Photo by Kealan Burke on Unsplash

She’s Awake

In the presence of a dying stranger, I woke up to the complicated nature of mother-daughter love.

Dawn Downey
11 min readSep 22, 2023


I should have been a better daughter.

The oncologist said the lump in Mother’s breast was the biggest and oldest he’d ever seen. A ghostly silhouette on the mammogram of a fifty-year-old. She refused to explain why she’d let it go untreated. Hinted that she didn’t mind dying, and besides, she was busy taking care of her mother-in-law.

Her poetry left clues behind like breadcrumbs.

Two bits

My pocket said

As it opened a hole

And spent my dreams.

If I’d been a better daughter, I would have mended her pocket.

Long after she died, I volunteered for hospice, looking for meaning in the deaths of strangers, since none could be found in my personal loss.

Squinting into the August glare, I climbed the front stairs of a suburban ranch house and rang the bell. When Mr. Murphy answered, the sun danced across his smiling face, spilling into the entry hall behind him. I was assigned to sit with his wife — bedridden and lost to Alzheimer’s — while he ran errands.

He glanced over his shoulder toward the rear of the house. “I think she’s awake today.”

Passing through a living room sprinkled with family photos, he ushered me into the den. Picture windows on three walls framed a manicured back yard. Sunshine poured in. Cushions printed in violet and lime plumped up a white wicker couch and ottoman. Better Homes and Gardens lay on a matching table. The furniture had been pushed aside to accommodate a hospital bed. Approaching it, I felt uplifted.

Mrs. Murphy’s room bore no resemblance to the grief-shadowed space where Mother had spent her last nights. Cancer had shrunk her sweater-girl figure until her king-sized bed dwarfed her. Sun peeking in through half-closed blinds had painted narrow stripes across her sunken face.

Mother hadn’t liked stripes. She’d lived in splashes of color: crimson lipstick, turquoise jewelry, purple dresses. She’d worn lime green ruffles at her wedding.

After they were married, she and Dad bought a home on the other side of town and filled it with his four teenagers. Nobody told us why we no longer lived with Mama in our old house. But the odors of mildew and dog droppings that had clung to that life were displaced by Pine-sol and Chanel №5. My new mother fixed hot cereal for breakfast. She came to parent-teacher nights. She painted the dining room red. I breathed her in, a drowning girl gulping air.

Mrs. Murphy’s bed faced a television set tuned to a country music video station. When I leaned over to say hello, she smiled up at me. Her unlined face and pixie haircut belied the degeneration reflected in her toothless grin.

“Are you going to do my hair now?”

“She thinks you’re the beautician that comes every week,” Mr. Murphy said.

I played along. “I’d love to do your hair.”

“Expense?” she asked.

“Nope. I’m free.”

Mr. Murphy pushed the controls that raised the head of the bed. The motor whirred until his wife sat upright.

She frowned.

He reached for a glass on the bedside table. “Want some water, Honey?” Leaning down to her, he touched a plastic straw to her thin, cracked lips, his words more croon than question.

I took care of Mother during the last weeks of her life. By then Dad was dying, too. Early one morning, pain broke through her medication. She labored under the effort to breathe. Her lungs, like bellows, fueled cancer’s fire with each inhalation. I phoned the doctor and waited an endless hour for his service to call back. They told me to contact our hospice nurse.

Mother sat rigid as a corpse at the kitchen table. Her eyes were closed, her lips pursed.

More calls, more waiting.

A nurse arrived with morphine. She plumped a vein. It didn’t respond. She tried another. “I’m so sorry, Kim.” She raised the other arm. Poke, press, plump. No veins. All collapsed.

I couldn’t bear to watch. I couldn’t turn away. Words of comfort stuck in my throat. Hands that should have stroked her hair hung useless at my sides.

The nurse retrieved a child-sized needle from her car. It slipped into the vein.

Mother bit her bottom lip. Her face relaxed as a morphine haze crept over her.

Although the ordeal seemed to end at dinnertime, she woke up moaning in the middle of the night. Dad was cough-snoring in front of the television down the hall.

The sound of my mother’s need was insistent, but lying in bed in the room next to hers, I turned away from the sobs and stared at the moonless sky outside the window.

Mr. Murphy gave me instructions and headed off to the grocery store.

I suspected my companion was uncomfortable. “Would you like the bed adjusted?

She nodded.

I plucked the switch from under the covers. Reading glasses perched on my nose, I fumbled with the device. “Is that better?”

Her frown remained.

I pressed the buttons again, and the head of the mattress retreated. “How about that?”


I leaned over to straighten the bedclothes, studying her face for signs of distress. There was no strain in her expression. No pursed lips.

