I said my final formal public goodbye to my Mom today. I’ve too soon joined the ranks of those that have lost a parent, a day I had long dreaded coming. I find there is an empty space in my life that I knew would be there when the inevitable occurred, but I had miscalculated just how sharp the loss of her grace and wit and feistiness would be. You believe you know all the feelings that will hit you, but until you experience them, you just don’t.
Mom had been sick for quite a long time. She was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at age 35. She lived exactly half her life battling this devastating disease. Over the years, there were numerous surgeries as her body betrayed her and attacked itself, yet she went on and found ways to adjust her course to accommodate her ever-increasing limitations. We watched and helped as we could as she struggled to accept that she couldn’t do all she wanted to get done without asking for help. As the years went by, my dad became her caretaker and made sure she was always able to do the things that were most important to her. He would move mountains and with the help of my sister and myself, we usually found ways to give aid to her schemes and plans and wishes to remain as independent and active as she could be. So she did, right up until a few weeks ago when her body finally started to wear out.
We should have lost her two years ago. Her body was increasingly less cooperative and she was becoming more limited in her abilities to do even the most simple tasks by herself. On my middle child’s birthday on a clear September day in 2008, I received a call from my Dad that had us all running to the hospital to be by his side. Mom’s colon had burst and her weak body was being rushed into emergency surgery. In the years proceeding this event, she needed surgery for other problems before this that had been vetoed because the doctors didn’t think she could have a good outcome or recovery. This time there was no choice, poison was pouring into her body. The surgeon, a man I went to high school with, came out after repairing what he could of the damage and told her prognosis was grim. For four full weeks, we sat beside her bed in the ICU with little hope but much faith and slowly, against all odds, she started the long road back to recovery. The battle took its toll on her already weak body, but watching her resolve and determination to recover and not leave us yet was an amazing thing to watch. She struggled back and not only came out of the hospital, but managed to do it and not lose her spark or sense of humor. She was still the boss..or as she liked to jokingly refer to herself, the Queen Bee.
Many things happened over the next two years. Yes, she struggled. There were many challenges that I don’t know how Dad and Mom weathered at times. There were doctor visits by the boatload and falls that had to be recovered from. When she couldn’t walk unassisted or feed herself, my Dad would step in and make sure she continued to keep faith and keep moving. Through her strong will, even though she was so tired of fighting a life that she never expected, she continued to live a life with grace and we built more memories and got to mend bridges or share stories that would have been lost if not for those extra years.
Great things happened during those two years. My sister had only just found out in 2008 when Mom underwent her emergency surgery that she was pregnant with twins. Mom lived not only to see them born, but for the first 17 months of their lives. She saw them christened and their first birthday. She also got to instill so many more memories and mischief with my sister’s four-year old as well. My children, while approaching adulthood, weren’t ready to let their favorite person in the world go two years ago either. She had many more words of wisdom and humor to pass along to them as well. They adored their Grandmama and I told them that this time we had been gifted was to make memories with each and every encounter. We had two more Christmases at her house that were always fun and loud and unpredictably special, full of family and love. She and my Dad got to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Two years ago she still had things to do and wasn’t ready to leave us all yet.
This year she started to prepare us for her leaving, although at the time we didn’t really realize it..but she knew. For Mother’s Day, my sister and I both received cards that she had made (with Dad’s help) complete with all the things in original poems that she wanted us to keep in our heart from hers and for us to know and remember. She said it was her “swan song” and we, as always, told her she’d be around for a while yet…but she knew. She hadn’t been able to write for a long time due to the twisted fingers her disease had wrought, but she still managed to find a way to do what she needed to do. I believe she was working through her list and finishing up what was important to her. She was weak, yet managed to travel down to my sister’s house and deliver a HUGE water slide for a last special surprise from Meme. She bought my 15-year-old daughter a last special birthday present and during the summer made sure to convey her pride and confidence to Abby, priceless for a teenage girl. She spent special time with my boys and played with my sister’s young twins, watching them learn to walk and giving advice when they went through a biting stage (and at the same time, delighting in the fact that they were going to be handfuls). She knew…we just didn’t catch on quite yet that this time she wasn’t just kidding us.
A few weeks ago, we knew something was wrong. She was weak and tired, as she frequently was, but this felt different. Although we all tried to tell ourselves that this was just one more crisis that she always pulled out of time and time again, somehow I think we all knew that it might be more. On July 20th I went down to my parents house and told Dad it was finally time to take her to the hospital to have things checked out. They admitted her straight to the ICU that night and she never left. This time her body just proved too frail and she had no more reserve to fight the fight she had been struggling with for so many years.
