First and final memories with Mom

22 comments on First and final memories with Mom
10 minutes

When I was small and we lived on Rabbit Hill, Mom made fun for us out of next to nothing.

There was an easement behind the houses on our side of the street for electric lines. Behind that were the houses on the next street over. Because of the way the two streets curved, east of our house the easement widened considerably. I remember the area being full of tall grass, with a few trees on the perimeter.

Once Mom packed us a picnic. We walked the easement back to that open area and spread a blanket on the grass. It was such a simple thing, but it felt like such an adventure. I don’t remember at all what we ate that day — probably bologna sandwiches. It didn’t matter what was for lunch. We were doing something new and different and special, and I was excited!

We knew Mom had days left when I recounted this memory to her. She knew it, too; she told me so that day, even though words came with difficulty through the morphine. She tried to tell me things, but could manage only a word or two. It clearly frustrated her. If I asked her a question that required a one-word answer, she spoke clearly and immediately, which I think was a relief to her. But then she paused and said, “I’m on my way out.”

I was relieved that she knew it, but my heart ached for her. Her last year had been one health problem after another, blocking her from the one pleasure she so badly wanted: to work in her garden. Oh, for her to have just one more season with her flowers and herbs!

I began to tell her my favorite memories from my childhood. I started with the picnic story. Then I asked her if she remembered the day we walked to the end of our street, rode the city bus downtown, and shopped at Robertson’s. That was my hometown’s big department store.

Courtesy Cardboard America

There was a luncheonette on the mezzanine at Robertson’s, and Mom bought us lunch there that day. We had sandwiches and milk, nothing extravagant, but it had to be quite a splurge for Mom. When we got up to leave, I noticed that Mom had left 45 cents on the table. I don’t know why after 50 years I remember that it was 45 cents, but I do. I thought surely she had left it behind by mistake! I scooped it up and brought it right to her. “Oh Jimmy,” she said, “that’s for the waitress.” She went back and left it on the table again. That’s how I learned about tipping!

I told her that she had created so many wonderful memories for my brother and me, and that they made us feel very loved and special. I said I was sad that she was so close to the end, but that I had a lifetime of being loved by her to remember and rest in. I said that everything was taken care of, and there was nothing more to do. I told her that it was okay for her to go, whenever she was ready. After a little while she fell asleep, and we left for home.

I wish I had also shared my memory of the time she threw a party for all of the neighborhood children, just for the fun of it. Of how she walked me to school on my first day of Kindergarten, and how safe and supported that made me feel. Of how she always had a good lunch waiting for us at home each school day, and what a welcome break it was, and how I loved that she would sit with us and listen to us talk about our morning. Of how she helped me learn my multiplication tables in the fourth grade, something I really struggled with, and how pleased the teacher was when I mastered them. Of how she was so affectionate to me on those rare days I was sick and had to stay home from school, and how that was exactly what I needed. Of the day the tornado touched down on the road at the end of our street while I was trying hard to walk home from a neighbor’s house, and I was afraid to my core; when I finally made it home I ran to her crying and melted into her arms. Of making pizza together, of making milkshakes together, of drying the dishes as she washed them and just talking about whatever was on my mind. Of coming to school to hear me sing in the choir. Of sending me on my bike to the store four blocks away for milk, and how that made me feel like I was trusted and had something to offer. Of how she walked with me to the local library branch to get my library card, and let me go there to check out books all the time.

Of how she loved me deeply, fiercely, and openly, and how much that firm foundation let me venture out into the world with confidence.

I hope the stories I told her let her know with certainty that I loved her, and appreciated her, and was grateful for her. I think they did.

That was Saturday. Sunday when I went to visit her, she was talking out loud to nobody when I entered the room. Then she saw me. “Oh Jimmy!” We talked a lot that day. It was clear she was not always in touch with reality, but she was present enough to connect with me. My son Damion decided to visit that day, too, and I’m so glad he did. He and Mom talked for a half an hour about all sorts of things. Damion was gracious when she garbled her words or said something that didn’t make any sense in context. But overall, they had a lovely conversation, their last, it turned out. Damion finally said he had to head home, a 90-minute drive. Mom’s last words to him were, “Drive carefully!” It was perfect; she always said that to all of us when we headed home from her place.

After Damion left, Mom talked with my brother, Margaret, and me for a little while. Then abruptly she said, “I’m tired and need to sleep. You all go home. You don’t need to stay here all day. I’ll be fine.”

“I love you guys. You have been so good to me.” Those were her last words to us.

