The Death of My Mom  

 Robert J. Marks II

The trip to the grave is inevitable and, when deeply pondered by the Pagan, scary to the bone.  Even theists and deists, dogged by doubt, tremble.  Pascal says we seek distraction to avoid reflective thought on why we are here, the finiteness of life and our disposition after death.  Distractions include radio, TV, reading and idle chatter.  Curt Cobain of the Seattle grunge rock band Nirvana stated this in his lyrics.

“With the lights out it’s less dangerous.  Here we are now, entertain us.” 

Don’t take away our comforting distractions.  Without them, we must face the reality of our mortality. 

Cobain ends his song with "The denial. The denial. The denial."

Some paint over the nagging necessity of such thought with religion, be it a shallow veneer of the salvation offered in the Great American Church, or distraction through indulgence in philosophy and academia, rigid agnosticism or mind dead “I know it all” atheism.  Through the death of my mother, Lenore Hersman Marks, I was forced into an arena where a new confrontation with my mortality was forced.  The experience unexpectedly drenched me in breathtaking awe.  I exited with a joy of love and certainty, owner of the sacred and spiritual memory of a deeply powerful encounter welling from the bottomless richness of wonder of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It started when Brother Ray called me in Seattle from Cleveland . “Something’s wrong with Mom.  She can’t talk coherently.”

We knew Mom was sick, but she had never lost her mental facilities.  Mom had a recurrence of cancer – cancer she had beat almost thirty years before.  The old cancer was a family secret.  Mom felt that people would think lowly of her if they knew she had had cancer.  Mom had an enormous pride of self sufficiency that often led her into the ridiculous.  We were sworn to secrecy about her current condition.  Officially, only her sons and two sisters knew.  She especially didn’t want her boyfriend, Jennings , to know.

Mom opted for radiation treatment with a 50-50 prognosis of cure.  I talked to her on the phone almost daily during her treatment.  Although the contents of our exchange were trite on the surface, the underlying exchange was beyond value insofar as solidification of my insight into Mom’s spirit.  During our conversations, Mom was very Mom – always worried more about her boys than herself.  She needed to talk.  She wouldn’t burden Jennings – so I was the receptacle of the ingrained female need to jabber.  She talked about my brother Ray a lot.  She loved him – well – like a mother.  One day, she would be mad at him for one reason or another.  He wasn’t talking to her as much – he stayed out too late – he was smoking his damn cigars – she suspected him of drinking.  There was no dissuading her to mercy during these periods of damnation.  Other times she would be in total harmony with Ray and his life.  We would pray together on the phone for Ray.  I asked her if she would mind me praying for her.  She never requested it herself.  My joke was, if I asked her how she was doing financially, she would say “Why son?  How much do you need?”   It was always about her sons. Mom’s heart was as big as a Buick.

Mom was subjected to below the belt radiation treatment for her second bout with cancer.  This is hell.  Going to the throne almost hourly, Mom placed mental bets during her short trek whether she would go number one or number two.  She just couldn’t tell.  Mom told me often that the life led during radiation was not worth living.  Her hope lie at the end of the treatment when life would return to normal.  If this were her future, she said, death would be better.  We hoped the effects were temporary and Mom would be back to being Mom.  

The effects of radiation on the body are ravaging.  There was no effect on Mom’s mind though.  At least not until now.

“Let me talk to her” I told Ray. 

I heard a rustling of the phone as Ray held the received to her ear.  Mom groaned. I put on my most upbeat voice. 

“Mom!  How are you doing?

There was a short pause, then I heard is a slow slurred voice

“Bob?  Bob.  Ohhhhh Bob.”

“Mom.  What’s wrong?”

“Bob.  Oh Bob.  Bob.  Bob.”

The phone rustled and I heard Ray’s voice. 

“She’s been like this for the last day.”

In the background, I hear the slurred mantra change.

“Ray.  Ray.  Oh Ray.”

This didn’t make sense.  The radiation nor the cancer were anywhere near her brain.  But her mental process was clearly diminished.  She could not even communicate coherently

“We were thinking about calling emergency” Ray offered.

“Let me do it,” I countered. 

