My mother died last Friday. July 24, 2015, at 7:15 pm. She was 83 years old. She was the person I loved the most in the world, and who loved me the most. How do you get over such a loss? The thought of living the rest of my life without being able to pick up the phone and call her, or get her emails, or just sit with her and discuss the newspaper, does not seem possible. I have never felt grief like this before. I told several people over the last few days, that if I could have had the option to go with her, I would have. Because at least we would have been together. But I also know that she would not have wanted that for me. She would have told me to go back, that she wanted me to live my life and be happy. I am not sure how to do that. But I wanted to write this post as a way of honoring her, and telling you who she was and what she meant to me.
Let’s get the sad part out of the way, first. Her death. My mom had been healthy all her life, outside of a persistently weak back that she’d had since childhood. I’m not sure what caused this, but for much of your youth she wore a corset, which is an old fashioned brace that you lace up really tight over your midsection. She later found out that it was one of the worst things you could do for your back, but nobody told her for a long time. I remember she wore that when I was a child, and it had metal hooks on it that once set off an airport metal detector, causing her great embarrassment. When she was about 50 her doctor told her to get rid of it, and gave her a series of back exercises to do every morning. She continued with this regime every morning until about a week before her death, even after her diagnosis. Even 2 weeks ago, the last time I was home to see her, she was doing her back exercises in the morning. I remember when I hurt my back years ago, she showed them to me, as she was always trying to help me out and teach me knew things, particularly if she thought they would help me.
Bad back aside, as I said she was very healthy. All the way until about age 78. One day in the Spring of 2011, I was home and sitting at the kitchen table, and she got up, said, “I need to talk to you,” turned off the stove, and sat down next to me with a smile on her face. I immediately got a chill as I knew it was bad news. Cancer! I thought. And I was right.
“I’ve been having some problems, she said, so I went to the doctor. He did some tests and found out that I have uterine cancer. Now the good news,” she went on hurriedly, trying to calm me, “Is that it is only stage 1, although the doctor said it is more aggressive kind. I am going to a hospital in Eugene to get a hysterectomy next week, and then after I recuperate from the surgery for a month, they are going to start me on 6 cycles of chemo. After that there will be radiation. And I should be fine.”
In her typical style, she did her best to allay my fears and the fears of my dad and sister. She had great faith in her doctor, Dr. Dodders, and although I know she was quite scared, she did not show it because she did not want to scare us.
I remember the day of her surgery, in May of 2011. My parents live in the country outside of a small town called Corvallis, and while the hospital there is good, the hospital in the nearby city of Eugene is bigger and better. So they drove down there one morning, and had the hysterectomy. My dad called me on the phone and said it was a success, but she would be in the hospital a few days recovering.
I drove down from Portland to Eugene to surprise them. I got to the hospital and walked the long hallways searching for her room number. When I got there I knocked and came into the room, and they both looked up in surprise and then happiness. My mom looked so sick and fragile, sitting up in bed, braced against pillows, dressed in her hospital gown. My dad was sitting next to her, and a cot was beside the window where he was sleeping at night. I remember my mom’s stomach was bandaged heavily where they had made the incision, and she could not cough because of the pain. Most of all I remember the gratitude in their eyes when they saw I had visited them, and feeling their love.
Whenever you have a major surgery, hospital staff likes to get you up and walking as soon as possible, to keep the blood flowing and start the healing process. So my dad and I took several walks with my mom up and down the hospital hall outside her room. The first one was only about 20 feet, and she took small mincing steps, wincing as she held the IV pole with one hand, and one of our hands with the other.
I remember my dad and I went down to the hospital cafeteria for lunch, and picked out food from the cafeteria and sat opposite each other at a table by the window, the Willamette river flowing lazily outside and down the hill, partially obscured by some brush. Later that day I would walk down there by myself, and watch a grey heron and some ducks fly up and down the waterway, clearly at home in their kingdom. I remember thinking I had almost lost my mother, and how I hoped so much she would be okay and the doctors would cure her.
After a few days was well enough for my dad to drive her home. Then began the recovery process, as she healed from the surgery and prepared for her first round of chemo. They had gotten all the visible signs of cancer out, as it had not spread beyond the uterus. But they still wanted to give her a lot of chemo, “throw everything at it,” as her doctor said, so it would be fully eradicated and not come back.
My mom was scared of the chemo, as she’d heard so many horror stories about how hard it was. But she resolutely went in for her first treatment. I remember calling her the next day, saying, “How did it go?” “It wasn’t bad at all!” she said brightly. “I think this is going to be okay.” We did not know that the full effect of the chemo does not hit you until about a week after your treatment. They space it out over 3 week intervals, because each treatment wipes out many of your white blood cells, and your immune system is compromised and needs time to build back up before you hit it with the next treatment. It is literally partially killing you, in order to kill the cancer cells at the same time. So a week after her first treatment she was sick in bed, vomiting and clutching her stomach which gave her great abdominal pains.