Early Monday morning the nurse called my brother urging him to come to the hospital right away. Rick texted me the same message, which I didn’t see until my alarm woke me. I drove to the hospital as soon as I could manage. Mom was asleep. She didn’t look at all to me like she was living her last day. But the nurse said that she was seeing strong signs that made her sure that Mom wouldn’t survive the day.

Margaret and I were a little hungry, and we decided that it was important to solve that problem right away so that we wouldn’t be distracted when Mom left us. Just as we started back to the hospital after finishing our meal, my brother texted to say that she was gone.

When we arrived at Mom’s room, there she was, physically present but spiritually gone. My brother was there when she died, thank God, so she didn’t die alone.

Two difficult events when I was younger always kept me away from the dead. My mother’s best friend died of cancer in 1981. She and her family lived across the street from us on Rabbit Hill. I had wonderful memories of her — she was fun, and interesting, and insightful. She was an amazing woman. At her funeral, her youngest son was a teenager trying to hold it together. He led me personally to his mother’s casket. But in her last days in the hospital, a tube had bent the corner of her mouth downward in an ugly way. Her son had warned me, but the sight of it was more than I could bear. I had such wonderful memories of her when she was alive, and I was angry that this was my final memory of her.

My grandfather died after the new year in 1987. The year before he had been in and out of the hospital fighting the illness that finally took him. I have a sterling memory of him from the previous summer. My brother and I spent a weekend with him and our grandmother. He was his usual self, as if he’d never been sick. When we left, he told us he loved us. It was the one and only time that stoic Greatest Generation man had ever said it. I cling to that memory.

But as he lay dying I was ushered into his room to see him, unconscious and shriveled, all of his muscle lost as he had withered away. I deeply regret seeing him, as it is a terrible last memory.

These two events sharply altered how I have handled funerals from then on. I refuse to view the body. I have a last memory of the deceased while they were alive and I strongly prefer to keep it that way. When Mom called to say that Dad had just died, I drove straight to their home. But I refused to see Dad lying dead so I could keep my last memory of him.

When Margaret and I reached Mom’s room, her body still lay in the bed. Strangely, it was comforting to see her. It connected me concretely with the devastating finality of her death.

We sat with her as we talked about the things we needed to do next, estate matters, her cremation, and such. I don’t know about my brother, but it sure helped me to talk about those concrete matters then and there, while Mom was with us, at least in body. It both started, and somehow eased, the grieving process. When we left her room, we were surprised to find we’d been in there for more than two hours.

It’s been three and a half weeks now since Mom left us. I always expected that Mom’s death would be devastating, but it hasn’t been. I’m really, really sad. Sometimes my mind just wanders away into the fog, which isn’t awesome when I’m in a meeting at work. Perhaps that the shock and horror of my daughter Rana’s death at the end of last year makes this grief seem like a walk in the park in comparison. But every grief is different, I’ve learned. I’m not sure what’s in store. But I know concretely that Mom loved me, to her core.


22 responses to “First and final memories with Mom”

  1. brandib1977 Avatar

    Oh Jim! I’m so sorry for your loss. She sounds like a wonderful mother who worked hard to make you feel loved, safe and capable. In the end, it’s impossible to express exactly how you feel to someone who is dying but I’m sure she knew. Take care of yourself.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Brandi. She did a good job with my brother and me.

  2. Tom H Avatar
    Tom H

    A very touching account, Jim, and having gone through this experience with my parents in the last ten years I am sure your many very happy memories will keep you strong whenever you are thinking of your mom. I still do every day and remember wise words of my mother: “whatever happens to you in life, no one can ever take away a happy childhood.” It very much sounds as though your family gave you that gift. All the best, Tom

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Tom – you’re right, the good memories sustain me.

  3. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    A deeply moving remembrance Jim, your Mom’s and your own kindness and love shine through.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Sonny!

  4. Shirley B. Avatar
    Shirley B.

    Thank you for sharing these wonderful memories of your mom. I’m sure she had the same memories and probably some you weren’t even aware of. What wonderful words your mother said, the last time you saw her alive.

    Yes, each grief is different. I imagine that the shock of Rana’s passing had much to do with it being so early and unexpected. Which probably added to your grief.

    Whereas you had a lot of time to come to terms with your mother’s inevitable passing. From the way you described it, it seems to me that all what needed to be said, between the two of you, was said. That, I think, can also have helped.

    Clearly there was a lot of love in your home when you were growing up. That makes a sold foundation to build your life on.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I got a grief counselor after Rana’s death and I’m still seeing her. She urged me in the strongest terms to make sure I said everything I needed to to my mother as it was clear she was in her last days. I’m so glad I took that advice.