I pushed the flash button on the phone to get a second line in the conference mode.  The answering service connected us with the doctor on call.  The doctor didn’t help much.  He had absolutely no idea what would cause the diminishment in mental capacity we were observing.  After some discussion, it was decided to get her to the hospital.  We ended our call and Ray called 911 for an ambulance to take Mom to the hospital.  I got an airline ticket and flew to Cleveland .  

The Cleveland Clinic is the greatest health care facility in the known universe – especially for the terminally ill.  Woody Allen says he’s not afraid of dying, he just doesn’t want to be there when it happens.  I subscribe to a similar philosophy.  I hope to leave this world in a painless thermonuclear flash.   My second choice is death at the Cleveland Clinic.  Their facilities and patient treatment philosophy are too good to be true.           

After medical tests were done on Mom, Ray and I met with the doctors.  Mom’s tumor had pushed on her kidneys causing them not to operate effectively.  Her blood was full of impurities that caused her brain not to function properly.  The malady finally made sense.  Now Ray and I had to make a decision – a life or death decision.   

Ray and I were in a room with Mom when two doctors walked in their white frocks.  They introduced themselves.  The female doctor – the senior – had a radiating air of self importance.  I forgot her name, but she introduced herself as “Doctor Important” or something like that.  I never like doctors who introduce themselves like “I’m Doctor Important.” It’s an attempt to establish a pecking order where the doctor is head pecker.  It also reveals an inferiority complex.  Important people don’t need to tell others they are important.  The other doctor, a younger male, was her flunky – probably a student. He looked nervous -- like he was taking a test. After some talk to Ray and me, Dr. Important turned her attention to Mom.

“Good evening Mrs. Marks. I’m Doctor Important.  How are you this afternoon?”

Mom looked at the Dr. Important and gave a smile of love.  It was a smile of love I had seen all my life.  Open, loving, joyous and totally pure.  Despite lack of coherence, the pure love was still there.  I wonder how I would act if my mental control was stripped away and all that remained was the essence of “me”.  I’m afraid I would be a grumpy self centered pain in the ass.  It’s not what I want to be, though.  I’d like to be like Mom – unselfishly radiating natural goodness.

Mom turned her head towards Ray.

“Ray” she said in a slow slurred voice dripping with love. 

She rotated her head slowly on the pillow and looked at me through unsteady eyes.


“Mrs. Marks”, continued Dr. Important in her business voice.  “Do you understand what is happening to you?”

Mom followed the voice with her eyes and looked at the doctor.  The smile remained on her face.  She said nothing.

“Mrs. Marks.  How do you feel?”

More silence.  Mom’s eyes fell on Ray and her smile brightened.


The doctor looked at Ray and me.

“You are her sons?” she queried.

When we confirmed, she began, in a tone of self importance, to spell out the options.  They could operate on Mom to remove the tumor pressure but it would necessitate afterwards use of a catheter and a colostomy bag.  The operation would remove the pressure on the kidneys, but the cancer would still be there.  The radiation was proving ineffective.  The tumor was bigger than it was before the radiation treatment started.  The doctor said the cancer was “very aggressive”.  It was the growing tumor, undeterred by the radiation bombardment,  that was pressing on Mom’s kidneys.  The operation was option one.  The pressure on the kidney would be removed, but the tumor would remain.  The tumor would grow and eventually kill Mom.  The other option was to make Mom as comfortable as possible and let nature take its course. 

“With the second option, how long would you estimate she has?” I asked the doctor.

“About a month” was the reply.

Ray and I had gone through Dad’s death by lung cancer.  Actually, Ray gets the kudos. He lived with Dad during his last days. I called from Seattle and visited when I could. The choice we made with Dad was to do all we could to keep him alive.  It was the wrong decision and the results were not pretty.  To remove the cancer, Dad’s shoulder was removed.  He was deformed.  Dad angrily referred to himself as half a man.  He deteriorated physically and mentally.  The man I remember the last few weeks of  Dad’s life was not Dad.  It was a hollow husk of who my father was.  I still selfishly wish the mental pictures I had of Dad did not include these images.  My Dad was rambunctious, teasing, virile, physical, roughly loving, direct, self sufficient, independent and his own man.  The man I saw at the end an incoherent and mentally hollow man.