I believe she went to the doctor after this first horrible experience, and she gave my mom some pills to reduce the nausea, and lessen the cramping. This helped a lot on the 2nd dose of chemo. Her stomach cramps and nausea lessened, she was just so tired.
Her 6 treatments got harder and harder to do every time. The first 3 she did okay, but then her poor body got weaker and weaker, and had a harder time bouncing back after each one. Before giving her another treatment, they would test her white blood cell count, to see if it was high enough. If not then they’d send her home and not give her her next treatment, until the cell count got high enough. I think this happened at least once.
She lost her hair after the 2nd or 3rd treatment, and took to wearing a small scarf or knit cap on her head. Because of her compromised immune system, she stayed in the house all the time and did not go out, for fear of catching a virus. Only a few friends were allowed to visit her, and only after being sure they did not have a cold. I always made sure I was free of disease before I came down to visit.
I did not know how to help besides calling and writing with my support, so I started sending her lots of books. I would order something on Amazon that I thought she would like, and have it sent to her. She was usually too tired to read, but my dad would read the books out loud to her. I know one series of books I sent her was a humor series about an Austrian soldier and pilot in world war 2, who had a series of misadventures that my parents really enjoyed. One time I came home and lay on the rug in the living room while my mom lay on the sofa, and my dad read out loud to her. Our yellow lab Tessa came in and lay down next to us, as well.
Although it nearly killed her, my mom finally finished her last chemo treatment. It took a total of about 18-20 weeks to complete all 6 cycles. She was so relieved when it was over! But apprehensive about the upcoming radiation treatments. She was scheduled to do about 30 of them, spaced out over a short period of time. Luckily it was much, much easier than the chemo— they just zapped her locally in her abdominal area where the cancer had been, rather than affecting her whole body like the chemo had done. She was so relieved that the radiation was easier. I believe she finished her final treatment in about October of 2011.
Her hair grew back in, and her glow returned. She had some neuropathy (numbness) in her feet, but was told that was normal after chemo. She could still walk fine, so it was a small price to pay for being cancer free. She had a CT scan 3 months after that, to make sure the cancer was gone. From then on she was to have a scan every 6 months, to make sure it had not come back. Her scans were always clear, and she reported this to me in emails and phone calls with happiness and relief. For almost 4 years, all was well and life continued as normal, if a little slower. She and my dad resumed their normal, unassuming way of life in their house: shopping at Winco, eating at the New Morning Bakery in downtown Corvallis, coming up to Portland occasionally to visit me (where she always tried to organize my apartment), listening to NPR on the radio every night, my mom going to mass several times a week and playing organ at the church, and visiting with me when I would come down to Corvallis every 3 weeks or so. One thing the three of us loved to do was go to Lake O’Hara every summer, which is a beautiful lake in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. My parents had been going there since the early 70’s, and I was lucky enough to go there with them almost every year since about 1997. It was just a way of spending time with people that I loved, and who loved me.
Her second to last CT scan was in January of this year (2015). It was clear and showed no evidence of cancer, just like all the ones before. She had always wanted to go to Greece and see the Mediterranean, so the 3 of us made plans to take an 11 day cruise there in September. My parents were so excited, and I’d often see my mom studying books about Greece and the Aegean sea while I was home, and telling me how much I’d love seeing Rome.
She started not feeling good in about March. Yesterday I printed out all the emails she’d written to me over the last several years, just to try and stay close to her and remember her voice. And you can see the way she made innocent comments in her emails, saying things like “I have a bit of a bug, but I am getting plenty of rest and drinking my chocolate Boost every day, and I’m sure it will go away soon.” Reading these comments is heartbreaking, because you know what it is, and that it is never going to go away. It also makes me angry at God when I read it. I think, really, God? Would it have killed you to just let her go on this cruise she was so excited about? Would that have been that hard, to just let her enjoy that?
When I came home in April and early May she was still talking excitedly about Greece and Pompeii, but looked pale and complained of back pain and nausea. I remember one day she was sitting in the white chair in the living room, a book in her lap titled, “Greece,” and the heating pad on her back.
Finally in late May she went back to her doctor, who had assured her before it was probably just a stomach bug and would go away. “Well,” he said, “you just had a scan in January and it was clear, but let’s do one again anyway, just to make sure everything is okay.” They did the scan and saw there was fluid in her abdomen, and spots on her liver. “What is it?” my parents asked. “We are not sure, we have to do a biopsy,” they said. “But it looks like cancer.”
Looking back on it, that is when time kind of stopped for my parents and me. I think we all knew that when a doctor said, “It looks like cancer,” it must be. But we held out some small hope that it was not. They drew some fluid out of her abdomen, and tested it. My parents had told me that they would get the results back Friday afternoon. Normally I call my parents every Sunday night, so I knew if the results were positive, they would wait to tell me when I called at the end of the week. I was sitting at home that Friday night, and my phone started to ring. I looked at the screen and it said, “Mom and Dad.” That’s when I knew it was cancer for sure, even before I picked it up. And I also knew that meant she was going to die.
