This blog often reveals my most vulnerable emotions. Writing is a vehicle through which I process my feelings, my thoughts, and even my grief. Before I can move on and produce content for this space, I first need to address the matter that has consumed me to the point of creative paralysis. This essay is excerpted from my upcoming book, The Nest Makeover.
My mom died.
I suppose I knew it was a possibility when she got sick almost two years ago that this could be the end result, but when you’re talking about the most influential woman in your life, a part of you wants to believe she’s immortal, beyond the humanity that makes death the final destination for us all.
I was wrong.
When you’re a teenager battling with your mom, you don’t think of the day when she won’t be there anymore. When you’re a new mom thinking that your mother is ridiculous in her advice, you don’t consider how you’ll feel when she isn’t there anymore. When you’re trying to live your life, you have a guilty little thought in your mind that visiting her is a bother, an obligation, not a privilege. When your mom is sick, you know there’s a possibility that she could die, but you don’t really see it happening.
And then it does.
Not quite two months after she left, I stood in the lobby of the sheriff’s department and cried as, one by one, I threw her prescription medications in the blue metal drop-off container. Potassium. Two bottles. Nexavar. That’s chemo. One bottle of that. Anxiety medications she refused to take. A couple of those. Medicine for her thyroid, or lack of thyroid. So many of different micrograms because dosages frequently changed. Others that kept her going. Like a water pill. One for high blood pressure. Liquid for the breathing machine that she only started using at the end because Dad made her. And then, there’s the box. The square box sent overnight to her house. A comfort pack, hospice called it. That one got me the most. Small quantities of drugs that would help her relax. Keep her comfortable. Small quantities. That one got me.
How do you express to another person how it feels to lose your mother? Your mom? Mama? No words describe the loss. The feeling of being lost. Being numb.
And what if she’s a mother who was so vibrant, so full of life, that the hospice nurse cried? So extraordinary that the funeral director honored her by wearing her favorite school’s colors at the funeral? So memorable that the nurses who treated her in the cancer center wept? That the oncologist felt a failure because she couldn’t save her — a patient she thought would be a miracle because of her spirit and faith and positive influence on everyone who met her?
How do you go on?
How do I go on?
As I’m writing this, it is five months since my mom took her final breath. Two and a half years ago, she first got sick and our family was rocked to its core, because the person who held us all together was intubated in intensive care and might possibly not leave that state.
Mom and I had an argumentative relationship — that’s the nicest way I can work that — through my teenaged years, and probably into early adulthood. I remember feeling like she was so weak, but it wasn’t until I gained some years and some insight that I realized how smart and how strong she was. You know how it is to think you know everything. To believe that you know better than your parents. That’s how I was with Mom. But it wasn’t until I sat in the intensive care unit watching her fight for her life that I realized how valuable, how short, life really was. And how important she was to me.
Later on, when I apologized for fighting with her so much when I was younger, or when the topic came up, she always piped in and said, “It was me just as much as it was you. You were trying to fly and I was trying to hold you back.” She understood better than I have been able to as my children leave home and I’m faced to adjust. My mom was trying to find her own Nest Makeover.
I tried to apologize for my actions over the years, but some of them I never found absolution. Like not long before she took her last breath, I tried to tell her how beautiful she was at my wedding. The dress she had chosen was beautiful. I was just trying to adjust to my own life, and I said hateful words. I hope she heard me. She wasn’t able to tell me, but I hope she heard.
My mom was the most extraordinary person. “I’m not worried, I gave it to the Lord, and if I worry, I’m not showing I trust him.” That’s what she told person after person who visited her in her last week of life. That’s what she told the nurses. And the nursing assistants. And the respiratory therapists, and anyone else who would listen to her. Everyone she encountered was able to witness her faith and the extent that she believed her life was being lived out as God wanted.
I miss her so much now that breathing is a chore. Coping every day is a repetition of sadness and numbness. How do I cope? All people suffer loss. I’m not the first person who has tried to deal with the death of the most important woman in her life.
Six months and one day earlier than my loss, my husband lost his wonderful mother somewhat unexpectedly. Although her ailments were severe, we didn’t expect her to leave us. That loss was not only devastating because she was my loving mother-in-law and the most important woman in my husband’s life, but also because I knew I was experiencing a precursor to my own loss. I watched her take her last breath and knew that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be watching my own mom take her final breath, and I just couldn’t deal with that. As that premonition played out, watching Mom take her final breaths was much worse than I imagined.