After Dad’s death, Mom, Ray and I had talked about the process.  Mom’s firm feeling was she was ready to meet God when nature deemed it time.  Since the first cancer episode was beaten thirty years prior, Mom counted each day as a wonderful gift from God.  When it was time to meet her Maker, she was ready.

During her radiation and hourly bathroom visits, Mom told us she did not want to live like this.  This was not a statement of depression or a reaction to tedium, but a firm realization that artificially extended life was in many cases both unnatural and dehumanizing.  Catheters and colostomy bags were not something she could tolerate.  Mom’s modesty and fear of inconveniencing others would reduce her to unyielding shame. Because of our conversations with Mom, Ray and I didn’t even need to discuss the matter.  I looked at him and nodded.  Ray had power of attorney but volunteered he would not make a decision without my input.  Ray told the doctor we would opt for the natural death.  Looking back, Ray and I never disagreed. 

The doctor nodded knowingly and arrogantly said she had been involved in a number of cases like this and we had made the right decision.  All of a sudden, this pissed me off.  Resentment exploded in me.  There must be someone to blame for Mom’s condition.  Since Dr. Important was such a jerk, it must be her fault in some way.  Her vain attempt at a comforting reply made me mad.  I wanted to spit words of venom and damnation in her face.  She was so cold and impersonal.  Damn her.  DAMN HER! “This is one of many cases.”  Bull!  This is NOT one of many cases.  This is Mom.  This is MY Mom.  How dare she relate our decision to a vague statistic containing those less worthy.  Fortunately, God gives us a meta ability to discern the correctness of our instincts.  My meta control said my rage was out of order and I should keep my mouth shut.  I clenched my teeth and did.

Mom was moved into a big private room at the Cleveland Clinic.  I learned a new word: palliative.  Defined by the World Health Organization, “Palliative care is the active, total care of patients whose disease is not responsive to curative treatment.”   I’m still not sure of the difference between this and a hospice – but the medical profession seems to be able to differentiate.  Mom was in The Harry R. Horvitz Center for Palliative Medicine at The Cleveland Clinic.  It was a great place.  Relatives and friends of patients were treated like people.  So were the visiting family.  If thermonuclear war is not an option, this is where I want to die. 

Ray and I agreed it was time to let the world know of Mom’s condition.  I sent e-mail to every relative and close friend of Mom I could think of.  Everybody was stunned.  The secret was kept well.  No one was rude enough to say it, but I’m sure there were a lot of  astonished reactions.  I surmise there were two types.  One was simple surprise at Mom’s condition.  The second was “Why wasn’t I told before?  We were close to Lenore!  Why didn’t she tell us?”  The answer, of course, was a selfless pride.  Mom didn’t want people to know because she was afraid it would inconvenience them.  Keeping secrets of this sort, though, is like keeping your lap warm on a frigid morning by drenching it with hot coffee. It feels nice for a while – but the long term effects are not worth it.  It’s better to experience the constancy of the unpleasant cold rather than choosing immediate gratification with long term consequences.

At first I was uncomfortable with the status of Mom’s awareness.  Was she responding deeply from the heart or from ingrained robotic reactions?  She seemed to drift in and out of coherence. I soon learned, although her communication was different than I had known, it was consistent with her spirit.  Her reaction time and sharpness were dulled.  But what remained was her essence.  A beautiful essence. 