“Yes, the cancer is back,” they said. We are going to the doctor on Monday to hear what this means.
They went on Monday, and said he sat them down in his office, and closed the door. He explained that since her original cancer from 2011 had come back, and was now chemo resistant, there was no cure. She was terminal and had, in his estimation, 3-6 months to live. As far as treatment, he said that she could try chemo again, and he recommended it, but it would not cure her. There were 3 main chemo drugs, and she had taken the 2 most powerful ones in combination, in 2011. If they were to do chemo again, she would take the 3rd drug, which was not as effective but the cancer had not seen before. The side effects for that drug were very bad, though, and she could expect the flesh on her hands and cheeks to melt. As far as how much more time it would give her, in 75% of the patients that took it and were in her position, it did not extend their life at all. 25% of them had an average increase in life expectancy of about 3 months. He said he was so sorry and to let him know by the next week what her decision was.
This was on June 5th, and I was coming home that night so that we could drive to Yachats, Oregon, a tiny coastal town where we’ve enjoyed spending weekends for the past 15 or 20 years. It was my birthday on June 7th, so we were going over to celebrate that.
June 5th was a Friday night, and I drove home from Portland, and sat down on my mom’s bed while she lay there, propped up on pillows, and my dad sat on a chair nearby. “Well,” said my mom, “the news is grim.” And she told me. I thought I would burst into tears, but I didn’t. I just sat there in disbelief We all just sat there in disbelief for a while. They told me that as soon as they left the doctor’s office, they went to their travel agent and cancelled the cruise. My mom’s dream of seeing Greece was over.
My mom wanted to go ahead and go to Yachats anyway, so we left the following morning, me driving us over the coast range, my dad sleeping in the passenger seat beside me, my mom sitting in the back seat and silently gazing out at the scenery, like I’d seen her so many times before on so many trips. She’s dying, my mind kept screaming. My mom is dying. It was like an alarm going off in my head, over and over again. But there was nothing to do and nowhere to run.
We got to Yachats and checked into our hotel by the sea, the one we always stay in. My mom spent most of the weekend in bed, resting. We would go out for meals at the Adobe or the Driftwood Inn, then come back to the motel room. She’d look out the window at the surf, but didn’t have the energy to walk along the trail and look at the surf. I didn’t really want to walk the beach, either. We watched a movie that night, I think. The Constant Gardener, which was confusing and none of us much liked. We discussed whether my mom would do chemo. “I know you want me to try,” she said with a quavering voice, “and maybe I will try just the first does. But I really don’t want to go through chemo again. And it won’t save me anyway.” I really did not know what to say to this. How do you say, “Do the chemo!” when you don’t have to suffer the side effects yourself? It’s easy to give people advice when they have to suffer the consequences. She knew my dad and I wanted her to try chemo, but we also knew she didn’t want to do it, and would only be doing it for us. We tentatively all decided she would maybe jus try the first treatment and see how bad it was. Later on I was to hear from my dad that she woke up in the middle of the night sobbing, and told him, “I don’t want to do chemo!” About a week later she told me she had decided not to do it, and “let nature take its course.”
I still had not cried. And I did not cry until her final hours. I think I was in shock and denial. Part of it also was, as long as I could still talk to her, it didn’t seem like she was gone. So even though I intellectually knew she was dying, emotionally it just didn’t compute.
I had all these plans for her final 3-6 months, as the doctor put the timeline. We all thought, okay, 3-6 months means we have 6 months. Probably the first 2 or 3 months she’ll feel pretty good, and we can do a lot of things together. Early on I even thought, we’ll have time for at least 2 trips. The first trip she and my dad can fly to Pennsylvania and see my sister (who has chronic fatigue syndrome and is unable to travel), and spend some time with her. And for the second trip I can drive us all up to Canada. She always wanted to go see her parents’ graves, and we can do that, and then keep driving up to Vancouver Island and visit my Aunt and cousins, and their children. Heck, maybe we can even go to Lake O’Hara one final time! I will take a lot of time off so we can take all these trips. It’s too bad we cancelled the cruise, but that was in September and she probably would have been feeling too ill to enjoy it. But surely we can do these other trips before that, and go to Yachats a few more times as well.
What I learned, is like dying of cancer in real life is not like it is portrayed in the movie, “The Bucket List.” If you’ve seen that movie, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson are terminal cancer patients, who make a list of things they want to do before they die (the bucket list) and then fly around the world doing them. They do things like run with the bulls in Pamplona, sky dive, and race stock cars. After completing each item on the list, they cross it off, and then are off to the next one. I envisioned my mom’s own bucket list, where she’d visit my sister, and her parents’ graves, and my Aunt and cousins. As it turns out, we never did any of those trips. We never even went back to Yachats.
