Vigil by Shirlee Jellum

*Featured Artwork by Tara Koger/Columbus Community Deathcare

“…when the time comes to let it go…”
—Mary Oliver


Outside the door I linger, close my eyes, breathe deeply, then three quick raps and I enter her tiny apartment.

“Hi, Mom,” I say, handing her a bouquet of carnations I bought at Safeway and kissing her cheek.

“Well, hello there,” she says, sniffing the flowers then dropping them into her lap. “What have you been up to? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.”

“Only a week,” I remind her, picking up the bouquet. I describe the iris blossoms, the elk in the meadow, the swallow nest outside the window. I replace the wilted daisies I gave her on my previous visit with the carnations and fill the vase with fresh water.

She nods and smiles. “For heaven’s sake! I haven’t seen you for ages.” Tears fill her eyes. “When did you get here? What’s new?”

Five minutes ago, I want to say. Instead, I describe the meadow full of elk, the bird nest near the door, the iris bed in full bloom.

She looks at me, surprised, as though I just walked in the door. “What pretty flowers. How are you, my darling? What do you know?”

I sigh, grab her coat. “Let’s go for a drive.”

“Where are we going?” she asks as she struggles from her chair. I help her stand. “Where is my purse?” She shuffles toward the refrigerator. I hand her a leather bag, the only contents a few tissues and a tube of lipstick, then help her into her coat and zip it up. As we are leaving, she tells me she needs to go to the toilet. I help take off her coat, hold her bag, and wait.

I glance around the room at her faded chair, the hole she cut in the blinds (so her cat can look out the window, she told me), the stack of unread newspapers, framed pictures rearranged—one on the floor, another behind the TV—the blank fridge (where are the photos and magnets, I wonder), stuffed animals piled on the couch. My shoulders sag, her decline felt sharply each time I visit. I knock on the door. “Mom? How are you doing in there?”

“Come in.” She is standing in front of the mirror, hairbrush in one hand, toothbrush in another, looking confused. The faucet is running.
“Here, let me.” I set her toothbrush down, turn off the water, and gently brush her hair.

“Oh, that feels so good.” She peers at us standing side by side in the mirror. “You have gray hair,” she says. “How old are you?”

“Sixty.” I look at our reflection, see myself in twenty years, feel a knot in my throat. I smile weakly. “How about that drive?”

She heads toward her chair.

“Let’s go, Mom,” I say, holding out her coat. I want her to take it, put it on, zip it up, head for the door. She stares at it like she’s never seen it before.

“Where are we going?” she asks as I help her again. I tell her we’re going for a drive.

She grabs her purse. “That’s mine,” she says.


We drive toward the beach, her favorite place. She grew up on the water, worked for the ferry system during the war—flirting with sailors home on leave—spent vacations at the coast digging clams, collecting shells and driftwood and pretty rocks, bird watching, wading in the surf. She always wanted to buy another beach house, became wistful when it didn’t happen. Parking where we can watch the ferries has become our routine, a time of shared comfort.

We drive through residential streets, the older homes well-kept, the yards immaculate. “What an ugly house,” she says disgustedly. “Ugly, ugly,” She points to a new apartment complex. I agree with her.

“Ooh, look at that red car,” she comments, pointing again.

“It sure is bright,” I say.

She’s quiet for a few blocks. We drive past parks, over stone bridges, toward the waterfront with stunning views of the Sound and surrounding islands. Along the way, I point out flowering plums, blooming rhododendrons, a tabby running along the sidewalk.

“Oh! Look at that red car!” she says again.

“Uh huh,” I say, “it’s red all right.”

She leans back into the seat, sighs. “My father was such a good man,” she says, then falls asleep.

“Mom, we’re almost there,” I say, trying to nudge her awake. “Don’t you want to watch the ferries?” At an intersection, I watch her sleep, her head resting against the window. I turn around and head for home.


When I enter her apartment the next morning, she begins to cry. “Where did you go?”

“To my hotel,” I say. “Let’s get you dressed for breakfast.” She is wearing a robe over yesterday’s clothes. It’s too much work to change her outfit, so I help her remove the robe and slip on her shoes. “Ready?”

“It’s so good to see you.” She smiles. “What do you know?” she asks.

“Not much,” I say as I smooth her hair. “Do you need to go to the bathroom before we leave?”

“No thank you.” She looks around the room. “Where’s my purse?”

“You don’t need it for breakfast, Mom. Let’s go. I’m hungry.”

I take her to the dining hall, talk about the colorful fruit bowl, the fluffy omelet, the friendly servers. I watch as she spreads strawberry jam on her eggs, dips bacon in her juice. My throat tightens. I can’t swallow another bite.


On my next visit, she’s wearing a flimsy blouse with no bra. Her hair is a mess of greasy spikes. She is eating ice cream straight from the carton, dribbling chocolate onto her lap.

“Hi, Mom,” I say, wondering when she last took a shower. “How are you today?” I take the ice cream, put it in the freezer.

“Where is it?” she says, struggling to push herself up from her chair. “Who are you? What are you doing?”

“It’s me, Mom. Your daughter. Shirlee. I’m here to help you with your shower,” I say, guiding her toward the bathroom.