The beginning of the end started about three weeks before Mom died. She ended up in the hospital twice for multiple-day stays, and I am grateful that I had transitioned to a job that would allow me to work remotely and be with her. My sister and I never left Mom alone in the hospital at any point during the last two years of her life. We knew her condition, her medications, her aches and pains, her moods, and her personality. We knew how she liked things done and what would irritate her. We translated all of her vital information to every doctor, nurse, aide, social worker, respiratory technician, pharmacist, housekeeping and food service worker who crossed her path. Her attitude was nonchalant. She’d give her name and date of birth each time she was asked, but any other questions got the same answer: “Ask the girls.”
In those two weeks and the one after, we did everything we could to protect her. We wore down quickly, but we kept moving forward. We sought to do all that was possible to keep her with us just a little longer.
On the Friday when she left the hospital for the last time, she stayed positive, but slowly she realized that she was nearing the end. After two years of doctors’ visits and chemo and oxygen, she was going home to prepare for the end. She didn’t take that well. In her mind, the doctor was giving up on her — and so were we. But her doctor explained that there was nothing else that could be done. That the fact she had held on so long was itself a miracle. Her doctor was devastated. But, finally, they mentioned the word that brings more sorrow and heartache than probably any other: hospice.
When she left the hospital that Friday, she was leaving knowing that hospice was the next step. A nurse visited with us and provided information, and then on Monday, she officially entered hospice care.
On that Friday, the visits from family and friends started, and they didn’t stop until just a few hours before Mom’s final breath, nine days later. Her home had a revolving door, with all the people who would be attending her funeral making their way to say goodbye while she was still breathing. Two nights before she died, family started arriving for her birthday slumber party — two and a half months early — and by the next night, her house was packed with people and food and laughter and music and games. She struggled to hold her head up, but she danced to her favorite song and played games and ate.
That night, I watched her change. Her grandson, my nephew, said goodbye for the last time to return to the military base on which he was stationed. In just that moment, she realized what was happening. She realized she was dying. And it was the most heartbreaking moment of my life up until that point. The look of fear and sadness on her face. Her words. “I’ll never see my grandson again.” Anxiety started to grip her. She had a look of finality that I hadn’t seen in all her struggles. She was so upset I had to call hospice for permission to give her lorazepam, a mild anxiety prescription.
Mom was different from that point on. And the next day, although people continued to show up to visit, she was fading away quickly. She was always the most strong-willed person I knew and that didn’t change at the end of her life. She wanted that slumber party, and she held on until then. Once it was over, she slipped away. She became more anxious and agitated, so we gave her a little anxiety medicine, which made her sleep, and then she got cold and agitated. We tried to make her comfortable, but we frustrated her. And she just slipped away.
We sat next to her as she reclined in the chair and held her hands, rubbed her feet, talked with her. But at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, February 26, 2017, my mom died. She struggled with her breath, gasped, expelled about four breaths thirty to forty-five seconds apart, heard my dad say, “It’s OK to go. I’ll meet you on the other side, babe,” released a single tear, and breathed her final breath.
I cried and held her hand for almost an hour and a half until the funeral home got there. I never thought I could touch a dead body, but it was my mom. It was the woman who created me, carried me in her body, gave birth to me, and raised me to the person I became. As much as being there ripped my heart and soul from my being, it was the least I could do. If she was there for me when I was born, I should be there when she died.
Those final three weeks consumed my life. Every waking moment, every nightmare that manifested itself in the little time I was able to sleep, every thought in my head, and every emotion I was feeling focused on my mom. I didn’t think about home. I struggled to concentrate on work. I wasn’t concerned with what my sons were doing, whether they were home, if they had eaten, when they worked. I had reached my mental capacity. The hubbub that played out constant chaos in my brain, that of home, work, freelance, children, my mom’s health, became all about Mom and the grief that was seeping in like water on a slow-sinking boat. Mom was my entire existence.
And then she was gone.
The drive home from her house after the hearse left had little words. I was numb. All that I was for so long came to a screeching halt. And when her body was removed, no one rushed around. The oxygen machine was silent. The television was black. My world was silent and numb. All I had left were tears that poured from my body. You know how some people cry all the time? Commercial? Tears. Someone else cries? Tears. Surprised? Tears. A touching gift? Tears. A death? Tears. But not me. Besides a medical condition that makes the production of tears more difficult, I’m not a sappy person. That’s what I always called those people before Mom got sick. My sister is one of them. That’s OK, she won’t mind me telling you, because she wears her tears like a badge of honor. I mean that nicely. But me, tears don’t come easy. Until then.
I cried until I couldn’t possibly cry more, and then I did. I didn’t get out of bed the first four days, except to make her funeral arrangements. And if it wasn’t for the funeral, I probably would have been there longer.
