My mother has been battling several chronic illnesses for a long time. But this last year has really taken its toll on her body and spirit. The last few months in particular have shown a drastic decline in her overall mobility and ability to do the most basic of tasks.
During her last hospitalization, Mom came to the decision that should her health decline to a point that death is imminent she did not want medical intervention to prolong her life. With that decision made, the focus of her treatment changed and she was transitioned to hospice. She left the hospital the next day and is currently at my sister’s house, where she is entertaining visitors from all over creation and is reaping all of the love and laughter she has sown all these years.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not all sunshine and daisies. Mom is dying and we all know it. We don’t know when – the doctors gave her anywhere from a few days to a few months. Some moments it seems like death is sitting in the corner and others as if it’s barely a whisper on the wind. But it is still there, swirling around the edges of our consciousness and adding urgency to our conversations and interactions. She feels it, too, probably more keenly than the rest of us. At times while you are sitting with her she will look up, her face calm with a hint of melancholy, and whisper your name. When you reply, she follows it with, “I love you.” Choking back tears, we all reply that we love her, too, and the conversation shifts back to other things or she will drift off to sleep, content that her message has been received.
It is both brutal and raw but there is a beauty to it as well. Our conversations have a heft, a weight to them that was lacking before. They are precious and painful and we are so very, very lucky that we get to have them.
Talking to the kids about this has really stretched the edges of my parenting skills. I have had several conversations with both of them about what is happening. During these talks it became apparent that my mother is giving me – all of us really – a final gift. She is giving me the ability to teach my children that courage and strength of character stay with you forever. I had several conversations with Dylan, who said he wasn’t sure he could see her without breaking down. This is what I told him.
We’re all going to breakdown. It’s grief, it’s supposed to hurt. Part of being a grown-up is learning to live through the hard parts of life without letting them destroy you. You are going to cry, a lot. But you will also laugh, a lot. We have been given a gift for which many people would chew off their arms – the ability to grant a dying woman her last wish and the opportunity to say goodbye. An awesome responsibility has been placed on us, and it is now up to us to show the emotional courage to pick it up and put her needs ahead of our own, regardless of how painful or difficult it is for us to witness.
Families are built on shared experiences and you don’t get to only attend the good parts. No one likes the bad parts but they’re important, too. If the good times are the bricks the family is built from, then the bad times are the mortar that holds the whole thing together. Without both, a family can’t exist.
When I heard that Mom made the decision to transition to hospice, I faced a slew of emotions. I’m not going to lie, most of them were negative and, in hindsight, a little selfish – a few too many “I’s” and not enough “Hers” in my thinking. After I saw her and talked to her about her decision, what struck me most was the peace she was wrapped in when she talked about it. She misses people: her mom and dad; her sister; her brothers; her sister-in-law and best friend; and all the other friends and family that have gone on before her.
Then there’s dad. Gone almost 24 years now, and very much on her mind lately, she’s eager to see him again. She misses him. I can’t imagine enduring that kind of loneliness and longing for so long.
What I worried was resignation to her failing body and health was, in fact, the opposite. Her decision was an affirmation of her ability for self-determination. Her decision was born from strength and, honestly, I have to support and admire that kind of courage. I hope if I am ever faced with a decision of this magnitude that I can find it within myself to make it with the same courage and dignity she has shown.
I saw her this past Sunday, and I asked her if she had any fight left. Her response? “Hell ya!” She added that she wasn’t giving up but she wasn’t going to fight the inevitable. When her time comes, she will greet it as a blessing rather than fight it as a curse.
Mom has always been a fighter and she instilled that fighting spirit into each one of her five daughters. Although we all embody it differently, we are branches on the same tree. I am the living embodiment of her stubbornness. I have been, and continue to be, the person who will cut her nose off to spite her face. I also have to learn every lesson the hard way.
Mom and I didn’t always understand the larger parts of each other’s personalities but none of those differences matter standing this close to the end. All that matters now is what we still have left to learn from each other. Thankfully, Mom was always “mom” enough to give me the room to figure out the important lessons myself, and most of the time had the grace not to say I told you so when I finally grasped them – however long that may have taken (or in some cases is still taking).
Saturday was a hectic day. We drove to Maine to watch Dylan play lacrosse and then we all drove to my sister’s house in Worcester, where mom is staying. It’s a pretty big family and a good deal of it was already there when we arrived in the early evening. It was loud and boisterous and filled with love and laughter. All 16 of her grandkids showed up that day and her happiness about that was evident from the smile on her face. She sat perched in the middle of the hospital bed, primped and ready to receive the latecomers. She was alert and full of Irish mischief. We looked at pictures and listened as she told us about all her visitors that day.
After we all caught up, the kids spent time with her individually. I don’t know what they talked about and, quite frankly, it’s none of my business.
It was hard watching them wrestle with the knowledge that this may be their last meaningful interaction with their grandmother. They knew it, I knew it and she knew it. I am grateful for her grace and encouragement to all of her grandchildren as she allowed them the gift of saying good-bye to her in their own way on their own terms. I was talking to Dylan via text (he’s back at school) and I told him what I was writing about this week. He told me that he also wrote about Grammy this week in class. When I asked what he chose to write about, he told me he wrote about how she always believes in him.
Her life has touched so many people. Her five daughters and their spouses, her 16 grandchildren and their spouses and significant others, her four great-grandchildren, dozens of nieces and nephews and their children, and scores of neighborhood kids all knew that help was theirs for the asking. She made a place for everyone and anyone and her influence will continue to be felt for generations.
What an amazing legacy she will leave behind.
Update: Mom passed away surround by three of her five daughters and several grandchildren on September 28, 2014. Just in time to see Dad on his birthday which is today, September 30th. I imagine they are having a wonderful time.
Originally published to The Old Colony Memorial on September 24, 2014