The television blared a beer commercial. I turned it down, then parked myself on a stool next to the bed. “Thanks for letting me visit you today.”

She studied the ceiling. “Where’s my coat? I’m going home.”

I asked, “Can you can stay a little longer?”

“I have a job.”

“Yes, and you’re really good at it.”

It was a game of follow-the leader. She weaved in, out, and around our chat, while I skipped along behind.

I patted her leg — barely discernible among the pillows and blankets. “Where are you in there?”

We both chuckled at the cosmic joke.

Mother told her journal she … never did close well, except with babies and old people … In fact, she collected babies and old people. When I was in high school, she cared for four children kindergarten-age and younger — my brother, sister, niece, and a foster child. When they grew up, even though cancer had begun its march, she took in my grandmother and another toddler from the next generation.

God, if you wanted me so soon, why’d You leave another child saying I love you, Grandma?

I remained one of her babies through high school. I was a sullen teenager, but she would not leave me to my sulking. She bought me a hot pink party dress, a surprise gift. How did she know it would fit? Introduced me to Wuthering Heights. Waited up until I returned home after dates.

I called her Mother for the first time on the day she and Dad drove me to college. From the back seat, I gawked at my future unfolding outside the car windows.

“I think the dorm’s over there … Mother.” I tested the sound of it, drew it out to feel it vibrating in my throat. Muh-ther. It felt like riding a bike for the first time, and I was glad to get out of the car so we didn’t have to talk about it.

My college years must have been the leading edge of that time warp between “babies and old people.” True to her own words, she didn’t close well; she closed in.

On a Friday night when I was home from school she said, “We’re going on a liquid protein diet together. You’ll lose five pounds this weekend. Won’t that be great?”

I only weighed a hundred. What I lost was independence.

After she came down with pneumonia toward the end of my sophomore year, she asked me to come home to help her. I left school a month before the semester ended, and although I thought the American Lit professor had approved my absence, he scratched a red F on the grade sheet at the end of the term. I reported to his office the following autumn.

“You didn’t turn in your papers,” he said. He shook his head and questioned my priorities. “You missed too many classes.”

I worried the corners of the tablet in my lap. You don’t understand. Mother called.

After I graduated, she took me to get a driver’s license. It became the ball at the end of my chain. I chauffeured her. To thrift stores, where she shopped for grandchildren whose parents’ thank-yous engendered unsolicited advice about the right way to raise children. To the mall, where she fingered designer dresses in her size and walked out empty-handed. To the grocery store, where she second-guessed every bunch of broccoli before placing it in the cart. She carried no credit card or ID, only a couple of folded checks, which she excavated from the bottom of her purse.

She tapped her pen on the counter, while the cashier paged the manager. “I was just here two weeks ago. Why do we have to go through this again?”

I fidgeted by her side. If I do this, maybe it will be enough.

At the same time the local university hired me, Mother became a secretary in the English department. I drove her to work every day. Filing did not suit her. “It’s so left-brain,” she said. She wrote poetry whenever her boss left her alone in the office.

I was in charge of the chancellor’s schedule, in the days of pencil-and-paper calendars. The morning was overrun with phone calls to and from the assistants to department heads. We were coordinating timetables to accommodate an emergency meeting. “Hmm … 11:30 will work if I can move his lunch with the student body president. Let me call you back.”

My office-mate waved at me. She pointed to the blinking light on her phone. “A lady wants you. Tried to get her name, but she refused to say.”

“Hello? This is — ”

“Who’s that awful woman?”

“Muh-ther — ”

“Why does she need to know my business?”

“That’s what she’s — ”

“Anyway, how do you spell mesmerize?”

If I do this, maybe it will be enough. “M-e-s …”

I was thirty, lying beside my boyfriend on his bed. Lights off, incense burning. His phone rang. He answered and then handed the receiver to me.

“I don’t know what to do about your sister.”

“What — ?”

“Is this a bad time?”

“How did you even get this number?”

“Oh, are you on a date?”

I married him, and we moved to a different state. But every summer, I resumed chauffeuring.

In between visits, a pattern developed. I should call home. The guilt intensified until it was almost unbearable — almost. Our phone rang; it resounded with a hint of annoyed edginess.

My husband picked it up. “Hello? Yeah.” And then pointed the receiver in my direction.

I asked her if she wouldn’t mind saying hi to him before asking for me. “You’ll like him. Really. He’s got impeccable manners,” I said, as though his actions needed a defense. “He just doesn’t know it’s you.”

“I’ve got impeccable manners, too.”

She didn’t call back for five years.