My mom was just too weak. Even to sit in the back seat of the car while I drove. She spent almost all the time between the living room, the kitchen (where she’d pick at her food), and the bedroom. When the news got out she was flooded with cards, letters and emails of support. She was touched by them and vowed to answer all of them, but most of them she never got too. She was just too tired, and every small act that she previously would accomplish with vigor, now took so much out of her.
During our trip to Yachats, I remember we were walking out of the Adobe and back to our car after dinner, the thick fog all around us. I said, “Mom, I really want to learn more about your life. I don’t know anything about your child hood or where you went to school. Would you please write your autobiography? It would mean so much to Anna and I. It doesn’t have to be book length, just 30 or 40 pages.” And she agreed and said yes, I will do that.
I kept asking her over the upcoming weeks if she’d started, and she always said, “I will, but first I have to reply to all these cards and letters people have sent me.” Ultimately, she never wrote anything at all.
My normal pattern, since moving back to Oregon in 2000, was to drive down to spend the weekend with my parents, about every 3-4 weeks. But once she got her diagnosis, I started coming down every weekend. My parents protested and said I needed to live my life, and they would be fine, but I know secretly they were glad I was there. My dad has Parkinson’s disease, and moves very slowly. Due to her cancer my mom had stopped cooking and cleaning, leaving my dad to do tasks that she had done for the previous 49 years. When I came home I’d help him with that, and drive him into town to shop, bring in the recycling, and get things for mom which she needed. I was glad to do this. I wanted to be close to my mom for as much time as she had left.
I came home for 4 or 5 weekends in a row. The last weekend I was there, 2 weeks ago, I pulled out of the driveway to head back to Portland. For years past when I’d done that, I’d turned my head and seen my parents standing at the window and waving to me. This time my dad was standing and waving, and my mom was sitting down on the couch, weakly holding up her arm to wave. And that was the last time I saw my mom when she was conscious.
The next weekend I had a friend coming in from out of town and a hike scheduled the day after that, so I decided to stay in Portland, but I took off the next Tuesday and Wednesday to go home, and make up the time with them, then. I still called them on the phone every other night, after I got home from work. I had started by calling them every night, but my mom suggested that talking on the phone so much wore her out, so we decided I’d just call every other night. They always would get on the two phones, so they could both hear me, like they had for years. “Hello, love!” my mom would always say. “How are you today? Did you have a good day at work?”
On Sunday night I called them. “It has not been a good couple of days,” my dad said. My mom had fallen in the shower on Saturday morning, and my dad couldn’t lift her so had to call 911. No bones were broken, but she was bruised and the hospice nurse that visited their house periodically suggested she start taking OxyContin. This affected her mental state, so when I called on Sunday night she was very upset, angry at my dad because she thought he was telling her the wrong time to take her next pill, and so upset she didn’t even want to talk to me. She did get on the phone eventually, but was confused and scared and wasn’t making any sense.
In a Hollywood movie, you have a last great talk with your loved one, before they die. But this wasn’t Hollywood, and that was the last time we ever talked. Of course, neither of us knew this. I felt so bad that I was gone that weekend, and wasn’t able to pick her up out of the shower, and help calm her the following day when she was confused and scared. But there was no way of knowing it would happen so fast. The doctor said 3-6 months, and we were only about 5 weeks in.
Looking back I should have known. She has always had a poor appetite her whole life, and since her diagnosis was eating very little. Even though they drained the fluid in her stomach, another 3 liters of it filled back up just 3 weeks later. This caused pressure on her stomach and killed her appetite. Her doctor also said when cancer cells grow on your intestine, you stop wanting to eat. My dad would urge her at meal times to “Eat, Ione, eat! you’ve got to eat!” And she would resent him for pushing her like this. One morning I was there and we were eating breakfast. She ate a spoonful or two of her oatmeal, then set it aside and sed, “I’m full.” He told her no, you have to eat, you didn’t eat more than a spoonful. Finally she got mad and said “Well, all right!”and forced herself to eat a bowl of blueberries. He was very pleased, and so was she that she had done it. I walked out of the room and soon heard retching. She had vomited them up all over the floor.
On Monday morning she fell again, this time on the bathroom floor, trying to get up off the toilet. My dad tried to pick her up, but again failed. He didn’t have the strength, and the strength in her legs was just gone. Again I was very angry at myself for not being there, to help. Although it was Monday morning so I probably would not have been, anyway.
Her hospice nurse said she should go to the Samaritan Evergreen Hospice house in Albany. Its’ a very nice facility with 12 rooms, and people with less than 6 months to live can stay there 5 days per month, before they have to leave and go home, or to another facility. So they took her there and checked her into a room. My dad said that night she was in a lot of pain, and scared. Again, I wish I could have been there to comfort her.
