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things i remember: heaven was in the room 

The details of that week blend into one long day: The mini-blinds were open but the sunlight was muted by turquoise drapes. Your comforter had accents of lime green. My brother -- your son -- sat on a chair, your yellow cat on his lap. They faced the bed where you lay sleeping, a man and a beloved pet holding vigil. A friend came to visit, and she held your hand and prayed.

The night you died, we crowded around you in that tiny bedroom with the matted carpet. We wanted you to know you were not alone.

In the light cast by a single, dim bulb, we sang your favorite hymns, following the words in tattered songbooks, hoping you could hear us. We remembered the hospice nurse’s words: “It would be good to tell her you’re going to be okay.” So, against all human instinct, we told you it was okay for you to go. 

I placed morphine drops on your tongue.

Were you hurting? I didn’t think you were. I’ve told people that you never suffered in those last few days, those last few hours. But is that true? We expected a rattle from your lungs, a final release of your bladder. And when none of that happened we attributed it to a lack of suffering. 

Still: At our most primal, we are cells and biology. Our bodies battle to live. We are human. We fear. We hurt. You took shallow breaths. You worked your jaw. So I placed morphine drops on your tongue.

At the funeral, the friend who had sat with you wasn’t sure how to describe those last peaceful moments she spent with you. She summed it up by saying she felt Heaven was in the room.

She marveled: “Heaven was in the room.”


I used to think about heaven in terms of religion, in terms of faith. 

But does a celestial reward validate our human suffering in the present? Does my view of an afterlife give me the right to make life on earth more difficult for those who don’t share my view? Does claiming a certain faith make one more deserving than someone who claims a different faith?

Although I now think of heaven differently, I took comfort from her words then: “Heaven was in the room.”

Here's a confession: When you were diagnosed, I didn’t pray for a miracle. There's an almost unbearable weight of guilt and shame at acknowledging that I didn’t plead harder for your life. I’m sorry. Instead of asking for a miracle, I asked for strength. Not because I'm a good person or a good daughter. I made so many mistakes along the journey with you. I raged at your disease. I raged at the world. Sometimes I just wanted to punch something. To punch someone. But I prayed for strength because I knew what lay ahead on that long journey.

As a kid – even well into adulthood – I would have begged a patriarchal god to bestow the gift of healing on you, on me, on our family. And it’s not that I don’t feel you deserved it. It’s not that I didn’t want it for you. It’s not that I don’t miss you every single day. I still dream sometimes that you're alive and well and feeding me breakfast, or that we're sitting in your house talking. I even dreamed once that you walked into the room and that I said, “Mom, I couldn’t find you! I thought you were lost.” And you said, “Mi'ja, I thought I was lost, too.”

So, no, it’s not that you didn’t deserve a miracle, or even that I don’t believe in miracles. But here's the thing about miracles -- and about being human: the miracles I believe in now are those that we -- people, family, friends, and even strangers -- create for ourselves and for others. When the doctor said the word “Alzheimer’s,” upending my life, the miracle you needed was for your family to pull together and figure it out – the care, the plan, the vision for a future in which you would need more and more help. That was the miracle I decided to work toward giving you. 

When the nurse said that we should tell you it was okay to go, the daughter I am wanted to scream: “But I will never be okay again.” But you needed the miracle of my letting go. So the human I am bit her tongue. I’m still trying to be okay. 

And it’s not that I don’t believe in the power of collective prayer or energy. If not for the prayers and help of those who supported us all those years when we were caring for you, I don’t think we would have survived this journey. When friends and family face hardships now, I think about what miracle, big or small, I can offer. Is it a phone call and the gift of listening? Is it something – a card, a meal, a care package -- I can send? Sometimes, it is simply a prayer for strength I can offer. I fail at this. A lot. But I strive to be that kind of human, not because I believe it will help me gain entrance into some version of a perfect afterlife, but because I want to make a difference in the imperfect here and now.

“Heaven was in the room.” I still take comfort in those words.

Because if the tears, the prayers, the morphine, the hymns, the yellow cat, the lime-green comforter, the hands that held yours, the matted carpet, the dim light, the turquoise drapes, your dying cells, your faltering lungs, the wails after you left us – if all the imperfect things that surrounded us, the things we held dear that night, physical objects like the tattered songbooks and the intangibles such as prayers, memories, hope, and love, above all, love – if all these things were present when you exhaled that last breath, then yes, Heaven was in the room.










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