My mom has been gone almost a year. On any given day, it has been the quickest year, or the longest one in my life thus far. In that span of time, personally I had the most intense experiences. I had a new grandson, who will soon celebrate his first birthday, just two days after my mom’s death. The joy of his birth was countered with fear because he was born via emergency C-section. Later, it was discovered that my daughter also had placenta accreta, that could have been life-threatening had the doctors decided to allow her to deliver naturally. As a former RN, I must say that a little knowledge is definitely a dangerous thing, but fortunately I bit my tongue when I thought, Oh right, another C-section. Thank God they did.
My mother’s death also brought the issue of care of our mentally retarded sister. My sister Liz did the dirty work while I traveled back and forth between west Michigan and Philadelphia four times last fall. When it became my turn to care for her, I told Liz it was like having a conjoined twin who I had to feed and whose !@#$%^&* I had to wipe. Making the decision to find a group home that specializes in the care of special needs adults was difficult because there are those who would try to force a guilt trip, but for my own sanity and that of Liz, we had to. It was the best thing we could have ever done for both our sister and ourselves. The people who take care of her are no-nonsense but loving, and we ask for blessing for them continuously.
Every day, I think of my mother. The void her death left will never be filled. The odd thing is that I lived five hundred miles from her for thirty years. It just goes to prove that you can be separated from someone most of your life and still have a connection that only death will sever. Going to her house is heartbreaking. I sometimes will go in alone, and start calling for her like I did when I would visit. “Mom! I’m here!” She would answer, “Hi, Sue!” (She and my sisters call me Sue:-) Even here in Saugatuck I will yell for her, just in case.
A few days ago in the garden, (my new thing is gardening to avoid working in my office, and I think the garden is going to be spectacular), a very large, yellow butterfly came in. “Mom?” I said. It stuck around, so I pretended it was her and we had a nice chat. In Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking, she pretended her late husband was still alive but doing something that didn’t involve her. She’d also lost her daughter that year, but I don’t think the idea is limited to those with tragic experiences. My mom confided once she just pretended my dad was working after he died. They were so young, only fifty-seven. The twenty-sixth anniversary of his death will be two days after my mom’s.
When we moved here to west Michigan, I thought I would be able to resurrect my dad and my grandmother. Being where I spent so many, many happy childhood vacations has backfired, because every time we leave the solitude of our property, I am swamped with memory. Smells, visuals; the sign on they way into Fennville that says Fennville, Michigan, Gateway to the Allegan Forest. That sign is powerful; every weekend when we would come to visit my great-grandfather, my Papou, we would wind our way up from Paw Paw through the Allegan forest. My dad would say, “Suz, put your deer eyes on! We’re in the forest now.” I am basically a depressive person; memories make me sad. I should be living in Montana, or Arizona; someplace that holds no meaning for me.
Part of what I am experiencing is common to growing old. I am an older woman with a young woman’s thought process. (discounting the memory loss….) Lately, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that longing for a time past is all part of aging. The challenge is to not live in the past. The dead are never coming back, no matter how much I think of them, or cry for them. The key is to continue making new experiences. Am I right? Someone tell me I’m right.
In honor of the anniversary of Mom’s death, I am going to repost the story I wrote about her that day. Or you can go here.
A Prayer for My Mother
Yesterday, my mother died at the age of eighty-three. I suppose I should have expected this. One of my sisters asked me today why we didn’t let her die at home. The truth is that I either didn’t realize that she was dying, or in denial about it. She took a shower alone the day before, had been bathing and cooking for my mentally retarded sister in the prior weeks. There was no change in her routine except for the tendency to fall asleep in the middle of a conversation (I attributed that to us boring her).
Last weekend the struggle to eat and drink seemed to have escalated. My sister became a short-order cook. I tried shoveling food into my mother’s mouth, but she wouldn’t allow it. We hounded her all weekend about eating and drinking. By Sunday night, I was starting to worry. She was sleeping a lot, but still lucid with periods where she seemed a little confused. I had threatened her with the Emergency Room for an IV if she didn’t drink, and she tried. Finally, I realized that she was unable to get more than a sip or two down.
Monday morning I asked Liz if I could make the call and she agreed. Five men in three ambulances came in to my mother’s antique filled house, and with gentleness and respect, took her to the hospital. It was surreal. My mother has been a pillar of strength to me. To see her frail frame on the stretcher in the Emergency Room was a baffling and soulful experience. How did this happen? When did she get old? She did her own taxes up until last year. My mother could discuss politics with the best of them; she was a liberal who was looking at conservative candidates for the next election. She was interested in everything and everyone. She still enjoyed going to a good garage sale with my sister more than anything.
And now, this. I had to leave the room for a few moments to compose myself. Seeing her laying there confirmed something to me; everything I had argued with my mother about was of no importance. All the horrible things I have said to her over the years, first as a rebellious teenager and then sadly, a disrespectful adult, now haunted me. I had to hurry; I had to apologize to her before it was too late.
She was starting to drift in and out of consciousness, but during a lucid period, I could say to her how sorry I was that I had spoken without really understanding what I was saying, that if I could take back anything hurtful over the years, I would do it right then. And so like my mother, she said ‘don’t be silly. There is nothing to feel badly about at all. Nothing at all.’ And then she slipped into a sleep that would only be disturbed one more time, and that was when her baby sister, now eighty, and my sister Liz, her lifetime companion and best friend, came to see her in the evening. She woke up and acknowledged them, thrilled to see her sister after a long absence. After they left, she did say to me, ‘I am surrounded by beautiful women.’ And that was that. She never regained consciousness.
I am so sad. There is no one else who will always be happy to hear from me. I could call her at any time of the day or night. My mother was my champion, no matter what I wanted to do. My mother wasn’t perfect, but she was wonderful. Many, many things have happened in the past twenty-four hours where my first impulse was to say, ‘I need to call my mother and tell her about this.’ And I can’t.
I love you, Mom. I miss you so much already. Oh, I hope heaven really exists and that you are up there with Dad. I can’t wait to see you again.