      1. Shirley B. Avatar
        Shirley B.

        Very good advice, and wise of you to have followed it.

  5. tbm3fan Avatar

    I did the same thing with my father. He went in for brain surgery, two benign meningiomas, on January 2019. He had told me it was Ok to go down to Las Vegas, for New Year’s, with my wife as I was going to stay home. When I got back on the 4th I was sick with a 103 degree fever so couldn’t see him before surgery. Well surgery didn’t go as well as expected and he was barely conscious of his surroundings and us. I tried to jog his memory with old memories but only a stare back into my eyes.

    My sister was given power of attorney to make decisions and he was adamant he wouldn’t go into a home. The decision was to let him go at 93. However, the process meant he would struggle to breathe since he wasn’t clearing his lungs and you could hear him gurgle and strain. I just couldn’t watch that as time counted down and left the room for the lobby. He died 30 minutes later and I drove the 15 minutes home and saw a huge rainbow at that time over the hills. Nonetheless I feel incredibly guilty about not seeing him before surgery and not seeing him after even though I did not want the image of him struggling to be the last image ever. One last ice cream would have been nice.

    Then only 10 months later that younger sister was felled by an unknown congenital brain aneurysm and by the time she was found and treated 2 hours later was brain dead but would stay alive and breathe. Her two kids made the decision to let her go and five of us were in her room as she went completely to sleep. We left and then my wife said she left her coat in the room and would I go back and get it. Oh boy, but I did and was in the room with her alone. I looked at her, she was only a young 60, and I think I said why did you keep the symptoms quiet from me before I left the room. I then had to drive to her home to tell our mother but with dementia it made no impact that she lost her daughter. A bad year 2019.

    You know this is stuff I had never considered I would have to ever go through one day, and you might have also, even though we know it is invevitable.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That is all some very hard stuff you had to go through. I’m sorry that you didn’t get to see your dad when you would have liked to as he was in his last days. 60 is far too young for your sister to have died.

  6. Nancy Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Stewart

    i also prefer to remember people as they were in happier days. I will always remember your the “two Carols” as the prettiest and nicest ladies in our old Rabbit Hill neighborhood.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Don’t underestimate yourself Nancy! I always thought the “big 4” on Rabbit Hill were Judy Dieu, mom, Carol Johnson, and you.

  7. Daniel Brinneman Avatar

    Jim, when you walked in she was probably talking with someone you couldn’t see. Sorry for your loss. Sounds like you had plenty of good memories. I had to stop halfway through yesterday because it reminded me of what I had to go through with my dad. I eventually finished reading it all today. The presence of death has been an eye opener to me whenever I was at open caskets but to experience it all with my dad was a whole new thing. I got to watch as his body changed in a color and finally he was ready to enter into the presence of Jesus Christ his savior.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It looked exactly like she was talking to someone I couldn’t see. Thanks – Mom had lived a long life and it was just her time. That doesn’t make the loss easy, but it is comforting to think on that.

      1. Daniel Brinneman Avatar

        You’re welcome, Jim.

  8. Rick Bell Avatar
    Rick Bell

    Hi Jim.
    It’s been a tough go for you this past while. I have two scriptures I hope will bring you relief. The first is Hosea 13:14. The second is 1Corinthians 15:54,55. They both speak about the sting of death. Corinthians also talks about “death being swallowed up forever. My comment is being blocked for some reason and I can’t see what I’m typing so I hope this makes sense! I hope to bring you some comfort and reassurance that the future looks bright for all mankind after the wicked one is done away with.
    I hope things are better for you from now on!
    Regards Rick.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you so much, Rick. I know this life is temporary and there is pure joy on the other side.

  9. Sam Avatar

    Thanks for sharing your story with this deeply touching article Jim. If I’m not mistaken, I think I read in one of your postings that your Mom died of lung cancer at 78?

    I’ve been meaning to write that the story was eerily similar to my dad who passed some ten plus years ago from terminal lung cancer. Like your mom he was a lifelong smoker and he also died at 78. We were sad but there was a bit of peace for my brother and I and for mom too that his suffering had ended. My condolences to you and your family during these hard times.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar
      1. She would have been 78 this Dec. 18. Sounds like we had very similar experiences.
  10. J P Avatar

    You have my deepest sympathies, Jim. This was a touching read that brought back a rush of memories from my own mother’s passing a few years ago.

    Your mom sounds like she gave you the best gifts anyone could receive. And I have no doubt that she appreciated all you did for her.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks so much Jim.

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