What happens when you go through an experience like this in your Nest Makeover? We had planned travel and activities that centered around our interests and hobbies and passions. Instead, we lost the two most important women in our lives.
An interesting thing happened, though, while I was focusing on my mom. My sons took the reins of their lives and started living. I wasn’t there to watch over them, to ask them annoying questions, to help them get to work. And when I loosened my grip on them, they shimmied out of their cocoons and flew toward their journeys.
Not only had they been given the freedom to fly, but I had released my control — or feigned control — or the need to control — their lives. And, you know what, they flew. The weight lifted from me. I didn’t realize the self-imposed burden I had been carrying around for so long, feeling the responsibility to make sure they were OK. And then one day, I got distracted. I was broken and could barely care for myself. I didn’t have the energy to take care of them anymore. But what I didn’t realize until a few weeks after my mom’s death, they didn’t need me to take care of them. They needed me to let go. And I finally did.
As a final indulgence, I’d like to share the eulogy I wrote and spoke at my mom’s funeral — with a little something special at the end:
My mom was extraordinary. She was unconventional. She would do anything for a laugh. She loved with her whole heart. She was honest and loyal. She was an overcomer. She believed in God. Until her last day, she was all of these things and more.While showing Rodney the photos we chose for the slideshow today, he said, “Your mom was the happiest person I’ve ever known.” And she was. She always had that easy smile and infectious chuckle that made you forget all the pain and heartache she had suffered in her life.
Mom didn’t have an easy life. She never knew her dad — he died when she was two weeks old. She endured her own mother’s wild ways. She spent six months in an orphanage. She lost a baby. Her brother was murdered. Her sister — her best friend — died four months later. She cared for and sat by the bedside of countless family members and in-laws as they recovered from illnesses or struggled through their last days. She battled alcohol demons — and won. She had her heart broken. She had her feelings hurt. She experienced all the ups and downs of life.
But still she laughed.
I remember all the stories Mom told over and over about going out drinking with her sister-in-law and waking up the next morning in front of the police station. Or scaring her friend Emmie with a coconut, telling her it was a body snatcher. Or getting 50 cents and being able to see a movie, buy popcorn, and get a bag of candy. All the stories of pranks, jumping out at people … there are just too many to tell today … and the love story that became my parents’ almost 49 years together. She really wanted to make it to 49 years.
I know there were hard times in there, too, but the laughs are what I remember most.
Mom was definitely unconventional when it came to parenting. With my mouthiness, I was often on the receiving end of a switching, but she created other means of punishment that had more impact when we got older. Like, making us exercise. Or listen to blaring gospel music. Or whatever quirky means it took to get her point across.
She loved to play games and I’m lucky to have had a childhood filled with cards and snacks and laughing and family. Family mattered. Family was important. Mom made sure we knew that.
She was an extraordinary mom. A faithful wife. A devoted sister to her natural and in-law siblings. A loyal friend. An outstanding human being.
She was all of these things, but then, in 1989, her life changed. She became a nana. And for the next 28 years, that title became her whole being. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren meant the world to her. She was their biggest fan, their greatest ally, and the one person who would always be there for them and never judge them. Whatever her grandchildren wanted to do or be, she supported them. She attended countless ballgames, concerts, and theater performances. She picked them up from school and let them honk the horn through town or buy knives their parents wouldn’t approve of. She let them make a mess while baking Christmas cookies. She was the best wing-man her granddaughter ever had. Mom’s love exceeded the bounds of blood and all her grandchildren meant the world to her.
Mom’s personality and devotion was a beautiful example to her children, grandchildren, and all with whom she came in contact. That beautiful smile, that infectious laugh, that big heart.
Above all, Mom lived her life and faith as an example to all who witnessed it, especially in her final days. When she got sick two years ago, she didn’t worry about what was happening to her. “I’ve given it to God. If I worry, I’m taking it back from God, and that’s not right.” She said that over and over and over again. And believed it with every part of her being.
As Mom got sicker, she thought about things she wanted to do. She really wanted to have a sleepover for her birthday.
When it was apparent that she wouldn’t make it until May, my aunts threw her a sleepover with coloring and karaoke and games and food and laughs and tears and fun. In her final week on this earth, her house was full of people — day in and day out — seeing her, saying goodbye. Mom had a true celebration of life in her last week. But once the party was over, it was time for Mom to go home.
That last night, we played her favorite song, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” and as best she could, as weak as she was, she danced. She was adamant that we play that song at her funeral. And since Mom was an unconventional woman, she should have an unconventional funeral. So as we listen to this song, remember Mom dancing. Remember Mom laughing and singing. And if the music moves you to dance, do just that, because that’s what Mom would want.
And, we danced.