Plain City, Ohio, Planet Earth
The Momarchy
Canine + 3 men
Happy childhood in Indianapolis; Raced Hobie 16 with my Dad for 7 years; World record holding National Catapult Champion; Graduated from Earlham College; Married my best friend; Junior high and high school Latin & English teacher; Wife of handicapable husband (11 surgeries related to rheumatoid arthritis); Stay-at-home mom; Author; Photographer; Lived too briefly in Minnesota north country (snow, dog sledding, wolves, and wilderness); Quaker activist; Environmentalist; Dog lover; Curious traveler; Men's volleyball enabler; Discriminating romantic film buff; Eclectic music lover; Friend of the world

MAY 11, 2009 2:08AM

Missing Mom on My First Mother’s Day Without Her

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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.

Dads violets

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.

60th Anniversary

                                    (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.

Medicine box

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.

Hair in rollers

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, Mom & Patsy

(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.

Engagement photo

(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.”

Family camping

(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.

Church portrait

Other posts about losing Mom:

Things to be Thankful For in Tough Times

The Things We Buried

White shores are calling ~ You and I will meet again . . .

[“His Eye Is on the Sparrow ~ Mom’s Memorial Service” in progress]

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Ah, thank you for this wonderful post, Dogwoman. It added so much meaning and depth to this day. Your mother was quite a woman; I suspect the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. The love of dogs is certainly a family tradition too :) I hope writing this brought you some comfort, it was so moving to read - a close-up of what love really looks like.

I know. I know.

Donna, what are you doing up at this crazy time? I had to get this out of my system. Are you on a different time zone or just nuts? Yes, writing this has been a healing release. Thanks for your kind words.

CB, you are far too modest, not mentioning the stunning piece you've just written about your mother. Gentle reader, click on Catamitebastard's name above and see for yourself how his name belies his temperament. Thanks for the hug. I needed one. Hugs and weasel kisses for you.
Oh you've got me crying this morning. So glad to see your posts again but sad that you lost your mother. When you wrote, "...watering Mom’s African violets" I loved her even more because that is something my grandmother, mom and all my aunts have. Your mom even looks a bit like my Aunt Imogene. I am sad for your loss. Thank you for sharing your heart.

Hope you, Steve and the boys are well and happy. Peace to you, Robin
You have published a important, moving and beautiful work of Art.
Truly a brilliant tribute to your an extraordinary woman. I am honored you linked my story as well. Thank you for the loving devotion and goods works that went into this piece.
This is so beautiful and touching, arousing memories of my mother's last week dying at home. I am so moved that I am digging it and posting it to facebook.
People should join Digg. Then they can give wonderful posts like this the recognition they deserve.
From Kerry's post last October:

Registering for Digg (if you're not already registered) is reasonably fast and simple.

Why, again, do we ask you to do this? It's a cool way to flex our muscle as a network. As a post increases its rank in these social bookmarking sites, more people will come -- possibly hundreds of thousands -- to check it out. With more eyes coming to Open, the idea is that more people will surf the network, boost our search ranking, bringing more readers to everyone. The results have gotten a little bit better every time we've done this,

I want thousands of people to read this post.
What a wonderful relationship you had with your mother. I'm a bit envious, I confess.
This lumped up my throat, in a good way. Thank you for sharing such a meaningful experience with us. Eloquently written. Rated.
Oh...oh...oh...I started reading this post and could not finish. I too lost my mom just one year ago. I have book marked this post because I just know I WANT to read it but today I am just too vulnerable. I will return. Until then...I know just how you feel. Hugs and kisses,
beautiful family portrait. I loved reading this.
My mom died on Thanksgiving Day some years ago. (I try not to count.) I know, as you do now, that there is a special place in heaven reserved for moms. When the sadness abates, you will find yourself stopping in mid-stride somewhere, anywhere, to smile as the memories and the thought of this reserve in paradise converge on your conciousness, and you realize that mom hasn't gone far. She's alive in you, all you need do is stop in mid-stride somewhere, any where, and smile.
(I'm on West Coast time, DW, it really wasn't *that* late for us, before midnight even. A splendid time to wander around the OS halls...)
Mary, this is beautiful, honest and open. You're not afraid of criticizing yourself, and you've woven both your mother's life and yours into a beautiful loving tapestry. I love that last picture of here in your post, what a beautiful woman, and you've taken so much of that from her. What gifts we receive, and many times it takes years for us to see the gifts for what they are.