I called my dad that night, and he said the nurses now thought she had only 2-3 weeks to live, instead of 2-5 more months. I couldn’t believe it! They said the disease was progressing faster than they thought— the 2011 cancer was very aggressive, so it made sense that when the surviving bits of it came back, it would move fast. Again, I did not cry. My mind was just too in shock.
I should have left for home immediately and not worked the next day. But I had Wed. and Thurs. off, and so determined to work my shift on Tuesday, and then drive down afterward. I did that, and came to the house. The door was unlocked, and when I walked in my dad was just sitting all by himself in the dark, in silence. I’d never seen him look so alone and so fragile. The Parkinson’s makes him mumble a bit sometimes, and I could barely hear his voice. It shook as he told me that they now said my mom had not 2-3 weeks, but it would be “a matter of hours.” So we’d better drive to the hospice center tonight, and spend the night in her room. “I don’t want her to be alone when she dies,” he said.
I think we were both zombies after that. We tried to eat some food, but it was hard to even swallow it. And who wanted to eat, when my beloved mom no longer could? We got in the car and started down the road, in the dark. He filled me in on the events of the day: She had been in a lot of pain that morning, but there were many visitors and well wishers who wanted to stop by, so she did her best to smile at them and be polite. But finally she reached the end of her rope and shouted, “no more visitors!” and threw her bedsheet over her head. So everyone left but my dad and the hospital staff. He did tell her I was coming down that night, and I hope that comforted her. Again, I feel so bad I wasn’t there. Why didn’t I leave work early? I guess because I had the next 2 days off coming up, and I didn’t know she was in her last hours.
My dad said her stomach was hurting so much she was writing in bed, and she started having delusions, saying there was smoke coming out of her bed. She was very teary and fearful. And I know she had been very scared because the previous weekend, she had been lying on her bed and told me, “I’m scared!” and started sobbing. “Scared of what, Mom?” I asked. “Of dying!” she whispered. And then cried some more and said, “And I know my faith should be a comfort, but it just isn’t. And I know I should be setting a better example for you to follow.” My heart rushed out to her, and I assured her that she was setting a good example. She’d always set the best example of anyone in my entire life, of how to live. And I held her hand and told her it would be okay.
I think it’s important to say that my mom was not ready to die. I think my dad was much more ready. He’d worked as a volunteer hospital chaplain for years, and seen death up close. He also was in much worse health, with his Parkinson’s, and my parents always assumed he would be the first to go. My parents had discussed how she would still bet 3/5 of his pension, and she told me she wanted to live in a rest home she liked, right next to her Catholic church in Corvallis. So she could walk next door and go to mass anytime she liked. She had only just turned 83. She was looking forward to our Mediterranean cruise in the fall. We were going to Vancouver Island in 2016, and probably on a St. Lawrence river cruise after that. She had so much in life she enjoyed and was interested in. She read the newspaper avidly every day, was interested in current events and sports and loved to write her children letters. She was enjoying life. And then this living nightmare had sprung up out of the blue, just 6 weeks before, and she was told oh, you won’t be going to the Mediterranean, you won’t be going to Canada, or the St. Lawrence river. You are going to die in 3-6 months. And then, oh, now it is 2-3 weeks. And then, oh, sorry, you are going die NOW. I can only imagine how scared she was. And meanwhile all these well meaning visitors are stopping by and trying to “cheer her up,” by quoting bible verses, saying she has nothing to worry about, she’ll soon be in God’s loving arms, etc. Easy for them to say, when they are going home and will wake up the next day and be fine.
The nurses decided to put her on a “pain pack” that afternoon, to numb the pain and ease her troubled mind. She immediately fell into unconsciousness, from which she would not emerge. The nurses said if they reduced the morphine they could wake her back up, but didn’t want to do that because she’d be in pain again. I didn’t want that either. But I longed to talk to her.
My dad and I got there at about 10:30 at night. The hospice building was quiet and we talked in hushed tones to the staff, which let us into her darkened room. “She is unconscious now, and breathing softly,” they said. “It could happen at any time.” I stepped over to her bed, saw this tiny figure curled up under the blankets, her head on the pillow, and her mouth wide open to take in air. It was obvious she was not going to wake up and be able to talk. Still, I did not cry. Too much shock. It was like being trapped in a horrible nightmare where you just wait to wake up. Except I knew there was not going to be any waking up. 7 weeks ago she was fine! We were eating breakfast together and talking about Greece. How is this possible?
My dad and I got some blankets and lay down to go to sleep, the soft puff of my mom’s breath in our ears.
When we woke the next morning (last Wednesday) she was still with us. Still unconscious, still breathing, and this time her breathing was even a little stronger. Will she ever wake up? I asked one of the nurses. “No,” she said.
