What hospice people do is coordinate. They coordinate my mother’s move from the hospital where she was taken unresponsive to the assisted living facility where she remains unresponsive. They coordinate the ambulance personnel who transfer her from the stretcher to the hospital bed whose rental and delivery they have also coordinated. They coordinate the schedule for the weekend nurse who checks her vitals and predicts it will just be a couple more days. In hospice language, my mother is actively dying, and they strive to coordinate that too.

They coordinate visits by a social worker for my father who lives in the assisted living facility with my mother and is concerned about her not eating. He is old and frail and spends much of his day supine on a queen-size bed in their room where the thermostat is set on high and the air oppressive because he won’t allow the windows to be opened. His mind is sharp, honed by the steady stream of thoughts and worries endlessly running through it. The social worker explains that unless my mother opens her eyes and asks for food, unless she can swallow, she cannot eat.

I can tell by his scowl and his silence, he doesn’t like the social worker. As soon as she’s gone, he turns to me and says, When I had my stroke, I couldn’t swallow. I know. I relearned in therapy. Why can’t they teach her like they taught me? She’s not conscious. When she wakes up. (Silence) Even if she did, she can’t follow instructions. While he digests this unpalatable fact, his aide helps him into his wheelchair and wheels him over to the rented hospital bed across from the queen-size one. He lays his head down by my mother’s unresponsive side and sobs, deep, gut-wrenching, body-wracking sobs.

Although his hands have lost their strength and dexterity, he can manage with one finger and sheer will to press the buttons on his phone. I am one of two numbers on his speed dial. Not long after I leave, he calls. Why won’t they give her water? She can’t swallow. What about on a teaspoon? You have to swallow even the tiniest amount of water. How can she survive without water? (Pause) She isn’t going to survive. I remind him she signed an advanced directive years ago when she was still lucid and knew what she was signing. This is not a conversation we should be having over the phone.

At her scheduled visit, the weekday hospice nurse will not commit to the couple of days the weekend nurse predicted. Vitals are better. In hospice language, my mother has rallied. She lies on her back in a semi-conscious state, blanket tucked under her armpits, raising and lowering one arm in a slow, gentle rhythm, as if conducting an orchestra in her sleep. My father lies on his bed, sneaker-clad feet propped on a pillow, interpreting each movement as a sign of recovery.

I can’t work, can’t think, can’t sleep. I never knew dying could take so long.

While my father is at lunch one day, I sit on the bed beside her and take her hand and tell her I forgive her lapses and shortcomings. I tell her I love her. I lean over to give her a kiss and feel the dry whisper of her lips move against my cheek, a startling and unexpected gesture. Did you just kiss me? Her eyes are closed but she nods with surprising vigor and with an audible smack, kisses me again. A definite and deliberate kiss.

Something long dormant stirs beneath my chest where my heart lies. I lay my head on her chest where her heart still beats.

This is what I will forever hold on to. The synchronicity of our hearts. The interlude of a kiss.

Peggy Duffy’s short stories and essays have appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Post, SmokeLong Quarterly, So To Speak, Wild Violet, Literary MamaBrevity, and more, as well as in a number of themed anthologies. This is her first published piece since coming off of a ten-year writing hiatus, having been derailed by a career in commercial real estate. She lives outside Washington D.C. and is at work on a novel.

Photo by Therese Brown