I love this story, this continuing story. And now on to celebrating your life with Steve and the boys.

thanks for all you poured into this.
JRDOG, my dad's mother had a special bay window built in her house for her African violets. They always made me nervous, but Mom gave me some and through no virtue of my own they thrive in my southern facing bay window. Steve & James & Andrew & I are thrilled to all be home together for the summer now that James is home from college. Love to you and your family.

Gary, thanks for your presence and kindness.

Redstocking G, you are a one-woman recruiting force! Thanks for sharing this so widely and for encouraging others to do so. I enjoyed your post about your mom, including the knockout photo of her in her classroom holding onto the back of her desk chair. A living embodiment of "joie d'vivre."

ktm, I love your Mother's Day post on Julia Ward Howe and her powerful pacifist message. Regarding the envy thing, it's all relative. I envy Tequila & Donuts her mother Devin because they have a conspiratorial best friend type of relationship filled with wicked merriment. My mother was more sweet and kind and loving and serious. I can't complain--she was a great mom. But she and I weren't best friends in the mischievous way that Devin and her mom are. If she had known you, my mother would have been a mom to you, as she was for one of my in-laws whose own mother abandoned her. I'm glad you write and are part of this community.
Jen, I enjoyed your post about your host of moms. Thanks for becoming acquainted. Give Hobie a hug from me (I hope that's your dog's name or I could be getting into hot water here!!).

Owl, I'm glad this was emotional in a positive way. I enjoyed your piece on your relationship with your son. While not overtly a Mother's Day piece (as you are much too modest to be writing about what a great mother you are), it's an unintentional testament to what a great mother you are. Hope you understand what I'm trying to say.

Gracielou, let me know what you think once you digest the whole thing. I'm sorry to hear that you're in the same motherless boat, but you know they're always with us in every thing we are and say and do, we just can't hug them any more. Thanks for the hugs from you. I needed them.

doloresflores, thanks as always for stopping by and commenting!
General JK, I'd be interested to know more about your presumably pragmatic mother.

RonP01, thanks for making my acquaintance! Yes, you're right about the mid-stride, I'm sure, it's just still too soon for me to realize it. Reading OS posts about others' moms has been the most therapeutic thing that's happened for me since Mom's death.

Donna, I feel better knowing you're on the west coast!

bbd, I love that last photo. As a photographer, I find it depressing, because it's a church portrait. I wish I had taken it. I don't take enough close-ups. To capture a person's soul, sometimes you really have to get up close enough to look deeply into their eyes. This photo says it all for me about my mother's poise, grace, sweetness, intelligence, and abundantly loving nature. I always treasure your comments.
Mary, thanks for the response. I really get what you're saying about that photo. Robert Capa, that famous European photographer, once said "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough." My best photos of people are the ones that are close.

Again, this is just lovely. Best to you dear.
Glad you're writing as part of your living, and dying. You set a fine example for us all.
What a beautiful story. I'll bet your mom is looking down on you even now. Your mom seems like she was a great lady. Beautiful photos also. I really admire you.
I'm so scared to lose my Mom. It won't happen for a long time but I'm pretty convinced that when it happens (I can't say how hard it was not to type "if") that I will just disappear. Thank you for showing me that it will be ok, and reminding me to do everything I can to show her how grateful I am for her in the years that we have together.
What a wonderful post and tribute to your mom, Mary. Time certainly does go fast, doesn't it? I hope all is well. Love, screamin xoxoxo
Well, Mary, I came and read here first. Moms are wonderful, aren't they? I mean, if we're lucky, which we were.

My mom's much the pragmatist too; and won't allow much of a fuss.

Thank you for a beautiful, moving story.
I like the timing of the hospital milestones with bloomings. The image of the pill tray bends my heart a bit. I know from this. But the following paragraphs, tracking the care, and that image of your mother's head in curlers tear me up.

If not for the photos I would not have been able to stand finishing this. For personal reasons.

Your writing transcends the artifice of craft altogether. This is a letter home. It has lasting power. I am so glad you had oak tree.