Rose Raber looked away so Mamma wouldn’t see the tears filling her eyes. As she sat beside her mother’s bed, Rose prayed as she had every night for the past week. Please, Lord, don’t take her away from me . . . I believe You can heal my mother’s cancer—work a miracle for us—if You will.
Tonight felt different, though. Mamma had taken to dozing off more, and her mind was wandering. Rose had a feeling that Mamma might drift off at any moment and not come back.
“Was church today?” Mamma murmured. “I don’t . . . recall that you and Gracie . . . went—”
“We stayed here with you, Mamma,” Rose reminded her gently. “I didn’t want to leave you by yourself.”
Her mother let out a long sigh. As she reached for Rose’s hand, Rose grasped it as though it could be a way to hold on to her mother, to keep her here—keep her alive. They didn’t speak for so long, it seemed Mamma had drifted off to sleep again, but then she opened her eyes wide.
“Is Gracie . . . all tucked in?” Although Mamma’s voice sounded as fragile as dry, rustling leaves, a purpose lurked behind the question.
“Jah, she is, but I’ll go check on her,” Rose replied, eager for the chance to leave the room and pull herself together. “Planting some of the garden with me today—all that fresh air—should make her sleep soundly.”
“Gracie was mighty . . . excited about doing that, too. She asked me again and again . . . how long it would be before the lettuce . . . peas, and radishes shot up.” Mamma chuckled fondly as she recalled the conversation with her granddaughter. Then she gazed at Rose, her eyes fiercely bright in a face framed by the gray kerchief that covered her hairless head. “When you come back, dear, there’s something I . . . need to tell you about.”
Nodding, Rose carefully squeezed Mamma’s bony hand and strode from the bedroom. Out in the hallway she leaned against the wall, blotting her face with her apron. Her five-year-old daughter was extremely perceptive. Gracie already sensed her mammi was very, very ill, and if she saw how upset Rose had become, there would be no end of painful questions—and Gracie wouldn’t get back to sleep anytime soon.
The three of them had endured a heart-wrenching autumn and winter after a fire had ravaged Dat’s sawmill, claiming Rose’s father, Myron Fry, and her husband, Nathan Raber, as well. The stress of losing Dat had apparently left Mamma susceptible, because that’s when the cancer had returned with a vengeance, after almost thirty years of remission. The first time around, when Mamma was young, she’d survived breast cancer, but this time the disease had stricken her lungs—even though she’d never smoked.
With the family business gone, Rose and Gracie had moved into Mamma’s house last September. Rose had sold her and Nathan’s little farm so they would have some money to live on—and to pay Mamma’s mounting bills for the chemo and radiation that had kept her cancer manageable. Until now, in early April.
Little Gracie has lost so many who loved her, Rose thought, sending the words up as another prayer. She composed herself, took a deep breath, and then climbed the stairs barefoot. She peeked into the small bedroom at the end of the hall.
The sound of steady breathing drew Rose to her daughter’s bedside. In the moonlight, Gracie appeared carefree—breathtakingly sweet as she slept. Such a gift from God this daughter was, a balm to Rose’s soul and to her mother’s, as well. For whatever reason, God had granted Rose and Nathan only this single rosebud of a child, so they had cherished her deeply. Rose resisted the temptation to stroke her wee girl’s cheek, feasting her eyes on Gracie’s perfection instead. She’d seen some religious paintings of plump-cheeked cherubim, but her daughter’s innocent beauty outshone the radiance of those curly-haired angels.
After a few more moments, Rose quietly left Gracie’s room. Standing in her daughter’s presence had strengthened her, and she felt more ready to face whatever issue Mamma wanted to discuss. Rose knew of many folks whose parents had passed before they’d had a chance to speak their peace, so she told herself to listen carefully, gratefully, to whatever wisdom Mamma might want to share with her. Instinct was telling her Mamma only had another day or so.
Pausing at the door of the downstairs bedroom, where Mamma was staying now because she could no longer climb the stairs, Rose nipped her lip. Mamma’s face and arms were so withered and pale. It was a blessing that her pain relievers kept her fairly comfortable. When Mamma realized Rose had returned, she beckoned with her hand. “Let’s talk about this before I lose my nerve,” she murmured. “There’s a stationery box . . . in my bottom dresser drawer. The letters inside it . . . will explain everything.”
Rose’s pulse lurched. In all her life, she’d never known Mamma to keep secrets—but the shadows beneath Mamma’s eyes and the fading of her voice warned Rose that this was no time to demand an explanation. Rose sat down in the chair beside the bed again, leaning closer to catch Mamma’s every faint word.
