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Jul 1, 2010

Verily, in all this there are messages indeed for those who can read the signs.

A conversation I had with my mother last November still haunts my dreams. My mom had been sick for several weeks with an unbearable headache, double vision, and facial numbness. Unsure of what could cause such symptoms, I turned to the 24 hour a day, 7 day a week on-call electronic doctor, “,” typed in as key words “headache double vision” and started scanning the search results. My heart grew heavy and my lips trembled as I stared into the computer screen.

“So, what does it say?” my mom asked, a bit worried. I was unsure of whether I should tell her the truth. I didn’t want to scare her, but then again my mom was one of those strong types who wouldn’t go to a doctor unless it was absolutely necessary-by necessary I mean life or death.

I decided to tell her. “Well, almost every website says brain tumor. You should go to a neurologist.” But my mom was still hesitant, reluctant about enduring extensive medical testing. I thought I’d use bluntness to jolt her into action and I said,

“Dude, you’ve got to go to the doctor. This could be life threatening. What are you going to do, just roll over and die?!”

My nonchalant nature was merely a thin veil covering the deep horror which overtook me. “Death” is not something we easily associate with a loved one as dear as our mother. I could hear a disapproving voice whisper inside me, “How dare you?” chastised my ghost. “You can’t think your mom might die!” I shuddered, shaking my head to make the disturbing thought go away.

My amnesia was only temporary.

My mom did go to a neurologist, but aside from some minor hormone imbalances, the doctor could find nothing significantly wrong in her brain. So, my mom decided to go back to her usual residence in California, home to some of the best medical research hospitals in the nation, for a second opinion.

I will never forget our parting in the Atlanta airport. She was clearly in pain, slowly limping, hunched forward, head tilted downwards, and breathing heavily as even walking took great effort. “There is physically no way I can stand waiting in this line,” she muttered, referring to the security check line. She asked one of the officials if they could take her up front since she was sick, but the man just shook his head and pointed to the end of the line at the far end of the corridor.

I guess there was nothing in the rule books that taught people about mercy, so my mom took matters into her own hands, and just cut to the front, passing the first official without presenting her boarding pass and ID. The official called after her, “Ma’am, ID please?” My mom presented the required documents and then scuttled towards the baggage control, again cutting towards the front. In just a few minutes she was out of sight.

I watched helplessly. It took so much concentration to just think about how to get through security that she not only failed to initially notice the ID checker, but even failed to hug me or even look back and wave good bye. In thirty years we had not once parted without a good embrace. As I saw her place her bags on the conveyor belt and walk through the metal detector, tears began to trickle down my cheeks, blossoming into a full-blown cry.

What if this was the last time I would ever see her?! What if I had just missed my last chance to hold her close, feel her warmth, and breathe in her sweet aroma?

Again, I tried to suppress the unbearable and could hear my ghost talking. “The doctor said the MRI was basically normal. It’s probably something minor, easily fixable. She’d go see a doctor in California, they’d prescribe her a few pills, and all would be well again. She’d come back to Atlanta, take her year-old grandson to the park and push him in the swings while he laughed with delight.” I smiled as I imagined my son pop a large grape into my mom’s mouth.

That evening, my mom called me to apologize for having forgotten to hug me before she left. Her loving voice wiped out any lingering doubts I might have had. “Yep,” I told myself, “Life will be great again.”

It wasn’t.

My mom and I were extremely close; we were soul mates. We’d talk on the phone with each other at least once a day-until that fateful day when she didn’t call or return my messages. I knew something was wrong. I called the police, and after several hours of fruitless searching, they finally decided to enter her home. They found her passed out on her bed, alive, but unable to talk. She was immediately taken to Stanford Hospital’s Emergency Room.

A doctor called with the bad news, “She’s had a brain seizure, her right side is paralyzed, and she can’t talk or follow commands. Do you authorize us to intervene to save her life if her condition changes?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t image my mom crippled or on death’s door. I couldn’t imagine a world without her. I begged the doctor to keep her alive until I could get there.

Over the next few days the doctors performed numerous tests before finally coming to a conclusive diagnosis that she had a rare type of cancerous brain tumor. With an operation and chemotherapy her life could be extended for up to a year. But even in the best case, she’d probably remain at least partially paralyzed, and unable to talk or comprehend language.

I knew then that my mom was going to die. This time there were no more ghosts trying to convince me otherwise. “How could I have missed the seriousness of her situation?” I asked myself, ashamed. “She even told to you over the phone, in her soft, feeble voice, ‘I am dying,’ yet you kept closing your eyes to all the signs!” went my mental chiding.

How many Signs in the heavens and the earth do they pass by? Yet they turn (their faces) away from them!