“I took one yesterday,” she says.

No, you didn’t, I want to say. “But you forgot to wash your hair,” I tell her as I turn on the water, sit her down on the toilet, and unbutton her blouse. Steam fills the bathroom as I undress her. I guide her to the shower, settle her on the seat and spray her with warm water.

“That feels so good,” she says. I hand her soap and a washcloth, tell her to clean herself, then rinse her off. I lather her hair, rinse again then wrap her in a large towel. I am as wet as she is. She smells like lavender.


For several months I visit often, stay longer. I help Mom bathe, take her for drives and haircuts, share meals, change bedding, wash laundry. She talks less, sleeps more. I wonder for how long I can do this, wonder how long until she can’t.


Late November I receive a phone call from the assisted living nurse. Mom is wandering, confused. She can’t be left alone. She must leave, they say. Panicked, I ask for suggestions, call several memory care facilities, find one with a recent opening.

A week before Christmas I move her into her new home, decorate her small room with family
photos, stuffed animals, her mother’s crocheted blanket. She likes the view of frost-covered trees from her window. I kiss her good bye, relieved that she will be safe.

Two days after Christmas I arrive for another visit. I can’t find her. I search her room, the hallways, the bathroom, the lounge. “She’s at the hospital,” an aide tells me. “She left an hour ago.” She has pneumonia. I stay for three weeks until she is well, then head home on ice-covered roads, hoping I won’t need to return for awhile.

A week later my sister sends me an email: Mom has broken her arm. I race north between snowstorms. Mom seems happy, oblivious to her cast. She is sitting in a circle with other residents, batting at a balloon and laughing. She has lost her glasses and her shoes. She is wearing someone else’s pants. When I say hello, she looks at me blankly.

Later, we look through Sunset, her favorite magazine. She admires the garden section, running her fingers over the colorful photos of iris, peonies, roses. “I want to go home,” she says. I tell her this is her new home. I promise I will call and visit as often as I can.

When I leave, I am sobbing.


Two weeks later, I return. She is slumped in her chair, complaining of back pain. Her hand shakes, so I help her eat and drink. She goes to bed early. I plan to call the doctor in the morning.

She won’t wake up. She looks dead, I think, her head cocked at an impossible angle, mouth a gaping hole, skin ashen. We call 911. The EMT’s berate the nursing staff for not calling about her fall sooner. “All falls are serious,” they scold as they transfer her to a wheeled stretcher. I wonder if this is the end as I follow them to the hospital.

She has seven broken ribs and a urinary tract infection, an IV drip, penicillin and drugs for pain. I wonder how this happened, why I wasn’t notified when she fell, make plans to complain.

“You have such beautiful eyes,” she tells the doctor, who blushes. “Don’t give up on me.”

“We won’t, Mom,” I say, amused by her comment and hopeful she’ll pull through.

Later he recommends hospice.

It is the end, I think, with both fear and relief.


Two weeks pass and I visit again, this time in her new adult family care home. She has a lovely room and skilled, trustworthy, compassionate caretakers. Mom’s hair has been brushed and she is wearing fresh lipstick. I am grateful for these small kindnesses. I kiss her cheek. “How are you feeling, Mom?”

“Pain pain pain pain pain pain pain,” she says. Alarmed, I ask where she hurts. “Right where the pink is. If they put a pinch on here they scare me.”

What is she trying to say? I feel my breath catch, my heartbeat increase. What is pink? Who is they? Where is here? “What do you mean, Mom?”

Her eyes droop shut, her head nods sideways.

I caress her cheek. “How about I read you some of your favorite poetry?” I flip through her well-loved Mary Oliver book, searching for one about flowers, or cats, or the sea.

She opens her eyes. “Is there a pretty one coming up right here?”

“Yes, a pretty one about poppies.”


For three months her bones heal but her brain worsens, from morphine or dementia I couldn’t say, but likely both. She fattens up on Ensure, opening her mouth like an infant for spoonfuls of protein and sugar while her mind shrivels like a dried pea. Like an infant she babbles in a language I try to understand but can’t. This woman—once well-read, intelligent, articulate—is robbed of what makes us human, the ability to communicate, question, and empathize. I am fascinated yet saddened by her attempts at conversation.

“I’m going to lock over the icky poo,” she says. “ Here Peecy Peecy Peecy.” About me she says, “You look sandy. Why did they tick you down into the kettle?” Occasionally she’s lucid and I am hopeful: “I like you. You are so pretty. Are you glad to be home? Oh, gimme a kiss.” Then I’m horrified: “I’m hoping to gay whap whap. I gotta humpinick. Tez fretter. Six six six six fifty.”

I write down her words, analyze them, try to discern the context, the intent, give up after several days. I respond to her nonsense with my own empty statements—“Peecy who, you do too, I have no idea, sounds like fun”—in a futile attempt to trigger a memory she can clearly convey. I want to hear her voice, remember the rich conversations we used to have about gardening, travel, literature, politics, family. I want to talk with my mom again.

We try so hard, but we are both lost. At the end of each visit I whisper, “It’s okay to let go.”


