My mother was a strong woman, resiliant and fiercely independent. She lived on her own until 2 weeks before her death, and it’s not unthinkable that she waited at home until she knew her time was at hand, and then asked for help in getting her moved to a situation where she wouldn’t have to fret about us or the activities of her daily life. She reminded me of a woman in labor — knowing the birth is coming but backing away from that last transition even as she leans into the contractions. It was a tumultuous time.
In my mother’s case, we found her a wonderful adult foster home (a system of care in Oregon). I knew of the home because it was one I had some oversight in as a Community Health Nurse for the State Seniors and People with Disabilities Office. I loved the home, the caregivers, the ambiance. It was primarily a hospice home, though I really did not anticipate that was the service my mother needed. Even I, her RN daughter, thought that what she needed was time to rest, heal, let someone else take care of her. She was walking on her own with stand by assistance the day we arrived at the house, her bedroom already set up, furniture and pictures from her own bedroom adding familiarity and comfort. By the end of the week she could not stand without assistance, was irregularly communicating with us verbally, beginning to exhibit repetitive neurological motions referred to as “terminal agitation”, and sleeping frequently. (It was that weekend that I saw my father, deceased some 35 years before, standing by her bedside. It was a brief vision, but brought intense comfort to me).
On her 88th birthday, only days later, we were able to get her dressed and into a chair in the living room, where we shared an apple pie, her choice of birthday desert. Amanda her caregiver, my husband and I shared her birthday, untold friends called and sent cards.
It was clear this story was coming to an end.
My mother passed away very peacefully on a Sunday morning, with my sister, my husband, my brother in law all at her bedside. I was telling some silly story an uncle had told me the week before, about her father and a couple brothers and truck in a ditch. A “Golden Oldies” CD was playing, and I became aware simultaneously of her lack of respirations, and the words from one of her favorite songs, “Walk on the Sunny Side of the Street” — “like Rover, I crossed over….”. I asked Amanda, a tender hearted and very mature young woman, for a stethoscope, and I listened to her chest — her very silent chest. Stethoscopes are built to pick up sounds, and so are my ears, accustomed to focusing in on the earliest of fetal heart beats, the sometimes complicated extra sounds of the adult heart beat. I had never before heard just a hollow “nothing”.
The years leading up to my mother’s passing were busy, crazy busy with teenager activities, and her increasingly frequent medical trips or emergency room visits. For years I waited for “the other shoe to drop”, and after it did, after I bid her a tender and gracious goodbye, I did not grieve much. There was work to do, a memorial to attend to, a house to empty and sell, a marriage that dissolved rapidly after my mother’s demise and still… children to raise. My siblings and I went our own ways, I think each in our sorrow and orphan-ness to adapt.
I was unprepared for my first trip to visit my sister, some 18 months later, and in her guest room, find a chair. My mother’s chair.
The following is a description of the grief that finally found it’s expression. Grief comes in it’s own time, in it’s own way. There are no rules, except that there are no rules. I hope you don’t mind my sharing the rawness of that morning.
There was such a deep sadness… loss… confusion
curled up like a child in my mother’s chair, my head resting tiny against the wing of the back, where her head would loll as she’d fall asleep in front of the television.
There was a hug for me in the pillow she’d made, as I clutched it to my chest
and it became a depositor for my tears, my sobbing, my racking breath.
All the anger and love and resentment and loss, isolation and tenderness rolled all up in a ball in my chest —
like a Christmas ornament dropped on a cold tile floor, shattered into a million shards of glass; prismatic, sharp, painful,
liquified me into brutal tears pouring forth, each sharp piece piercing my heart and the shell of detachment worn thin in spots
thin enough to be rent apart.
Flashflood. The torrent of emotion burst from me unexpectedly, profoundly, leaving me spent and more contemplative. I had not anticipated such a powerful response, having been so accepting of her passing and my circumstances as they unfolded. I didn’t know I held such pain, or that the pain held so much power until it’s critical mass was unleashed by a familiar, winged back chair in the wrong house, sitting empty save for the throw pillow that would rest her head.