Eighty-Seven Winters

Linda G. Johnston

As we stood at the cemetery waiting to bury my mom someone whispered, “Look at the circle
around the sun.”  My nephew asked, “Is that a sundog?” I tried to look holding my hand just so.  I
saw the dark line circling the sun.  A man behind me said, “I’ve never seen anything like that

Later at the church hall as the ladies auxiliary was cleaning up I thanked Sister Rose for always
coming and visiting my mom, it meant a lot to her.  Sister Rose said, “That was a miracle today
you know at the cemetery?” She continued, “Elsie was able to see the whole sun because of her
special glasses and she said there were also two lines dissecting in the middle of that circle around
the sun.  I think it was a testament to the way your mother lived her life.  She believed in her
Ojibwe traditional ways, the circle; and she believed in god, the cross.  That was a miracle.”  All I
could do was hug her and nod yes.  It was just too much to think about after two weeks of

“I see angels in the hall.”  Mom said softly to no one in particular.  Her small hospice room was
crowded with kids, grandkids and great grandkids.  I was the only one who heard her weak voice
as I caressed her face and smoothed her hair again and again not able to get enough of her warm
skin.  She was not afraid to die.  In fact she had asked me twice if she was dying and each time I
could only tell her, “You’re very, very sick mom.”

She kept worrying about who would take care of the girls.  Each time I’d ask her, “Which girls?”,
because she worried in three generations.  One time it was my younger twin sisters, who are
almost fifty years old.  Another time it was two of their grandchildren, Allie and Adrienne.  I was
walking into her room one afternoon and she said excitedly, “I saw my two little girls and they
were healthy!”

“What little girls mom?”

“They’re a year apart.”

“Katie and Corrine?”

“Yes. And they remembered me!” I turned my head away quickly gasping.  Every single time my
mom told me about her two baby girls she had lost, one right after another, before they were even
two years old, I would well up with tears.  Who could handle such a sadness? Now she’s seeing
them and they’re healthy, and remember her! She was smiling to herself.  I hadn’t seen her this
happy in years.  I’d never seen her look more alive in that room prepared for dying.

Her first week of hospice at Bemidji hospital, the nurses would write her input and output on a
chart each time they emptied her catheter or bedpan.  She seemed to improve slightly after a
week, to the doctors surprise.  Just enough to move her to the Cass Lake Indian Hospital where she
really wanted to be; explaining to me that they knew her there; her family was closer and her
friends too could come to see her.  When she got to Cass Lake that first day, they felt she was
strong enough to sit on the commode.  As they lifted her back into bed, she asked, “Did I shit
enough to write about?”

Early one morning she said to me, as she was looking straight ahead, “My mother is standing over
there in the woods and telling me not to worry.”  I added my two cents.  “No, mom, you don’t
have to worry about a thing.  Don’t worry about anything or anybody.  Just rest.”  She closed her
eyes again, peaceful.

I prayed and prayed and prayed, as I have these past three years since my dad died, that she
wouldn‘t suffer.  She was losing circulation in her feet and they were cool to the touch.  I washed
her feet often, massaging them and her calves with hospital lotion.  Once I thought she was
sleeping, but just as I was finishing the massage she opened her eyes and said, “Get between the

That last night at the hospital she lay there so weak she couldn’t suck from the straw.  We all
thought she would not speak or open her eyes again.  Just hours before she left us, I bent down to
her good ear, “Relax mom.  Rest.”  If I hadn’t had my face so close to hers I might not have heard
her final verbal response, “I’m trying.”  We continued to take turns that longest night standing by
her bed and touching her.  Occasionally one or two of us would leave the room for a smoke.  We
told family stories, teasing each other, laughing out loud.  Would anyone outside that room know
we were watching our mother die? Could we give her any better gift than to let her hear the
laughter of her children?

Then her breathing became a little more difficult.  She’d had a standing order for morphine and
we’d only used it twice before when she seemed to struggle.  “Should we call the nurse for a shot?”
I asked.  My older sister and brother agreed, so I asked to get the nurse.

The nurse told us, “I want you all to know that this shot may stop her breathing.  We all know it’s
her time.  Her pulse has already stopped once.  I don’t want any of you to feel guilty.”  We nodded
and she walked out.

With every ounce of energy I had left I leaned down and placed my hands on my mom’s cheeks,
and said, “We love you so much,” and kissed her.  As I slowly stood up, her breathing stopped.
We all looked at her, everyone crying and holding her and holding each other.  Thank you mom.
Even in your last moments you were taking care of us.  There was no shot required.