All day long, my dad and I sat by her bedside, taking turns rubbing her head an stroking her hair, holding her limp hands and telling her how much we loved her. The nurses thought she might be hearing us even though she was unconscious. There were times I was sure she could hear me. I’d say something, and she’d raise her eyebrows a little bit. See! I knew she could hear me, I’d think. Then I’d leave the bedside for a moment, and after a bit her eyebrows would twitch upward again, for no reason because no one had said anything. So then I thought oh, that was just an involuntary action. Or her mouth would twitch when you said something funny or loving, and we’d think she was trying to smile and talk. But then it would twitch again when were not talking, and not touching her. I do think she was having dreams, and maybe was reacting to stuff in her dreams. But as to whether she heard us or not, I do not know. I really hope so, as long as she was not in despair and fear. I told her over and over again how much I loved her, how she was “the best mom ever,” and the person in the world I loved the most. How she would see her beloved parents and brother soon, but would she please wait for me there? That dad would be along soon and I would not be that far behind, and I needed her to wait. That when we met again, I would give her the biggest hug in heaven. There were a few times when I thought she could hear me. Or a tear would come out of her eye. But then at other times a tear would come out for no reason. Her one eye was always partially open, and glazed over. I’d get within 18 inches of it, hoping she could see me. But it was impossible to tell if she could or not.
My dad would sit and tell her stories about their years at Cal Berkeley, where they met in 1960 and fell in love. They were married in 1963, and have been together ever since. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said, his voice breaking. “And you always have been.” I learned more about my parents’ lives in those 30 minutes of stories he told, than I have in years.
My parents’ dog was at the house still, and I had to leave the hospice center twice a day to go let her out and feed her. I also knew she was lonely, so I would spend about an additional hour with her after the feeding, before putting her back in her room and heading back to the hospice center. My mom lived 3 days at the hospice center, so every morning when I would drive over to the house to let out the dog, I’d come up to the silent empty house, unlock the door, and step inside. It as a beautiful summer morning every time, the kind of mornings my mother would have loved. She would have been there in the kitchen, eating her breakfast and listening to the news, gazing out at the river flowing past. Then later going out on the deck to lower the awnings, and just enjoying the beautiful light.
When I let myself in every morning, her spirit hovered in the stillness. Everything in the house had her touch on it. Every vase, decoration, and plant had been hand picked and cared for by her. It was almost like walking into a holy place. And it made me so sad that she would never come back there again, the house where she had lived for the past 49 years, and given so much love and care. It was more emotional to go back to that house every day, than it was to sit in the hospice room, by her bedside. I felt more of her presence in the house. In the hospice room, she was far, far away.
By the 3rd day (Friday) the pressure was building in me. I couldn’t read, couldn’t sleep, and could hardly eat the food the kind staff brought to my dad and me. It felt so wrong to eat when my mom was lying in that bed, starving to death. And we worried about leaving the room when she died. But it had been 3 days we’d been there, and my dad and I were exhausted.
My poor mom. At hospice they don’t feed you or give you water unless you are conscious and ask for it. So she had had nothing since Tuesday morning. Now it was Friday, and her thin body had turned into a near skeleton. As I sat beside her and rubbed her head, noticed her arms and shrunk to the size of sticks, as if they were bird wings. The hollow in her eye socket had deepened and grown more pronounce. “Hi Mom,” I kept saying as I rubbed her head. “It’s me, Tim. Can you hear me? I love you so much.”
Finally, on that 3rd day, I had to leave the room and go on short walks. I was so torn up inside. Her breathing had grown more labored, and her heartbeat irregular. She was so thin you could see her pulse twitching rapidly like a baby bird under her skin, jumping irregularly. She’d take a ragged breath, then there would be a long 10 second pause, and she’d breath again. She was struggling so much, but she was unconscious so I hope she didn’t feel it. The nurses were so amazed she was still with us. “I don’t know what’s keeping her going,” one nurse said. My mom was so strong. If not for the cancer returning, I think she would have lived another 10 years. But I know she had premonitions that something was wrong. This Spring I got my license renewed, and told her I didn’t have to get it renewed until 2023. “I suppose I won’t be alive by then,” she said sadly, as she sat in the rocker. “Oh, sure you will, Mom,” I said. And she just smiled.
I walked outside for a break that afternoon, so upset. I wanted her to not suffer, so I wanted it to end. But I didn’t want it to end, because I loved her so much. What a horrible mixture emotions.
When I went outside, a black cat was sitting there. I since learned that he lived in a little house outside the hospice doors, with “Sydney” written on the top of his house. There was a fountain next to it, and I saw him playing in the fountain sometimes. When I came out of the hospice center, it was like he was waiting for me. I walked around the corner of the building to find a place to sit down, and he came running after me, jumped into my lap, and started snuggling into me and purring. It was like he knew I was suffering, almost as if God or my mom had sent him. From then on whenever I left the center, he would be waiting for me.