For a few days, it seemed as if she might rally, but then she started having more severe problems. Six days after being admitted, she was placed on a ventilator. We as her family knew that we didn’t want her to suffer and linger if there was no chance that she could recover to the point where she would have some independence and quality of life, she had been through so much and fought for so long, a nursing home was not an option. After a few days, we made the painful decision to remove all the artificial means keeping her stable and let her go. My Dad told me that it was the hardest thing we’d ever do in our lives and he was right. Even knowing it was the absolute right thing to do, the final decision was heartrending. We removed the respirator at 3:30 on July30th and seven hours later, she peacefully passed away with those that loved her surrounding her.
I’ve imagined this moment coming for most of my life. Mom had so many struggles and always came out the other end, perhaps weaker, but still with her will and humor intact. This time it was not to be. It was time to let her go.
The past few weeks have been a blur..first with the long hours spent talking and then attending her bedside, then the tough days of arranging for a goodbye she would have approved of, yet you always hope you’ll never have to say. I’m a bit numb. The emotions run the gambit from sorrow to joy at happy memories, to the pain of loss. The sorrow I feel is for myself, I know she’s in a better place and it was time. I’m selfishly missing her council and wisdom and even her more stern advice if she thought I needed it. I have her tucked away safely in my heart and have even caught myself talking to her these past few days, but miss her voice answering mine. I see her influence everywhere I look. In the faces of my children, in an antique we searched for together when I was younger and in the rock solid foundation and belief system both of my parents instilled in me. I know I’ll be okay. I also know that something precious is now missing from my life in the form I was accustomed to having it.
As I greeted friends and family today at her memorial service, I was once again reminded (not that I had forgotten) just how special and caring both my parents are. The outpouring of friends of several decades and the loyalty felt eased my heart. I managed just a few tears as we celebrated her life and the fact that she feels for the first time in decades, no more pain and is with other long-lost family in heaven. I felt the love and support of the people who I grew up with and my parents friends seep in and warm my spirit.
My Mom was a special woman and will be missed by so many, but her family feels her loss most of all. She was the heart of our family and my sister and I will find ways to keep her traditions alive. They may adapt over time, but they will be purely inspired by Mama. She was full of life and humor and at times, anger at her condition. None of this stopped her from living and getting as much of her “to do” list done before she felt as if she could leave us. It was too soon…but it would have always been too soon.
She would have turned 70 the end of August. We shared a birthday..well, almost, we were a day apart. I will keenly feel this year her loss as it approaches. I have always joked that she spent her 21st birthday in labor with me. She would retort that I was too stubborn and missed “our” birthday by an hour. I would have liked for her to have seen 70. Next year when I turn 50 will be especially tough. She would have loved to make sure I was properly treated to an endless supply of reminders that I’m no longer a spring chicken and I would have loved every minute of it.
It will be hard to carry on without her, but we will. She instilled a strong spirit and so many traditions in those that she loved. I have her personality and that brings me happiness. We’ll find ways to include her spirit in all that we do. I’ll watch my children continue to grow into their adult years with pride and I’ll give voice to her wisdom and common sense when I feel they need it. I’ll watch my sister’s children grow and take joy in making sure I continue the mischief and fun that Mom would be proud of. I do have a lot of payback to give my sister anyway over things that she gave my children when they were young that were either breathing or massively messy and/or noisy..so this gives me an excuse to make Mama proud.
So today I’m lonely and find that it’s the small things that are making me sad and a bit lonely even though I’m surrounded by my family. The sadness will pass, but there will always be something missing. I’ll miss her voice, her smile and her pure spunk that kept us all going. It’s amazing that no matter what our age we, the loss of a parent makes us feel like a scared child again for a while that has a piece missing and isn’t sure quite where our center is. It’s an unsettling feeling, a feeling of not having a rudder. You know that you’ll carry on, but also realize that it won’t be easy to assume the role your parent had filled.
I was raised with a strong sense of faith. I have a foundation of strength that comes from an unwavering belief in God. Mom needed a new body, she had earned it, but she couldn’t get it here. She’s in a better place and I’m sure is redecorating and getting to do lists ready for those of us that will one day follow. Until then, my sister and I will take care of Dad (not that he needs it, he put a “no hovering” rule in place that we will ignore) and make sure his loneliness is eased in ways that we can. We’ll make more memories and cherish the ones that we already have.
I love you Mom and miss you. Keep talking to me in little ways, I’ll be paying attention and keeping you with me.
Is there ever a perfect way to say goodbye to someone who gave you life? No. We did what she would have wanted today though. We were strong and supportive and celebrated her life in several special ways and added the homemade touches that were legendary amongst her friends…continuing a tradition and starting a few new ones.
Mama would have been proud today I believe..and in the end, that’s perfect. That’s all that matters. The rest I’ll deal with day-to-day as it comes and cherish each moment.
Today I said goodbye, but not farewell forever. I’ll see her again when it’s time. Until then we’ll all carry on and keep her memory and legends of her antics alive and well. Gone too soon, but never forgotten. She left us a LOT of material to work with and remember..and remember we will.