In the last days of her life, my mom changed. She became pensive, quiet. For the first time in my life, at the age of fifty one, I felt like I had a normal mom.
Growing up with a mother who has “issues” is hard. What I remember fearing the most was coming home from school to discover that the promise that mom was always making had been fulfilled. That she had finally succeeded in taking her own life and we would all be left to deal with the aftermath. I remember trying to run away from kindergarten, with Mrs. Pulner’s frantic voice calling my name as I raced up the stairs and headed for the door to make my escape. I don’t know that I ever explained that I was going home to be sure my mom was okay. They stopped me anyway.
Back then, there weren’t the means to help someone who was battling demons. Depression was her constant companion. Sleeping pills for the night, tranquilizers for the day…shock treatment and times away from home for a “rest” in Mt. Greylock. Tears for the days she tried to go it alone, without the aid of drugs. And suicide attempts.
There were days when I guess she was kind of normal. But normal doesn’t make as lasting an impression as middle of the night voices ringing in your head at school the next day. Voices rising from the basement…”Give me the knife Mary…”
She hated that he called her that. Her name was Marion. But he always called her Mary.
She was the one who did all the yelling, and the screaming. Pure screams of anguish until her voice became permanently gravelly, and she was called “Sir” on the phone. She laughed about that. But I know she didn’t find it funny.
We didn’t understand what it was like to be her. We blamed her for making our lives hellish, for being the reason we didn’t bring friends home, the reason dad’s garden was suddenly and violently ripped from the earth…tomato plants flying through the air, clumps of damp soil clinging tenaciously to their roots. A date night ending with a kitchen full of flour, sugar and house plants mixed in with the broken crockery. An early homecoming from a family wedding or cookout, because of a raging scene played out for the umpteenth time to the discomfort of the aunts and cousins… The attempts to jump out of a moving car on the way home.
She tried to make us understand how much she was suffering. But those were the ways in which she tried, and that only succeeded in alienating us. Instinctively, we pushed away the source of our constant fear, our humiliation, our dread. We created more distance, until the repeated tales of her childhood loss of her own mother, her unhappiness, the misery that she carried with her every day…became just the voice in the wilderness. Then we stopped listening altogether.
They waited until we three kids were all grown before they divorced. But the marriage had long since been over. For as long as I can remember, all mom ever wanted was to die. To not be here. Yet after the divorce she continued to live, as though in some kind of penance, until she was 86. By that time, my brother had died in an accident, Mom and my sister were no longer speaking and she and I were pretty much estranged as well. Dad had remarried. Maybe she lived because there was no one left in her life to punish with suicide.
I got a phone call that she was found on the floor of her apartment by an elderly neighbor, and had been admitted to a nursing home. I was her Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. I arrived to be the one to bring some semblance of comfort. I visited regularly while every day she insisted she was dying. I had spent most of my life hearing that, and now it didn’t have the impact she had hoped for. When I’d spend a few minutes chatting with another resident, she would angrily admonish me and tell me I “just didn’t get it!”.
Then the call came from the nursing home that she had been rushed to the hospital after having vomited blood. I went to the hospital to find her hallucinating and delusional. The doctors explained that she had a twisted loop in her intestines and needed a long and difficult surgery. She may not survive the surgery. But she definitely wouldn’t survive without it. What did I want to do?
What did I want to do for this woman who was my mother, who had spent most of her adult life trying to end that very life at one time or another. I told them to take her back to the nursing home, keep her pain free and let her die in peace.
I met the ambulance in the hallway the next morning as she arrived. I fully expected anxious and delusional. Instead, I was met with lucid and relieved.
“Janice! What are you doing here?”
I jokingly responded “What are you doing here? I thought we were never going to converse again!”
She thanked me emphatically for getting her “out of there” and began telling me how I “wouldn’t believe what they were trying to do to me!”
I said I believed, that’s why I got her out.
She was deeply grateful.
They estimated she had about two weeks to live.
Recalling old memories, she told me again about the time dad brought a beautiful rose in from the yard and wordlessly placed it in a vase on the table. She had taken that as a gesture of apology and regret; a statement for which he couldn’t find the words. I smiled with her at the memory. But I thought to myself, he probably just liked the rose.
Once, she said sadly to me “I had a very nasty streak in me Janice…”.
“No, mom. You didn’t. You had a very troubled side.”
She was silent for a moment. “Yeah. I guess you’re right”.
Her parish priest came in. He explained that he was going to say the Prayers for the Sick. He leafed through his book and began. A few moments into it, mom forcefully ordered “Get to the end, Father!”
He did an admirable job of disguising his shock, but the nervous flipping of the pages gave away his unease.
When he had left, she said to me in a conspiratorial way, “Was that the Last Rites?”
“I’ve had that three times” she scoffed.
“Well you know what they say Mom. Third time’s a charm”.
By day four, the first thing she said to me was “Janice, I was so disappointed when I woke up this morning! I don’t know why I’m still here!”
“Maybe you have some unfinished business.”
“What unfinished business could I possibly have?”
“Only you know that.”
The next evening when I walked by the nurse’s station, they flagged me down. Marion is in the dining room, they informed me. The woman who hadn’t eaten or been out of bed for three days was enjoying dinner in the dining room. Okay.