That afternoon we put on a piano CD, for my mom to listen to. She has always loved classical music so deeply, and no other kind of music. She studied and taught piano extensively, and later spent a year in Vienna, Austria, studying the organ. Music has always been her greatest passion, outside of her family.
When we put on the CD and the music started softly playing, her breathing got softer, as if she wanted it to be quieter so she could listen. Every couple of hours the nurses would come in and turn her, and this time she was turned toward the window, and the CD player. We sat there in the room with her and listened to the cascading notes, while the afternoon sun shone in throw the window. When “Claire de Lune” came on, I almost started crying. It is such a tender piece of music, one I know she loved, and something about seeing her lying there in the beautiful light, eyes closed, mouth open, and her beloved music playing, just brought me to tears. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to Claire de Lune again without crying.
There was a kind of beautiful intimacy in talking to her as she slept. She was a conservative person as far as personal touch went, and never would have let me stroke her head over and over again if she were healthy and conscious. But now I did over and over, and rubbed her forehead. I said, “Where did you get that scar, Mom?” and touched the white spot over her left eye. I rubbed my hand along the skin of her arm, that smooth skin that I remember so well as a child. Her mouth was wide open, and I could see her teeth. I remembered all the times she’d told me she had to go to the dentist and get a crown put in, and I could see the crown now. I don’t know, when you really love a person that much, and know so much about them, you sit there next to them and just feel how precious they are. It was so sad but such a holy thing, too.
We had thought she would die that day, but it got to be after 5 and she was still with us, so my dad and I thought she would live through another night. She had already lived through 3 nights, after all. I didn’t want to leave but it was already 5:30, and Tessa was hungry and needed to be fed. I told my dad I’d be back around 8. I had the sense I might not see my mom alive again, so I bent down over her and kissed her on the cheek, said, “I love you so much, Mom,” and left the room.
I was at home with Tessa at 7:30, getting ready to drive back, when the phone rang. It was my dad. “Mom died at 7:15,” he said, voice cracking. “I was sitting there stroking her head and talking to her, and she suddenly opened up her eyes, looked me full in the face, and smiled. Then she was gone.”
I instantly felt bad and jealous that it had been him, and not be. Or better yet, why not both of us. I wish I could have been there to see her smile. Maybe she didn’t want to disturb me with her death, and waited till I was gone. I don’t know. But I am glad that my dad was there with her. The love of her life, together since 1960. And what a blessing that he was there when she opened her eyes, and that he received her smile.
He later told me that he’d been talking to her, as we both had been all day, hoping some of it got through. He said he’d been telling her how sorry he was for mistakes he’d made during the marriage, like insensitivity. And he asked her to forgive him. He said that was when she opened her eyes and smiled at him. He said the smile only lasted a second or two, then “it was like a switch was pulled,” and she died.
He and I like to think, and desperately hope, that she had seen a glimpse of heaven. Or maybe her beloved parents had come to take her away. Whatever it was, he said her face was free of fear.
When I got back to the hospice my dad had already spoken to my sister. Earlier that day he had held the phone up to my mom’s ear, so that Anna could talk and hopefully my mom could hear her. I really hope she did.
My mom, or rather her body, was lying back on the pillows, gazing up at the ceiling with half open eyes. Her formerly pink face had changed to white, but she was still warm. I kissed her face, and bent over and smelled her hair, which even after 3 days in a hospice bed, still smelled wonderful. In hospice they give you as long as you want to sit with the body, after your loved one has passed, before they call the funeral home. But as I told my dad, “mom is not here anymore.” And I really felt that. Her soul was gone from that room.
We had to wait about 30 minutes for the funeral director to arrive and take away her body, so we picked up our things from living 3 days and nights in that room. My mom wanted to be cremated, so with the nurses help I used vaseline and soap to get her wedding ring off her finger. I am going to wear it around my neck on a chain. She had had that ring on every day of her life since June 22, 1963, when she and my dad were married. Then I took off her watch, and I cut off two locks of her hair. I have it all here in my apartment, and sometimes I take out the locks of hair and smell them. They still have her beautiful scent.
The funeral home director got there, offered his consolations, and my dad and I stepped out of the room so he could prepare the body. We sat, stunned, in the foyer of the hospice center whited become our home over the last 3 days of waking nightmare. In the Albany hospice house, when a patient’s body is wheeled out, all the nursing staff stands at attention, and harp music is softly played. Soon we saw the gurney slowly moving down the hall. We saw my mom’s white head poking out of the blankets, and her nose pointing up at the ceiling, that nose that she used to fret about sometimes. When she passed by I wanted to reach out and say, “Mom!” and wake her up, but I knew I couldn’t, of course.
When we got outside it was almost fully dark, with just a faint glow of sun left on the horizon. My mom would have appreciated the significance. The black cat was still there, watching us. The funeral director loaded my mom’s body into the back of his van, and then closed the doors gently and drove off. The nurses hugged my dad and I, and we stumbled over to our car and drove home in the dark.
