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.
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.