Dismissed by Mom during my Tender Deathbed Scene
Inspired by Steve Blevins’ delicious concoction of humor and poignancy titled “Mom Feels Great, but I’m Planning Her Funeral Anyway,” I’ve decided it’s time to tell a few stories about the last week I spent with my mom. Regarding other OS Mother’s Day posts (with abject apologies to friends whose posts I haven’t yet read ~ please send me a link to yours), I’d like to recommend hatchetface’s moving post “Two Poems for My Mother,” containing perhaps the most concise description I've ever read of what a great mother should be. Also bbd’s “thank you mom,” featuring a 40’s starlet-esque photo of his gutsy mom who modeled the kindness this world needs. Finally, “Woman of All Roses” by Gary Justis with luminous photos and a picture of his mom holding grandson Gregory, a transcendent gift that validates photography.
A year ago, in the spring of 2008, Mom had open-heart surgery. She spent the month of April in the hospital—arriving with the Magnolias; staying through the Crocus, Daffodils, Tulips, Flowering Crabapples, and Violets; and coming home with the Redbuds. Living almost an entire year after this surgery, Mom celebrated with Dad their 60th Wedding Anniversary on June 14th. She continued to have trouble with fluid, though, and congestive heart failure finally claimed her on March 14, 2009.
(photo by Samantha & Charlie)
In order to give Dad and my sister Sylvia a break, I spent five days taking care of Mom, coming back to my own home exactly a week before she died. I’ve written previously about things Mom was having trouble doing that we take for granted, as well as ways in which she was lucky. It was a difficult week. Like Dad the last year of Mom’s life, I was on call all day. I helped Mom with intensely personal tasks she found embarrassing. I was sore from unaccustomed physical motions including bending and kneeling. Occasionally, confused about how many of the day’s 23 tablets she’d taken, Mom would argue with us and try to avoid taking them.
I tried to tempt Mom’s diminishing appetite with my newly perfected cream of potato soup, her knockout pumpkin pie (which I baked in Ohio and transported to Indiana), Irish Breakfast tea and the Scottish shortbread she relished a year ago. She sampled everything but eating was now a Sisyphean task instead of the joy it had always been during her lifetime. It was heartbreaking to watch Mom peck at her food and just as I was beginning to feel restless, hear her sweetly apologize for eating so slowly.
A woman of action, I was a whirling dervish that week ~ cleaning the bathrooms, recycling old magazines and newspapers, throwing out loosely wrapped food from the full-size freezer, separating plastic lids that belonged in the trash from Dad’s recycling, running laundry, cleaning out the fridge (including a mayonnaise jar from 2006), watering Mom’s African violets, changing the tablecloth, finagling an appointment with the podiatrist to cut Mom’s claws while I was there, setting my husband Steve the task of researching adjustable beds, giving Mom a shower and setting her hair, clipping her fingernails, and playing Scrabble (which I actively dislike) every evening. I recount this not to persuade you that I am a good daughter or to remind God to add these tasks to the plus side of my tally column, but to give you an idea of my mindset. I was tired, stressed, and getting grouchy. I was fantasizing about going home.
At the end of the fourth day, I left Mom sitting on her walker by the sink in the back bathroom brushing her teeth. I needed something from the front of the house. Because she was retaining fluid from congestive heart failure, Mom was under strict orders not to drink any water; she could only drink Boost Plus, one cup of French Press Kenya coffee Dad made her every morning, and one other hot drink with her Scrabble game in the evening. Sylvia and Dad had even somehow managed to get hell to freeze over—Mom was now swallowing her 23 tablets a day with either Boost or yogurt. When I came back to the bathroom, frazzled and exhausted, Mom had finished cleaning her teeth and flashed me a sneaky grin. With a defiant twinkle in her eye, my 85-year-old mother confessed, “I didn’t even snitch any water while you were gone.” But I could have, she left unspoken. It was the first time during the week that I saw a flash of humor from her.
I felt something click inside of me. I felt an upwelling of admiration for this little woman battling an insidious disease quietly and cheerfully with courage and toughness. I felt ashamed of feeling put upon, impatient, squeamish, and anxious to flee to the comforts of my own home & family. I remembered why I’d asked to be allowed to come visit Mom (If I’d said I was coming to help take care of Mom, Dad would have barked, “I don’t need any help! I can take care of her myself. I have been for the past year. She’s my wife.”)
(Mary with Mom and our first dog Patsy)
As I tucked Mom in bed, I kissed her eyes repeatedly. I’m the baby and the most hands-on of the three children. Like Mom in the past (and both of my sibs), I get bad headaches and have discovered how good it feels to receive firm kisses on my eyes when I’m hurting. Mom crooned, “I love you. Thank you for everything you do.”
On Friday, my last day, I got up at 7 a.m. and had to rush to get Mom ready to leave for the pulmonologist’s by 9 a.m. It literally took Mom an hour and a half to eat 12 bites of Honey Nut Cheerios with one raisin per bite, drink one Boost, and take a dish full of medications. While she was eating, I raced to my sister’s house, cater-corner to the southwest, to take a shower. Dad has well water and the iron content makes my hair stand on end. Sylvia’s city water makes a hot shower a guilty pleasure. Soaking in the elegance of her neat, clean, and beautifully furnished home on the way in and out was an added bonus.
Returning home warm, squeaky clean, and with my long hair still wet, I was rewarded by Mom’s second burst of merriment. Sitting at his usual place at the end of the kitchen table, Dad was reading the morning paper. Suddenly he demanded, “Where’d the front section get to?” Dad is famous for never accepting responsibility for misplacing his own possessions. He often says, “Your mother moved things and I can’t find my --- [fill in name of lost item of the moment].” After Dad had been searching for a few frantic moments, a girlish peal of laughter escaped from Mom’s lips. The front section of the newspaper had been on Dad’s lap, hidden by the tablecloth, the whole time!