It has now been 5 days since she died. A week ago today she was still conscious, and about to go on the morphine. But it feels like she has been gone much longer. The last time I talked to her was a week ago last Sunday. That is the longest I’ve gone without talking to my mom in years. I would always call at least once a week. It hurts so bad to realize I will never talk to her again. How am I supposed to live the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years? And part of me doesn’t even want to live that long, a very big part of me. I would have rather gone with her just so we could keep talking and face whatever was next, together.
I know my dad feels the same. He is beyond shattered. I got a week of bereavement time yesterday, after I was a wreck at work, couldn’t concentrate and was crying. When I called my dad and told him I was coming home today for a week, he almost started crying.
She did everything in that house, for the two of them. Last weekend he asked me, “Do you know where the towels are kept?” He’d been in that house 49 years, and never known. She always took care of all that stuff. All the cooking, cleaning, and washing. Without her, he is lost. When we ate breakfast the morning after she died, her place at the table was empty. It seemed so horribly wrong to not see her sitting there, cutting her toast into thin slices with her knife, like she always did, and listening to the radio with a pleased expression.
How did this nightmare descend into my family? We were going to go on a cruise! It was as if we were all at home one night, and a killer crept in through the back door, and murdered my mom in her sleep. And in a way, he did. The killer’s name was cancer. It robs people of their dreams, and their loved ones of their joy and companions.
My dad wants to sell the house. It isn’t safe for him to be there alone. His balance is bad with the Parkinson’s, and he is so, so lonely without my mom there. If he can move into town and be around other people in a facility, at least he’ll have some human contact. And it will be much safer. But I know he is also just going through the motions for my sister and I. He feels like his life is over, now that his beloved wife is gone. And I can understand why he feels that way. “I don’t know what we’ll do without Mom,” he said over and over again.
As for myself, I am a complete wreck. I think I didn’t cry before her death because I was in shock, but also because even though she was sick, I could still talk to her. Now I can’t talk to her ever again. The enormity of this fact is crushing to me. I tried to go back to work on Monday and it was a disaster. I cried in front of at least 3 different people that asked about her and I never cry. She had not used all of her L’Occitane products, which she loved, so I gave some of them to a woman in the office who is really sweet, who my mom would have loved. She also has cancer, and is going through chemo now just like my mom did in 2011. We hugged each other and cried.
I could not concentrate on my work. Every time I looked at the computer my mind just wandered and wouldn’t stay focused. The enormity of never seeing or talking to her again took the breath out of me. I wanted to throw up. It was like she was snatched off the street and stuffed into the back of a car, and never seen again. 7 weeks ago we had no idea she was even dying, and now she is dead. Impossible. How does 3-6 months become 6 weeks?
Since she has died, I find myself doing things to try and bring her back to life. When I went home I found a treasure trove of her diaries and photo albums in a closet. My dad did not know that stuff even existed (not surprising, given the towels). There was a diary there from 1950, when she was a 17 year old girl. Priceless! And also one from 1955 when she was at University, a travel diary from many years of her life, and also one from the 70’s, when my sister and I were young children and my mom was in her 30’s. The photo albums are mostly old black and whites from 65 years ago, when my mom was a happy teen in Saskatchewan. The joy of her smile jumps off all the photos. It is so comforting to see and read all this. She seems alive to me again, and I discover new things about her that I never knew. I think she wanted me to find those things, and new I’d find them, instead of her writing a memoir which she would probably be very understated and modest about.
I stayed 2 extra hours after work yesterday, just so I could go over my old emails, and print out hard copies. I had her emails going back to 2008, and luckily I had not erased them, having some instinct at the time that it was wrong to delete them. I’m so glad I didn’t. I now have a thick binder of her emails to me, and reading them I can see her love and hear her voice, even though he is gone.
I also was up until almost 2 going through a box of old letters, where her handwritten letters and postcards to me are. So great to find them and read them again! Her love shines through. It as in reading these again that I realized that my mom is my hero. She is the most loving, giving person I have ever met. I was so lucky to be her son. My grief is suffocating, especially when I focus on her absence, and never seeing or talking to her again. That is too much to bear. But when I focus on her writings to me and her photographs, she comes alive again, and she is still here in my mind.
I’m sorry this has been such sad blog entry. I had meant to write about her death, and then talk more about there life before that, why she was my hero, and what she believed in. But this has gotten too long and I need to head down to Corvallis to comfort my dad. This will be the first of two parts, and I will write more about her life and who she was in my next entry, in about a week, give or take a few days. I look forward to writing that and sharing it with you. My mom always encouraged my writing, and was my biggest advocate and champion in everything. I feel close to her when I write things about her. I hope this post honors her. Thanks for reading it. I will return to write part 2 of it in a few days or a week.