On Wednesday night we left my younger brother, Greg, to sit with Mom. The time of her passing was getting closer, but only God knew the exact timing, so we wanted to make sure one of us was with her all the time. Greg wanted the night shift.
Quite a while ago, my brother-in-law, Matt, had installed a doorbell on the table next to Mom’s bed. Mom could push the bell if she was in need or distress. My sister, Kyleene, whose bedroom was directly above Mom’s room, could come down and address her needs. Since Mom had been moved to a hospital bed recently, the button for the bell now rested next to a reclining chair. Greg sat in that chair on Wednesday night.
This was the plan. When the hospice nurse notices that Mom is reaching the end, she tells Greg. Greg pushes the bell, which rings in Matt and Ky’s room. Matt stops by our room on the way downstairs. We all gather around Mom to be with her as she transfers to heaven.
At 5:00 a.m. Greg pushed the bell. In the skip of a heartbeat we got downstairs, not knowing how urgent the bell was. We arrived in Mom’s room to find she was entering a stage called agonal breathing. I won’t give you details—I’m not that kind of doctor. But a pattern developed where she gasped for breath several times, then she would vocally sigh. The sighs were amazing. Peaceful. Then she would close her mouth, and each time she did I thought, “That was her last breath.” A long pause followed—20 or 30 seconds. Then Mom would begin the agonal breathing again. Followed by a vocal sigh. Followed by closing her mouth, and I would think, “That was her last breath.”
This phase of Mom’s passing was extremely stressful, in my view. I actually prayed for her to quit breathing. Make this her last breath, Lord. Let that sigh be the last one. That would bring peace. But then the breathing started again. This went on for 90 minutes. I struggled with that.
Sometimes in a season of stress, we find ways to relieve it. Six of us surrounded Mom’s bed: Greg, Ky and Matt on her right side; Donna and me and our daughter, Breck, on her left. Suddenly, in the midst of the quiet, Greg spoke up. “Oh, that’s not fair,” he complained. It was unrelated to anything I could see. Then he asked, “Are you kidding me?” I looked where he was looking and noticed a vase filled with tulips. Tulip petals lay scattered on the dresser. Apparently the tulips had been given to Mom a while ago. They were dying—and dropping petals—as Mom was dying. If Beauty and the Beast comes to mind, Greg said that’s exactly what it looked like. Then we all laughed. It was funny and ironic and painful all at the same time.
We now call it Tulip Humor. Anything that breaks the morbid tension of death with a laugh or a smile—that’s Tulip Humor.
Mom loved to laugh. I think she would have enjoyed Tulip Humor. People have told me this week how much they loved her laugh. I guess it was too familiar to me, because I hadn’t really thought about it. But now when I’m in a crowd of her friends, I expect to hear her laugh. I imagine it.
As we huddled around her bed Thursday morning I loved hearing Mom sigh. Every sigh let me hear her voice again. I had never thought about her voice. I thought it was a normal voice, but it wasn’t. It was the voice that taught me to read. It was the voice that told me “Great things come in small packages.” (Yes, that voice instilled in me a willingness to tell short jokes.) It was the voice that told me I could do anything I set my mind to. It was the voice that scolded me and blessed me. When she sighed I could hear her voice. I loved that.
After each sigh she closed her mouth. When she did, I thought she looked just like my Grandpa Jennison, her dad. Kyleene saw the same thing. Every time it happened, we chuckled. Tulip Humor.
During her last hour we had Pandora playing Hymns. Is every hymn about heaven? It seems like it when you’re waiting for your Mom to go there. When Dad died 13 years ago, I remember being in church in the weeks following. Every song reminded me of him. Every song brought tears. But I loved them all.
Mom passed at 6:34, Thursday morning. It was the day before Good Friday. I am writing this on Saturday morning. The Saturday of Holy Week is the quiet day between the death of our Savior and his resurrection. Good Friday reminds me that the sin that caused death has been paid for. Easter reminds me that the sting of death is gone! Mom no longer needs to push the bell.