9 a.m. was fast approaching and Mom was still using the bathroom. Dad and I decided drastic measures were in order. I changed Mom’s clothes from her pajamas to the outfit she had selected for the doctor visit while she was still sitting in the bathroom. Dad brought in her shoes and a shoehorn and knelt next to her walker once she was washing her hands, brushing her hair, powdering her nose, and painstakingly applying her signature lipstick. I cheekily quipped to Mom: “This may be the first time Dad has ever knelt down in front of you.”
Dad is the quintessential engineer with note cards and a pen in his pocket at all times—a bit dour, pragmatic, and not gifted in the social skills. When I think of men kneeling, I think of dreamy Jane Austen films where the younger sister whispers, “Do you think he’ll kneel? They always kneel, you know.”
“You probably didn’t kneel when you proposed, did you, Dad?” I asked nonchalantly.
“Yes, I did,” Dad answered from the floor as he gently and lovingly slid Mom’s dainty foot into a square-toed blue pump.
I felt the room tilt. Age 50, I had never heard this discussed before.
“Really? In the living room at Grammie and Grandpa’s house?” I guessed [the house where Dad grew up and my cousin now lives, cater-corner to the northeast].
“Yes,” my chivalrous and gallant father responded simply.
(Esther & David's engagement photo next to the glorious phlox in my grandparents' back yard)
We had to wait an hour and a half for Mom’s CT scan, so long that the techs gave us a $5 coupon for free goodies from the hospital coffee shop (there is a God and He understands my need for chocolate). The personable and disarmingly honest pulmonologist confirmed what I’ve been telling Dad for weeks: Mom’s dying and there’s almost nothing we can do about it. He used about five medical terms I’d never heard that I wish I’d written down for my brother, all of which meant that she was losing weight, failing to thrive, and starving to death. He took Dad and I out in the hall to look at the scans and told us that Mom only had “weeks up to maybe a year” left to live. He was wrong. Mom died exactly one week later.
That evening I laid a fire with walnut and cherry I’d brought from home and we sat at the card table in front of its warmth. I fixed Mom hot tea to drink with her coffee shop cookie. Mom and I finished our epic five-night Scrabble game. She trounced me.
I suspected that I would never see Mom again. This time, after I tucked her in, I walked around to Dad’s side of the bed and climbed in under the covers with her. Dad and Sylvia were at the symphony. Mom lay on her right side facing the closets so I curled up on my right side with my knees folded inside her knees, draped my left arm around her waist, and held her hand. I lay still until her breathing stabilized and I knew she slept. Only then, confident I wouldn’t wake her, I allowed myself the luxury of quiet tears and barely perceptible shuddering as I snuggled my mommy one last time.
Before long, Mom woke up and told me in that unmistakable Mom tone that it was late and I’d better get to bed. Since she was awake anyway, I came back around to her side of the bed and knelt down next to her. I told her everything I thought I’d better say before she died. “You’ve been a great mom—loving and supportive and wonderful. I think I was probably pretty spoiled and useless and unappreciative when I lived at home. I never really understood what you did for us until I had my own children.”
I heard a faint giggle in the semi-darkness. “Your sister said she didn’t get it until the first time she took her children camping. Living in a tent, everything full of sand, cooking on a Coleman stove, doing everything for everyone else—she finally realized how easy you had it growing up.”
(My sister Sylvia, Mom, Dad, and my brother Alan camping with our dog Patsy before I was born)
“I wish I could stay longer,” I said honestly, despite the week’s frustrations and fears and the toll it was taking on my body. “It’s so unfair that I’m the only one who doesn’t work outside the home and has time to spend with you but I’m the only one who lives out of state. I want to be here with you, but [my disabled husband] Steve needs me to help him and Andrew really misses me—you know, he’s only 15.”
“You’ve been a big help, but you need to go home to your own family now,” Mom proclaimed with authority. “Andrew and Steve need you.”
My tender deathbed scene didn’t end quite the way I expected. I was still on my knees, holding Mom’s hand, weeping freely now with my voice breaking. Suddenly, Mom said dismissively, “OK, that’s enough. We both need to get some sleep now.”
She was pleasant but firm and I easily made the translation. “We both know I’m dying and you’ll never see me again. You’ve said everything that needs to be said. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me—last spring during my surgeries and in the year since then. You’ve kissed me and held me and cried over me. Now I’m tired and I just want to sleep. Go home to your own family and let me go.”
My brother has been trying to tell me for years how steely our mother is, how pragmatic, stubborn, and strong she is. I’ve only been able to see it the past few years. This isn’t how deathbed scenes transpire in Jane Austen. I had to smile despite myself. I’d just been dismissed.
In the intervening week I spoke to Mom on the phone several times. She was coherent and loving. The next time I saw her, she was lying on her right side facing the closets, her mouth slightly ajar, sleeping the long and peaceful sleep of death. I washed her and dressed her with Dad’s assistance and a few days later we laid her to rest under a magnificent oak tree.
On this first Mother’s Day without you, I miss you, Mom.
I’ll carry you with me always, striving to honor you by evincing your kindness, thoughtfulness, mischief and merriment, pragmatism, courage, and gratitude for all the blessings in my life.
I love you, Mom.
Other posts about losing Mom:
[“His Eye Is on the Sparrow ~ Mom’s Memorial Service” in progress]