Following the cancer diagnosis, I phoned to check on her. Dad answered and caught me up on her condition.

“Can I talk to her?”

“Toots wants to know how you are, Kimmy.”

“Sick of answering that question. That’s how I am.”

Dad and I had a tacit agreement — he would not let her die before I got to see her again. Our calls ended in a well-practiced exchange.

“Do you want me to come home?”

“No, we’re okay. There’s nothing you can do.”

Until the time the phone rang seconds after I’d hung up.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe you should come on home.”

Cancer was a complicated thing. Doctors, drugs, documents. Dad had grown too ill himself to handle it. So I became the manager of my mother’s death.

I refilled her lapsed prescriptions, hired aides, drove her to the cancer center, stuffed the refrigerator with the food dropped off by friends, got her great-grandson off to preschool.

“Why did you come back?” she asked.

“I didn’t want you to die with us not talking.”

If I’d been a better daughter, I would have said I love you.

We were facing each other, sitting on twin beds pushed against opposite walls in the guest room. A spider made its way along the baseboard, from her side of the room to mine, searching for a way out.

The sun streamed through Mrs. Murphy’s windows, warming me as I perched on the stool beside her bed. When the growling in my midsection signaled snack time, I reached into my bag for an apple. “Do you mind if I eat?”

“We used to have a big back yard,” she said.

“We did, too, with roses and oranges and avocados. And apples so sour, they scrunched your mouth.” I made a face at her. “Only Mother and I liked them.”

“Did you bake pies?”

I crunched the Granny Smith. Its tartness bit my tongue. “Gosh, no. I’m not great in the kitchen.”

Mother had encouraged me to maintain a high-powered career and a Scarlett O’Hara waistline. She hadn’t gotten around to teaching me domestic niceties. We’d pored over Vogue, not The Joy of Cooking. But she’d stared at me wide-eyed when, at age thirty, I bumbled around the stove. “You can’t even make spaghetti? How do you feed your husband?”

If I’d been a better daughter, I’d know how to cook.

Mrs. Murphy’s eyes were closed. The hesitant rise and fall of her chest hinted at the waning of life. I stroked the hair along her temple with the backs of my fingers.

The stillness of mid-afternoon enfolded us and sheltered me from the busyness of my world. Tempted by the couch’s thick cushions, I curled up and lowered my eyes in meditation. My mind sank into tranquility, undisturbed by the memory fragments that drifted through. When the darkness behind my eyelids brightened, I checked to see if the sun had emerged from behind a cloud. The light in the room remained unchanged. I closed my eyes again. Once more, a sudden light. A second peek still revealed no source for the light. When I closed my eyes again, Mother was sitting on the couch, waiting up for me.

Mrs. Murphy’s breathing rustled across the room. A sofa button poked into my back.

After my meditation ended, I was oddly content, as though understanding a problem I’d been puzzling over, but not connecting the feeling with anything in particular. Blinking through my haze, I walked over to check on my companion.

She still dozed, breath even. After I poured myself a glass of water in the kitchen, I returned to find her staring at the ceiling.

“Did you have a good nap?” I asked.

She didn’t miss a beat. “We both did.”

“Boy, that’s the truth. You’re a great nap partner. When can we do it again?”

Her voice was steady and strong. “Tomorrow.”

Hide and seek. She — concealed in the thicket of Alzheimer’s. Me — giggling whenever she popped out. I wanted to go another round, but the front door opened, and Mr. Murphy brought in the groceries.

I met him in the kitchen, heard about the price on soup and baby food, and then returned to her bed to say goodbye. She’d disappeared again, off to wander in other realms. I started toward the door but turned to face her once more.

She startled me with an expression that was alert, her gaze as deep as Einstein’s. I was transfixed. I breathed a sigh of relief, as though finding my way after being lost. I had the sense of remembering, without knowing what had been forgotten. The sensation of recognizing a loved one, although I’d met Mrs. Murphy only a few hours earlier. I stood beside her, silent. Her eyes reflected mine, and mine hers, back and back through the ages, until there was neither a she nor a me.

I stroked the translucent skin of her cheek. Melting ice clinked in the glass on her table. Country music twanged softly from the television as I smoothed the blankets around her. A cabinet door creaked shut in the kitchen.

“Thanks for keeping me company,” I said.

She said … nothing.

It was enough.

At the precipice, with a gaze of piercing tenderness, Mrs. Murphy freed me.

I was enough. No need to be a better daughter. It was enough to be.

I kissed my fingertip and touched it to Mrs. Murphy’s brow. Walking through the kitchen, I exchanged goodbyes with her husband, stepped into the afternoon sun, and closed the door behind me.