turn it into healing – soft like shea butter on dry skin. So that the lessons the darkness taught are not for nothing. So that my momma’s thoroughbred heart can still beat in my own.
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Carolina Treviño graduated with an MDIV from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and currently serves as the Designated Associate Pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.