We knew it was coming. In fact, we knew it was inevitable for more than a year. In spite of this, no matter how one anticipates, there is never enough “preparation” to eliminate the shock.
I grabbed the grocery cart and took the predictable right-hand turn into the grocery store. It was my week for the boys (alternating custody) and I had three hungry teenagers at home that needed dinner. It wasn’t going to be an extended shopping trip, just one to grab the night’s meal, plus the inevitable unplanned purchases along the way to the cashier.
I took a call from a friend within the first minute or so as I headed toward the deli counter. He was in the middle of a story, so I pressed “decline” when my sister, Sue, called.
Sue and I spoke at least once per day, so calling her back in a minute wouldn’t matter. But then she called again in just a few seconds.
“I gotta go,” I said hastily to my friend and pushed the “accept” button.
“Mom’s dead,” Sue began, hardly trying to hold back the tears.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Jesus, just now?”
“Yes, just now. Hospice is here.”
In fact, hospice had been there virtually every day for the last year. Mom lived in Naples, Fla., and after the diagnosis that her breast cancer had spread to her bones (Stage 4), she was given just a few months to live.
We got a full-time caregiver and called hospice. In addition, at least one family member tried to be with her, although none of us lived anywhere near Florida. Sister Sue put in most of the time, and my other sister, my aunt and I took turns as well. We’d fly down for a week or so, shop for mom, visit and read to her.
Sometimes I’d share photos of the boys or family members. Other times we’d just sit and talk or watch TV. And each time we left, we’d all be convinced it would be the “final” time we’d see her, delivering good-bye hugs that had real meaning.
Just a few days ago, I actually did say goodbye for the final time. There was no mistaking this would be my final farewell. Sue was already there and called to say “you’d better get down here fast.” Mom was slipping away. She could hardly talk and couldn’t sit up in the bed, let alone get into the wheelchair for the daily visits to the kitchen. By the time I arrived, Mom was unconscious. She lay on her side, looking peaceful for the most part.
The hospice worker was at her bedside, as was our full-time caregiver. They’d try their best to anticipate her needs. Perhaps more morphine if her facial expressions revealed signs of pain, or at least a moistened sponge pressed against her lips to keep her hydrated.
Other than that, we stood a constant vigil, waiting for the inevitable moment. Four days into my trip, though, Mom still held on. No one anticipated she’d last that long, but no one believed she’d beat the “two months to live prognosis” by almost a year either.
After a few days, I was scheduled to catch a plane back to South Carolina and resume my duties as “dad.” I hesitated to leave, but Sue encouraged me to go, assuring me that there was no need to stay. Mom’s demise was in perhaps a matter of moments, hours at best.
And with this came the realization that I absolutely knew I was going to say goodbye for the last time. After spending several minutes to gather my courage and enter her room for the task, I asked Sue, the health care worker, and the hospice person to leave.
My tone was on the verge of being rude. I had generated the nerve to finish the mission and I was desperately trying to get it “out of my system.”
When they closed the door behind them, I sat down on the bed and stroked her hair.
“Mom, it’s OK to leave us now,” I said as I shed some tears. “We’re all going to be fine.”
No movement. If she heard my words there was no indication, but I was hoping she understood. And death on the doorstep or not, I couldn’t help throwing in some humor. “Mom, if you go now, you can watch your grandson, Alex, in the school play tonight!”
No response. She just lay there with a labored breath, virtually motionless. I pulled myself together, kissed her one last time, walked out of the room and headed for my car.
She lasted three more days, to the precise moment when I began my grocery shopping.
“Mom went, just like that,” Sue cried. “Her breathing just stopped. They’re coming to get her right away.” She broke down into complete tears.
I didn’t know what to say. Yes, I was in shock. The sights and sounds of the grocery store seemed to fade away into a buzz. “My mother is dead,” I wanted to shout.
Why wasn’t the world concerned? This monumental event just happened to me, and the two women selecting cheese out of the refrigerated case didn’t seem to care. And of course, how could they? I had horrendous news but there was no one to share it with.
All around me were strangers going about their mundane shopping routines. I kept my emotions in check as best as I could. I still had to feed the boys, and life wasn’t going to stop for anyone. I did my best to finish the shopping, grabbing some meat and a few vegetables. I checked out, grabbed my bags and hurried to the car. I still was in shock as I started the engine, but knew I had to “let it out.” I drove across the parking lot to a remote location and parked.
Now, I have never been much of a crier, which in a way is a bad trait. I’ve always felt better after crying, but it never comes easy for me. Mother was dead, and I was numb. Not crying, just numb.
I grabbed my iPhone and searched for the one song I knew would break my emotional flood gates: “Time to Say Goodbye,” by Andrea Bocelli. Not only was this an emotionally charged song with massive sentiment, but it was also one of my father’s favorites. It was only fitting then that we’d play it at his funeral that took place nine years before.
I started the song and the melody of the orchestra immediately hit me. I started crying, crying hard. And for exactly 4 minutes and 7 seconds (the length of the song), I let it all out. Afterward, I sat in silence, but my iPhone settings were set to randomly begin any one of the more than 2,000 songs in memory.
The next thing I heard was, “State your name for the record please.” It was my voice, with a somewhat kidding tone. “Shirley Elizabeth Dodenhoff” came the recorded reply. It was my mother’s voice.
Shortly after receiving her terminal prognosis, we chose to record her life’s experiences in her own words. Due to a previous stroke years before, this wasn’t easy for her as she sometimes labored to formulate the words.
In the end, though, we were pleased to get an hour or so of personal experiences to keep for ourselves and our children.
The shock of hearing my mother’s voice after the Andrea Bocelli song was so abrupt that, at first, I didn’t think about the “coincidence” that the very next random song would be her recording.
What were the odds? One out of 2,756. Try repeating that one. Was it a complete random occurrence, or was there something more divine going on here?
I’ll leave that for you do decide. For me, it was her way of saying, “I love you, farewell, and I’m fine.”
Mother’s recording wasn’t part of any “playlist” or in any way associated with that song by Bocelli. In fact, her recording was simply labeled, “untitled,” from the album “untitled.”
Robert Dodenhoff, a New York native, has made Charleston his home for more than 30 years. He lives on the Isle of Palms and is the author of the book “The Man Test: Hundreds of Questions to Test Everything a Real Man Should Know.” Dodenhoff spent more than 20 years buying, operating and selling radio stations. He’s the founder and president of No Fear Media, Inc., a nonprofit education company offering web-based advice to youths on critical life issues.