Run the water until it’s hot. Soak a clean washcloth, then ring it out. Apply to face. It’s a feeling of comfort, relaxation, and security.
I can remember my mom doing this to comfort me when I was a little boy. During her lengthy illness I did this for her.
This is an account of her death. I have to write this. This moment has been stuck in my head for a while.
The warm washcloth became a ritual, first thing in the morning and at bedtime as I was taking care of my mom. She was confined to bed for over a year, at home under my care with the assistance of my loving wife, Cindy, and Hospice of West Alabama nurses and nursing aides without whom we could not have coped.
At first, I would bring the washcloth to Mom and she would wash her own face. As she grew weaker over time, I gently stroked her face as an act of love. She would thank me and tell me she loved me.
On the night before she died, she was having difficulty breathing and it was hard for her to speak. With the oxygen machine pumping, I washed her face and knew she couldn’t last much longer. I went to bed that night wondering if she would be alive when I awoke, but I had done that many times before.
Mom’s primary care physician called her “Wonder Woman” early in her period of illness. She survived episodes of congestive heart failure, when fluid collected in her lungs causing her to gasp for breath. She survived periods when her respiration rate dropped to as low as four breaths per minute and she couldn’t eat for several days. She survived what must have been a heart attack. They called it a “cardiac episode.”
We had hospice nurses in our home at all hours of the day and night during those months. Any time we called they responded quickly. On several occasions Mom was taken by ambulance from our home to the hospice facility because her death seemed imminent. As time went on, her doctor’s description of her transformed from Wonder Woman to “a freak of nature.” I think he was just struggling for words while trying to explain that her resilience was remarkable.
She always got better. She always came back. On this night, I knew she might not again.
A hospice nurse practitioner had recently told Cindy and me, “We don’t know why Mrs. Shores has been able to hold on for so long. Perhaps it is because of the loving care you’ve given her. Please know that you have done everything you possibly could for her.” Those words stuck with me.
We had many friends praying for us during this time. We felt the support of those prayers and we felt God’s presence continually. I feel so blessed that throughout Mom’s illness she was able to laugh and enjoy life until her last three days. The laughter had now ended. She was too weak.
The next morning I found her struggling for breath. I later came to understand that the sound she was making as she inhaled and exhaled is called “the death rattle.” I called hospice and the nurse said she would come right over.
As we waited for the nurse to arrive, I washed Mom’s face with a warm washcloth and told her I loved her. She couldn’t speak, but she nodded. When the nurse arrived she said, “I know you’ve been through this before and she has sprung back, but I think it may be a matter of minutes now.”
We prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for Mom’s life and I held her hand. Her breathing slowed and then stopped. She was at peace in the hands of God.
During her previous close encounters with death, family had gathered around her and read stories and scripture to her and sung her favorite hymns. On this morning, I had been at a loss for words, but I had washed her face with a warm washcloth.