They took her away on a Wednesday in mid-December. The undertaker was a living stereotype: a tall, gaunt man with pale cheeks and cold hands, already wearing a black suit at five am. I watched them wheel the gurney out the door and down the walk, tucking in the edges of the brightly colored quilt that covered her. Lois stood on her porch across the street, blue cardigan pulled tightly around her shoulders. She waved goodbye, blowing a kiss as the hearse disappeared around the corner.

Megan’s voice had cut through my dream several hours earlier. I’d been on the couch, sleeping for the first time in days.  “Hey,” she said, shaking me slightly, “Hey.  I think she’s taking her last breaths.” I was on my feet before I was fully awake, moving into my mom’s room, barely missing the glass coffee table.

I could see her across the dim room, her pale skin stretched taut across her thin face. She was reclined in the chair she’d refused to leave, not wanting to be in bed again after a month-long hospital stay.  I saw her chest rise and fall, heard the shallow breath and the telltale rattle. In. I held my breath, waiting. Out. I exhaled with her. In. I held my breath again. Out. I barely heard the air leave her body.  And then nothing.

Megan and I crept closer, watching and waiting.  She stood on one side and I stood on the other and we leaned down.  “How do we know?” I whispered.  My hand hovered over my mom’s chest.  I looked across at Megan.  “Every horror movie I have ever seen is flashing through my head.  If I touch her and she grabs my wrist I’m going to have a heart attack.”  Megan’s snort gave me courage, and I lowered my palm. I felt the bones of her still chest through the pink cotton of her nightshirt. I waited, not daring to move away yet. I touched her face with my other hand, my fingers moving over her cool, dry skin. I met Megan’s eyes and we retreated across the room to sit side-by-side on the day bed.

When the hospice nurse arrived she listened with her stethoscope before she stroked my mom’s forehead and cheek with a gentle hand and quietly spoke words of blessing. “The Lord bless you and keep you.”

After the nurse left and the undertaker had come and gone, taking my mom with him, I looked over at Megan. “Can we go to breakfast? I haven’t left this house in four days.”

Before we left, I went back to my mom’s room. Just outside her window, two blue jays were fighting over the last of the seed in the feeder we’d hung where she could see. Her chair was upright, the footrest tucked in, a pink nightshirt folded neatly in the seat. I picked up the remote from the table next to her chair and pressed the power button, cutting off a piano version of Silent Night. I reached down and flipped the switch on the power strip, darkening the white Christmas lights that had been on since we’d decorated the tree four weeks earlier. I moved to the window and pulled the string on the blinds, tilting the slats to block out the beginning of the day. I stopped one more time at the doorway to look back at the room, now quiet and dark. Then I stepped into the hall, pulled the door closed, and walked into After.

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