I always wonder how I would react in a crisis where my death was certain.  The plane is in flames and the pilots have strapped on the last parachutes and jumped.  The mountain is getting closer and closer and I watch the jaws of death open wide for the final bite.  I am surrounded by my family.  What will I do?  Will I frantically scramble about looking for some way – any way -  to save myself?  Will I panic and beat my head - cursing my terrible luck at being at the wrong place at the wrong time?  Will I try to comfort my family with the assurance of their eternal salvation and security in the hands of God?  The inevitable crashing of the plane has stripped away the social cloak of behavior that covers me.  I am no longer considering how others perceive me.  The end is near and there are things more important than any facade.  The theoretical is no longer at issue.  I am, rather, confronted with the stark reality of my mortality.  There is no allowed disillusion of immortality on earth.  When all is stripped away, what kind of man will I be?  I hope to be the man who was not concerned with self, but, certain of my own eternal destiny, concerned with comforting and care of others.  I hope my faith in the promises of my Lord would dominate and His Spirit would engulf me in comfort and love.  But I don’t know.  I just don’t know.  Mom was facing certain death.  She could be bitter, depressed and despondent.  She wasn’t.  All social roles were stripped away and what remained was the most loving, caring and assured person I have ever met.  This was the true essence of my mother – a side of her I had never seen in such purity.

The nurse put a cot in Mom’s room for me and I stayed with her for her last days - almost 24/7.  For us, there was no outside world.  There was just her, me, the nurses and the visitors.  This was our universe.  I would talk with Mom when she was coherent.  We prayed together.  Audible prayer among two people and their Lord is precious.  Sometimes, when she was dozing, I would sing old hymns.  Some would tug at my heart.  When Dad was going in for open heart surgery, I sang over and over “Because He Lives.”  I love that song.  When all hope is gone, there He is, the Lord God Almighty, never saying He will make it easy, but assuring He will always be there.  

  • Because He lives,
  • I can face tomorrow.
  • Because He lives, all fear is gone.
  • Because I know, I know He holds the future
  • And life is worth the living just because He lives.

One evening I was singing softly while Mom dozed.  Dinner was eaten.  The nurses, noticing my ever presence, even bought me food.  As Mom cruised between consciousness and sleep, I whipped out the most beautiful rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross” I could muster.  After I poured my heart into the making of pure audio art, I asked Mom what she would like to hear next.  With eyes closed, she muttered “Would you please shut up for a while and let me sleep?”  Then she smiled to take the sting off. I sheepishly tiptoed to the corner to renew my quite relationship with my laptop.           

I had a mailing list of all I had sent news of Mom’s illness.  Each night, I mailed an update on Mom’s condition.  She got worse, then she got better, then worse again.  I once thought Mom had passed the point of receiving visitors.  She was unable to hold any conversation.  But I was wrong.  Visitors brightened her up.  She would become alive when those who loved her visited.  It was better than any of the medicine she took.  Her response showed how Mom loved people.  One self consumed with self pity would remain so even when visitors came.  Not Mom.  She wanted to talk to them, see how they were doing, tell them she cared for them.  Mom knew she was on her death bed.  People were her concern.  People she loved.  She knew this was the last time she would see them.  I recorded some of the conversations Mom had with her visits. You'll get a chance to hear some of the clips later.         

Once word spread of her illness, Mom had a truckload of visitors.  I hesitate to list them – afraid I will omit someone.  They were legion.

When you're on your death bed, you no longer need to keep your thoughts to yourself. If you offend someone by telling them something they need to hear, so what? Mom did this some.

To one visitor, to remain unnamed, she said "Your intensions are good, but you're not quite making it."

I forget what this was in reference to, but it cracked me up. It was one of the few phrases I recorded. (To listen to it, click HERE.) Her sense of humor was in also in tact. I like this one about men and women shopping.

"Most men will want something, go buy it, come home and be happy. Women can shop, come back, and want a little bit more." (To listen, click HERE.)

Mom told me there were three things she had to make right with God before she died.  One was her bigotry.  Both my parents were raised in West Virginia in a bigoted environment.  West Virginia split from Virginia during the Civil War in order to stay in the Union .  My great great grandfather on Dad's side, Arnold Moore, helped slaves in the underground railroad.  Such actions, though, do not necessarily imply the absence of bigotry.  Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but still did not consider them equal to whites.  There was talk during his presidency of relocating them to Africa .  I suspect my ancestors held similar beliefs.  You know – separate but equal.  My Dad battled bigotry and had won the battle at the level of the mind.  Dad once told me that he knew spiritually and intellectually that there would be nothing wrong if I married a black woman.  Nevertheless, bigotry was so much a part of his being, he told me he probably could never accept it.  I suppose an addiction to, say, alcohol is similar.  You know it’s bad – but can’t shake the thoughts.            