Each time on the long drive home, I think how appalled she would be: bed-bound, diapered, spoon-fed, unable to converse. “I never want to be like my mom,” I hear her saying, remembering the shell of my grandmother languishing for eight years before dying of Alzheimer’s. She has now become that shell, curled within her flowered sheets, oblivious.

At home, I reread her living will, which states that no artificial means are to be used to keep her alive. Is hand-feeding her artificial? I wonder. I want to stop the Ensure, but I know I’d carry the guilt of her starvation, her death. I also know I never want to die like my mom.


My visits become routine, obligatory, bittersweet. I am the kind lady who holds her hand, reads poetry, plays classical CD’s. I am the mean daughter who wishes she’d die, give it up, move along to the next world. Then I am sickened by my thoughts. She wouldn’t want this, I tell myself. She believed in death with dignity. This is not how she wanted to die. My mother is no longer living, just lingering. My mother is no longer my mother. My mother is gone.


She is finally starving, has forgotten how to swallow. This is the end I have been dreading yet hoping for, after watching her decline for over four years. I think back to the day we called 911, the day she flirted with the doctor and asked us not to give up on her. If I’d known then how each day would add more pain, more confusion, more indignity, I would have brought her home and let her die naturally, within a few days most likely. I vow when this is over I will revise my living will to include no food or hydration by any means. I will not die one slow agonizing day at a time like my mother.

“I love you, Mom,” I say, brushing her hair with my fingertips. She smacks her lips several times, air-kissing me. I press my masked lips to hers. She stares at me, confused. “We must all look like a bunch of bandits,” I say.

She laughs.


The day before she dies she has a moment of clarity. I am no longer the office lady, her mother, the stranger who holds her hand. She recognizes me, her eyes clear, knowing. “I. . . LOVE. . .YOU,” she says, her breaths between words slow, the words loud, unmistakable. For a moment she is my mother again and I want her to live. Then her head falls forward, chin on chest, and she’s lost once more.

When she wakes up I lean close to kiss her cheek, removing my mask so I can feel her skin on my lips. Fuck COVID, I think, resenting the seven months of mandated visits though glass.

She grabs my neck scarf, yanks me closer and twists, choking me, her eyes desperate. “Mom!” I say. “You’re strangling me!” I pry her fingers off, kiss her knuckles, smooth her hair. Her eyes close.

I touch her pillow, thinking how easy it would be to smother her, steal the breath that has stolen my mother, the breath that prolongs her pain, her confusion, her loneliness. Her eyes open as though she’s read my thoughts. With a shaking hand she grabs her oxygen tube, pulls it from her nose, drags it over her mouth, down her chin, the loop stuck behind her ear, tangled in her hair.

“Mom,” I whisper, “If you don’t like it, you can stop breathing.”

She laughs.


Her last day is brutal. She is restless, agitated, grimacing. I show her photos of Dad, my sister, her grandchildren. She stares, calms, closes her eyes. I sit with her, watch her breathe, read her favorite poems: Blackberries, The Sea, Blue Iris. I think of the gifts she has given me—a love of gardening and travel, holidays and books, birds and cats, independence and strength.

My sister shows up for lunch. I lean close to Mom’s ear. “We are going out to eat,” I whisper. “We’ll be back soon.”

“Yum yum yum,” she says, my mother’s last words.

When I return the shaking begins, first in her feet and hands, then up her legs and arms into full-body seizures. I think about the bottle of sedatives at home, how easy, how merciful it would have been to slip pills into spoonfuls of raspberry sorbet, fed one at a time until the bottle is empty. How quiet, how peaceful her passing would have been, not the uncontrollable spasms that nearly lift her from the bed. Her caretaker gives her a drug. The shaking stops. Her breathing slows.

I have already said my goodbyes. Now I wait, watching as her life is ending on its own terms, not hers. I whisper my love to her, caress her face, her hair, wish her a peaceful and joyful passage. Her breath catches, stops, but her heart doesn’t. I watch the pulse in her neck, press my fingers against it, feel its life, its beauty, as it slows, slows, slows, then stops.


I continue holding her hand, now cool, talking to her as though she can still hear me. Outside the window a flock of juncos lands on the fence, then startle and scatter when a red-shafted flicker swoops onto the neighbor’s roof. I lean close to kiss her cheek, and notice a tear in the corner of her eye.


Shirlee Jellum is a retired English teacher living on a farm in the Columbia River Gorge. When she's not reading or writing, she is gardening, backpacking, and traveling. Her writing has been published in Persimmon Tree and Memoirist and is forthcoming in Honeyguide and Flash Fiction.

Columbus Community Deathcare is a grassroots movement striving to reclaim a participatory relationship with death. The goal of community deathcare is to normalize the dying process by acknowledging death is a natural part of the life cycle. As end-of-life doulas, death educators, and home funeral guides, they work to empower community members to care for their dying and dead loved ones.

"We are dedicated to helping the living understand options and rights in death and dying. We want to reclaim death as a sacred event and we want to empower families to take back the traditions of home deathcare so that we can return to doing what we have done for centuries, care for our own." Find out more at:

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