When I came into the room, the nurse exclaimed loudly, “Marion! Your daughter is here!” Mom asked, “Which one?”
Now it was my turn to scoff. “Which one? Which one do you think it is?”
In spite of the fact that they hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in years, when I had asked Joyce and Mom if they wanted me to arrange a visit, they had both declined.
The nurse was quick to correct me. “Oh no, both of her daughters have been in to see her today.” She touched her own temple lightly to inform me of mom’s imaginings.
As I pushed her wheelchair back to her room, we went on to discuss how wonderful Joyce looked and how happy Mom was that she was doing so well. Of course none of this was true. Joyce was in a nursing home herself, suffering her own demise at the hands of Multiple Sclerosis. Mom asked me how Joyce had gotten there.
“Did you drive her?” she asked.
“No, I think it was Tina, her nurse.”
“Oh yeah! You’re right! It was Tina!”
Mom seemed very perky, and when we arrived at her room she asked me to stop in front of the mirror. She patted her hair and commented “She did a very nice job with my hair today”. She sat looking into the glass, preening with admiration.
I silently wondered what, to her, the reflection looked like. Was there a young, pretty woman smiling back?
She soon began conversing with others in the room. Others that I couldn’t see. Looking over my shoulder she asked if I saw “that veil”. When I told her no, she replied “It must be just me”.
Now most people in this situation would be clinging to what they knew to be the last hours of their loved one’s life. I fully recognized that Mom had one foot in this world and one in the other. I recognized myself as an intruder; a mortal anchor holding up the process she had been praying for her whole life, the transition out of this mess.
I knew I had to let her go.
Standing up, I said “Mom… I’m going to get going, okay?”
She cheerfully responded “Okay! I’ll just wait here until my time comes! Say hello to your father for me!”
It was about 6:30pm. I kissed her goodbye and I left.
Prior to this, every night I would toss and turn with the dread of someone anticipating that phone call. The one that makes your heart leap right out of your chest. This night, I slept as peacefully as a newborn. I awoke to an image and remember thinking “That must be the veil Mom was talking about…”. With a peaceful realization, I discovered it was the phone that had woken me. It was 6:00 AM. I said to Rick, “She’s gone.”
Always rambunctious, one day Mom said she couldn’t understand why she was hanging on. She was supposed to be dying! Her nurse said “Marion, only God can decide when that time is. Maybe God isn’t ready for you…you’re a handful Marion!”
I added, “Yeah, God is probably up there right now shaking his head, saying ‘it’s been 86 years already? I feel like I just set her down there…’.”
She was tiny in physical stature, but had the spirit and courage of a lion (and yes, she was a Leo). While she long carried feelings of self-doubt and inferiority, in the end she achieved a dignity of spirit that bespoke a quiet confidence in who she was.
I learned much from the wisdom of that spirit.
One summer, I took Mom to a Native American Pow Wow. After the sacred dancing, they invited the public to come up and join them in the circle. I listened to the drumming rhythms and wanted so much to get up there and be a part of it! Mom could sense that in me, and encouraged me to go up and dance. But I resisted, feeling awkward and self conscious.
She kept gently encouraging, until finally she said “Janice, I can tell you want to go. Go on! Go dance!!” Suddenly I flew up there and found myself in the circle of dancers. I was thrilled as I danced by my mom repeatedly, a 40-something-year-old with a look-at-me grin as my mom beamed proudly, smiling encouragement.
Before she died, I reminded her of that day and promised that because of her, I will always dance.
I presented the eulogy at Mom’s service. I did so in the form of an open letter to her, in front of all the cousins who, over the years, had witnessed her raging scenes in shocked silence.
We have learned that without having actually discussed our thoughts and feelings, we have come to the same conclusion. That is, simply put, you are a very good and compassionate woman. And we want to stand here today and tell everyone how we love your goodness.
In our hearts we all know what kind of person we are. Both Joyce and I, in our private times, came to the same realization; all of the things we like the most about ourselves, we learned from you, our mother. And I know that Ted felt the same. He always had an ally in you.
For you, the most important thing in the world was to be a good mother. Sadly, you felt you failed us in that. But, the seed that falls on fertile ground bears fruit!
Because of you, in us there is kindness and generosity. Honesty and open-mindedness. Compassion, integrity, courage and humor. To those of us who really knew you, at the core of your being you were these things.
In your able moments, you taught by example. In your able moments, you were a fun prankster, an informed writer of newspaper editorials and aspiring author, in your able moments you supported me through the death of my husband. In you was always the richness of a love that brought to fruition kind souls. And you did all this from a position of unimaginable suffering.
Mom, what greater legacy could be left by you than that of having brought into the world and shaped three very good and loving human beings? I am proud of who you were. I am proud to call you Mother.
I sometimes hurt grievously for my mother; for the sadness that was her life. I wish I had understood back then what I can see so clearly now. I miss the Mom that might have been. I used to say “The only time I’ll ever be able to talk to my mother is after she’s gone”. I do that a lot now. But she hears me, I know.
We are always our mother’s children. To those of you who are desperately missing your Mom, you have my sympathy. You also have my envy. A loving, close friendship with your mother is a gift of immeasurable depth, one that I can only imagine. You were blessed. Be thankful for the days you had, they were a treasure. Have peace in your hearts, it is what she wants for you. ❤️