Mom was like that too.  I remember when I was a little kid, I put a penny in my mouth.  Mom chastised me. 

“You don’t know what filthy little n***** has handled that!” she said. 

I don’t believe that was Mom talking.  I like to believe it was the culture in which she was raised.  I was lucky to not be raised in that culture.  Of the books that changed me, I include “Black Like Me.”  I read  it as an early teen and was forever an enemy of bigotry.    

Dad had come to grips with his bigotry early.  He realized through his relation with Christ it was a root of bitterness he needed to weed.  Mom took more time.  On her death bed, she repented to God for her feelings.  It was one of the three things she “had to get straight with God.”  Her recognition of the need to do this is evidence of God’s writing the differences of right and wrong on our hearts.  Facing death pealed off years of accumulated scabs revealing a sensitive wound – a wound Mom took to her Lord for healing. 

The second matter Mom took to God was her hate of Catholics.  I’m not sure where this came from.  I think it was the competition in Garfield Heights , our home, between the public and the Catholic schools.  Mom, as a public teacher, might have taken it too personally.

The third sin unloaded by Mom onto her Savior was a seething hate she had for my Father’s sister.  The conflicted history of their relationship was long and bitter – full of tasteless and viscous interchange.  This is not the place to discuss details.  Mom realized in her final days that, although she need not bless bad actions as good, she was to recognize her shortcomings and give forgiveness.  The beautiful example is the forgiveness of our sins by the Savior.  He tells us not to judge.  Not judging, though, is easiest when the one sinning against you repents.  When you forgive and the recipient of your forgiveness remains clueless, unrepentant or even hostile, it is difficult to forgive.  But forgive we must.  We are ordered to love our enemies.  I don’t love my enemies.  I try to calm down and forgive them, but the forgiveness usually stops at the intellectual level.  Any forgiveness I have from my heart and soul comes only as a gift from God.  Mom summed it up nicely.

"Now Lenore", she says to herself, "You're on your deathbed and you're not going to live long. God loves you and you love God.   But, in the end, you have to ask forgiveness [from] God". (To hear, click HERE.)

So Mom repented and forgave. 

Mom, in her last years, had become a maturing and thirsty Christian.  She devoured the Bible, attended church and watched TV preachers.  Her conversations were often centered around spiritual matters.  Mom wasn’t always this way.  I remember lying on my bed at night the summer after I dedicated myself to the Lord Jesus Christ.  I remember thinking that my Dad, rough edges and all, was going to be with me for eternity.  Indeed, he had indirectly led me into the presence of Christ.  But Mom.  I wasn’t sure.  How could I survive eternity without my mother?  The thought ripped me up inside.  If heaven was going to be perfect, how could I stand being separated from Mom?  I got out of bed and went into Mom’s room.  She was there alone.  After exchanging some small talk, I asked her what she thought God was and whether she was going to heaven.  Her response discouraged me.  If she was good enough, she said, a loving God would see fit to let her in heaven.  We talked about who Jesus was and why he had to die.  I’m sure Mom had heard it numerous other times from Dad and others.  My preaching didn’t sink in either.  I remember going to bed disheartened.  My Mom was not a Christian.  That was then.  Now, close to her death, Mom had made her decision in favor of Christ.  She was on a program to read the Bible in a year.  It was such a blessing to talk to Mom about spiritual things, and have her instruct me on some of the finer points she had learned. 

"God's blessed us. God is good to us. Just remember that. God's good to you. God blesses you. God takes care of you." (To listen, click HERE.)

This and the other audio were recorded when Mom was in the hospital with her diminished mental capacity. They are her essence. I will be spending eternity with Mom.  There is no doubt.

The days at the hospital continued.  There was always something to do.  When visitors weren’t there, the nurses and doctors were visiting.  As was the case in our home, the conversations with visitors were largely happy and full of happy laughter. (For an example, click HERE.) Our home was a happy home, and so was the Mom's room.

