My mother died on August 24, 2000. The day of her passing was one of the most transcendent moments of my life.
That morning, she told my sister and me: “I want to go to the international food market in Santa Monica.” That was like Disneyland for her; she’d leave with baskets full of food, fruit and goodies for everyone. So we took her there. My mother in her fragile little body, still filled with a zest for life, bought salamis and cheese, olives, halvah, Viennese and Greek chocolates and nuts, and by the end, we had bags and bags of food to haul home. It was surreal, taking her out into the world after all the time she had spent in the hospital and then at home with congestive heart failure. We wanted to say to the checkout clerk: “You don’t seem to understand what is happening here. This is our mother! And she’s going! Can you please take care of her? Can you please take care of us?” But instead, we kept pretending that it was just like any other day. Deep down, we knew that we were shopping for the last supper, but we were not admitting it, even to ourselves.
Back at home, my mother spread out the most amazing lunch in the kitchen, inviting her daughters, her granddaughters, our housekeeper, Debora Perez, and everyone who worked in my home office at the time: “Sit now and let us enjoy our food!” It was a feast. My sister looked at me with renewed hope: “Look at her appetite for food and love and sharing! This is not a woman who is going to die!”
Early that evening, she was sitting at a little table in her bedroom, shelling shrimp and eating them. “Sit and eat some shrimp!” she said. She had her hair in little pigtails and she was playing beautiful Greek music. She was like a happy child. It was as if her spirit was calling her back, and she was ready. There was no struggle. There was simply grace. Christina and Isabella — then eleven and nine — kept going in and out of the room on Razor scooters we had just gotten for them. My mother standing, looking at them, pouring all her love into them.
And then she fell.
I tried to help her get back in her bed, but she said no. This was a woman who, however weakened, still had the authority of the twenty-two-year-old who during the German occupation of Greece fled to the mountains as part of the Greek Red Cross, taking care of wounded soldiers and hiding Jewish girls. This was a woman who, when German soldiers arrived at their cabin and threatened to kill everyone if they didn’t surrender the Jews they were hiding, told them categorically to put down their guns, that there were no Jews in their midst. And they did.
So I obeyed. She asked me instead to bring her lavender oil to put on her feet. And then she looked me in the eye and in a strong, authoritative voice that I had not heard for months, she said, “Do not call the paramedics. I’m fine.” Agapi and I felt completely torn. So instead of calling an ambulance, we called the nurse who had taken care of my mother at home. And we all sat on the floor with her, her granddaughters still going in and out of her room on their scooters making happy noises, completely oblivious to what was happening, because that’s how my mother wanted it to be. The nurse kept taking her pulse, but her pulse was fine. My mother asked me to open a bottle of red wine and pour a glass for everyone.
So we all sat there having a picnic on the floor telling stories for an hour or more waiting for her to be ready to get up. There she was on the floor with a beautiful turquoise sarong wrapped around her, making sure we were all having a good time. It sounds surreal now, and it was surreal then. I had the sense that something larger was moving all of us, keeping us from taking any action, so that my mother would have the chance to pass the way she wanted to pass. Then suddenly her head fell forward and she was gone.
Later, I found out my mother had confided to Debora that she knew that her time had come. She asked her not to tell us, and Debora, who had known and loved my mother for thirteen years, understood why, and honored her wishes. My mother knew that we would insist on getting her to the hospital, and she didn’t want to die in the hospital. She wanted to be at home with her daughters and her precious granddaughters around her, in the warmth of those she loved and who loved her. She didn’t want to miss the moment.
We scattered my mother’s ashes in the sea with rose petals, as she had asked. And we gave her the most beautiful memorial, with music, friends, poetry, gardenias and, of course, food, lots of food: a memorial that truly honored her life and her spirit. Everyone felt her presence there, hosting, presiding, shining her light on us. In our garden, we planted a lemon tree in her honor that has been producing juicy lemons ever since. And we installed a bench engraved with one of her favorite sayings that embodied the philosophy of her life: “Don’t Miss the Moment.”
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com