My mother lay silent as the ventilator continued to periodically beep in harmony with each steady, rhythmic breath. She had been taken off all drugs for two days now, but still had not woken up. Many of the nurses thought it unlikely at this point that she’d ever open her eyes again.

Meanwhile, the doctors needed a decision. “It’s up to you, you know her better than anyone. Would she have wanted the operation?” asked the head of the intensive care unit. “She can’t speak for herself, so you must speak on her behalf,” he prodded.

I knew what my mom wanted. She had already told me in answer to my question, “What will you do, just roll over and die?”

“Yes,” she had said. “Death is not a bad thing; it’s nothing to be feared. Everyone dies some day. Death means finally being in peace, free from the evil of this world. If I had my choice I’d pass away in my sleep. And I wouldn’t want to live as a vegetable, either. That would be torture. I wouldn’t want to be a burden to myself or my family.”

Still, I desperately wanted her to wake up just one last time. I had to make sure she knew I was there by her side, that she wasn’t alone. I tried everything in my power to wake her up, including singing her favorite songs-something I’d never done before.

It was of no use. Finally, we decided to tell the doctors to move her into comfort care the next morning since we’d decided against an operation. That evening during dinner, however, my husband was suddenly overcome with this inexplicable “feeling” that we should wait one more day. It didn’t make sense, but maybe its providence, I thought. So we waited one more day.

The next morning, I was shocked to walk into her room to find her eyes open and her left hand grabbing at her blanket. Her eyes followed me as I rushed towards her bedside, kissing her hand with joy. “She woke up! She woke up! Can I bring my son in to see her? I want to make sure she sees her grandson one last time,” I asked the nurse.

When my husband and son arrived about twenty minutes later we held him up so that my mom could see him. Just then, my mom began to cough loudly, gasping, and squishing her face together as though in pain. The ventilator began to beep in response to the quick breaths.

“Look, it’s like she’s crying,” said my husband.

“Oh no,” smiled the nurse. “This is normal, sometimes the discomfort of the tube in the mouth can cause some coughing. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that things were happening for a reason. I had often chalked up happy occurrences to good fortune, never once questioning whether it was truly accidental. But this string of missed opportunities and unexplainable feelings surely couldn’t be pure happenstance. Events were unfolding in such a way as to ease the pain of my mom’s passing. I began to wonder if anything in life was coincidental.

On the earth there are signs for those whose faith is sure; and in your own souls too. Will you not then see?

No, the coughing could mean only one thing; my mom had recognized her grandson!

The next day, she was moved into comfort care so that we could be with her all the time. Slowly, she began to show signs that the end was near. First, her right eye stopped responding, next her oxygen levels dropped, later her right cheek became hot and red. I got this feeling that she might not make it through the night, so we left our son with some family friends and spent the night in the hospital. Despite our best efforts to stay awake, eventually both of us succumbed to sleep.

Interestingly, towards the morning, my husband saw a dream in which someone was about to die, causing him to suddenly awaken. The room was quiet; my mom’s snoring had ceased. Afraid that she may have passed already, he rushed to her, relieved that she was still breathing lightly. He then ran to get me and a nurse.

I watched her chest softly rise and fall. My husband began praying, while I held her hand, not knowing what else to do, nor when that fateful instant would come. I was in shock that my mother was dying right in front of me. But, I knew I had to let go.

The gaps between each breath grew longer and longer, until finally her chest fell and rose no more. I glanced at the clock on the wall, 4:55 am. She passed away just five minutes after I came by her side. If it weren’t for my husband’s dream, we would have missed her.

I am thankful that I was there at her side in her last moments with us. Not everyone is blessed with the ability to be there right until the last moment. My mom had been with me every step of the way, since the very first breath I took; and I was there with her until the very last of hers.

Still, her passing turned my whole world topsy turvy. I felt like a stranger lost in a foreign land with no way of getting back home. The irreversibility of it all really hit me during the burial. At the end, we all end up under a pile of dirt, shrouded in five feet of white cloth. As the grave digger shoveled dirt over her body, my teeth began to clatter uncontrollably, and I shivered as though I’d been locked in a meat freezer. My husband held me tight, trying to stop my shaking. But it was of no avail; I was inconsolable.

Just then I saw the cemetery staff plant three rose bushes on top of the freshly closed grave. My aunt pointed to the bushes, “Years ago we had planted a rose bush on the grave. As they dug it up, however, it split into three roses!” Three roses for the three women buried below: my grandmother, my eldest aunt, and my mother.

I stopped trembling and smiled through my tears. I think I’m getting better at reading the signs now.

Sevgi Zubeyde Gurbuz completed her PhD in Electrical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in December 2009 and currently works and resides in Ankara, Turkey.


1. Quran 15:75

2. Quran 12:105 3. Quran 51:20-21