Deathbeds, of course, also prompt more serious conversations. One of Mom's favorite monologue topics was Ray. She worried about him, but hesitated to confront him directly. If Ray was the topic and Ray entered the room, the topic was changed. (Click HERE.) The same was probably true for me.

When Mom slept, I worked on my laptop.  Mom’s condition seemed to improve.  The doctors’ even announced she was doing so well they were considering moving her to a hospice.  That decision was eventually reversed.

Mom occasionally talked in her sleep. She spent one night mentally saying good-bye to the her friends.  I lie on my cot, awakened in the middle of the night by Mom’s voice.  My eyes opened and, without moving, I listened to a one side of a conversation. 

“Well hi!  ….   Yes.  … No.  …Okay  Bye bye!”

The “bye bye” was a beautifully uttered West Virginia accented sing song. The first "bye" was quick and low.  The second had a diphthong that started with a raised pitch and then slurred back down.  She kept saying “bye bye”.  It was music.

“Oh! … I think so.  … Yes … Of course … I love you too… Okay … Bye bye!”

In her dream, there was a line of people before her.  She spoke to the front person, saying goodbye.  The lead person left, dismissed with a “bye bye” and was replaced by the next person in line.  One interchange revealed her grasp of her condition.

“Yes. … Thank you. … Well, I’m going to die now…. No no.  It’s okay. … It’s time … Don’t worry. … Okay. … Bye bye!”

That was Mom.  She didn’t want anybody burdened just because she was going to die. Heaven forbid.  Yet there was a clear assurance in her voice.  There was no fear, only loving acceptance.  She was ready.

I listened to Mom’s conversation long into the night, and finally dozed off.  I was awakened by the hushed conversation of nurses in the room.  I played possum and listened to them whisper. 

“Clean this.”  Shuffle, shuffle.  Shhhh.  We don’t want to wake him before we get her cleaned.”  Shuffle clink.

I knew, lying there with closed eyes, that Mom had died.  I was astonished at my response.  It was not one of remorse nor mourning.  I felt a profound and supernatural peace.  A personal closeness to God.  He had received Mom’s spirit.  She was now without pain – totally in control of her faculties.  How wonderfully appropriate. How lovingly perfect is my God. I wondered how Mom felt, being in the presence of God.  I wish I could share her transitional astonishment, her emotional awe at being in the presence of Christ.  Mom’s being “better off” was not a cliché.  It was a reality.  It was part of life.  It was what was supposed to happen.  It was the next step.  Because of the reality of the Gospel, it all made sense. This was His plan. His beautiful perfect plan.

The shuffling and whispering continued until, after dismissing the help, the nurse came and gently placed her hand on my shoulder. 

“Dr. Marks.” She said quietly. 

I opened my eyes and looked at her.

“Your Mother passed away last night.”

I was surprised at my response.  It was heartfelt but could have been easily taken wrongly.

“Good.”  I said.  “It was her time.”

The nurse asked if I was okay, and I assured her I was.  She left the room and I was alone with Mom’s body.  I rose and walked to her bed. She was beautiful. The nurses had tidied her, put on clean sheets, and fixed her beautiful white hair. I smile, touched her cheek and thanked my Lord for her peaceful passing. She must have known she was going to die. Saying goodbye to that long line of people last night now made so much sense. How appropriately beautiful.

I had little time to reflect.  Almost immediately I heard laughter down the hall.  Ray had picked Connie, Josh and Marilee up at the airport, and they were coming down the hall towards the room to visit Mom.  I stepped into the hall to hush them and tell them Mom was gone.  The news took away Ray’s breath.  Even when expected, death can be a punch in the kidneys.  After some quiet time, we all held hands around Mom’s bed and, freely crying, had a prayer of thanksgiving for her wonderful life and peaceful passing.  Then, with cracking voices, we sang a slow chorus of “I’ll fly away”. 

  • I’ll fly away, oh glory
  • I’ll fly away.
  • When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
  • I’ll fly away.  

After lingering a while, we left the room and Mom’s husk.  She no longer had to bear the pain it inflicted.  In Glory, Mom and I will spend a lot of time together.  We will praise God for His goodness and, if Mom lets me, sing His praise.


Lenore Hersman Marks (1925-2002)