“I hope you’ll understand . . . what I’ve done,” Mamma murmured. “I probably should have told you long ago, but . . . there just never seemed to be a right time—and I made promises—and . . . your dat believed we should let sleeping dogs lie.”
Rose’s heart was beating so hard she wondered if Mamma could hear it. “Mamma, what do you mean? What are you trying to—”
Mamma suddenly gripped Rose’s hands and struggled, as though she wanted to sit up but couldn’t. “Do not look for her, Rose. I—I promised her . . .”
Rose swallowed hard. Her mother appeared to be sinking in on herself now, drifting in and out of rational thought. “Who, Mamma?” Rose whispered urgently. “Who are you talking about?”
Mamma focused on Rose for one last, lingering moment and then her body went limp. “I’m so tired,” she rasped. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Rose bowed her head, praying that they would indeed have another day together. She tucked the sheet and light quilt around Mamma’s frail shoulders. It was all she could do. “Gut night, Mamma,” she murmured. “I love you.”
She listened for a reply, but Mamma was already asleep.
Rose was tempted to go to Mamma’s dresser and find the mysterious box she’d mentioned, but desperation overrode her curiosity. She couldn’t leave her mother’s bedside. For several endless minutes Rose kept track of her mother’s breathing, which was growing slower and shallower now, as the doctor had said it would. He had recommended that Mamma stay in the hospital because her lungs were filling with fluid, but Mamma had wanted no part of that. She’d insisted on passing peacefully in her own home.
But please don’t go yet, Mamma, Rose pleaded as she gently eased her hands from her mother’s. Stay with me tonight. Just one more night.
Exhausted from sitting with Mamma for most of the past few days and nights, Rose folded her arms on the edge of the bed and rested her head on them. If Mamma stirred at all, Rose would know—could see to whatever she needed . . .
In the wee hours, Rose awakened with a jolt from a disturbing dream about two women—one of them was Mamma as she’d looked years ago, and the other one was a younger woman Rose didn’t recognize. They were walking away from her, arm in arm, as though they had no idea she could see them—and didn’t care. Rose called and called, but neither woman turned around—
“Oh, Mamma,” Rose whispered when she realized she’d been dreaming. Her heart was thumping wildly and she felt exhausted after sleeping in the armchair beside her mother’s bed. She lit the oil lamp on the nightstand. “Mamma? Are you awake?”
Her mother’s eyes were open, staring straight ahead, but unblinking when Rose gripped her bony shoulder. Mamma’s breathing was so much slower than it had been yesterday, and in the stillness of the dim room the rasping sound of each breath was magnified by Rose’s desperation.
Rose stared at her mother for a few more of those labored breaths, trying again to rouse her. Mamma’s expression was void of emotion or pain. She was unresponsive—as the doctor had warned might happen—and Rose curled in on herself to cry for a few minutes. Then she rose and slipped out the front door to the phone shanty.
“Bishop Vernon, it’s Rose Raber,” she murmured after his answering machine had prompted her. “If you could come—well, Mamma’s about gone and I . . . I don’t know what to do. Denki so much.”
Rose returned to the house with a million worries running through her mind. Soon Gracie would be awake and wanting her breakfast and—how would Rose explain that her mammi couldn’t talk to her anymore, didn’t see her anymore? How could she manage a frantic, frightened five-year-old who would need her constant reassurances for a while, and at the same time deal with her own feelings of grief and confusion? After days of watching and waiting, suspended in time, Rose suddenly had a funeral to plan and white burial garments to sew and a house to clean so the visitation and funeral could be held here. All the frightened moments Rose had known this past week, when she’d thought Mamma was already gone, were merely rehearsals, it seemed.
“Oh, Nathan, if only you were here,” Rose murmured as she walked through the unlit front room. “You always knew what to do. Always had a clear head and a keen sense of what came next.”
Rose paused in the doorway of the room where Mamma lay. Her breathing was still loud and slow, and the breaths seemed to be coming farther apart. Rose hoped it was a comfort to Mamma to die as she’d wanted to—even though it was nerve-racking to Rose.
There had been no waiting, no doubts, the day she and Mamma had returned from shopping in Morning Star to discover that the sawmill had caught fire from a saw’s sparks. The mill, quite a distance from any neighbors, had burned to the ground with her father and husband trapped beneath a beam that had fallen on them. Their men’s deaths had been sudden and harsh, but quick. No lingering, no wondering if she could be doing some little thing to bring final comfort.
Once again Rose sat in the chair beside Mamma’s bed, and then rested against the mattress as she’d done before. The clock on Mamma’s dresser chimed three times. It would be hours before the bishop checked his phone messages. Rose didn’t want to rustle around in the kitchen for fear she’d waken Gracie, so she placed a hand over her mother’s and allowed herself to drift . . .