One year ago
My mother died.
Online, I was silent.
Lynne posted the news on Facebook, in my absence.
Absence of public spirit, of articulated voice, of defining words. I did write. Mostly poetry. I cried, still cry, complicated tears. Of missing a presence, her presence, of loss of her place in my life.
I also cried the tears of one whose trial is over. I cried the tears that I couldn’t let myself cry when I had no choice but to keep going. I cried the private tears that aren’t explained, don’t have to be explained, to anyone. I didn’t articulate the reasons. The grief that I felt was from a universal well. That her life ended, that her difficult life ended, that I called her life difficult but she did not. I didn’t want debate, or defense. But I still envy those whose grief is pure, who wish their mother (father, sister, partner, lover) were still here. I don’t wish that. For her or for me.
For her, I wish total fulfillment of love, the one thing that meant the most to her, as to any of us. Love is the one thing I tried to give her, to interweave with the harsher realities of her final years. She was confused, disabled, dependent. She was dependent on care doled out in a for-profit institution, by strangers who are assigned to care for her. Some did, some did come to care for her. You live through this process. The days when caring wasn’t there, or when care givers reached the limit of caring, don’t have enough time to care for themselves, lose steam and yet can’t stop.
I witnessed that the life of a care giver is a life of erosion, of wearing down your resources, your best intentions and your open heart. I saw this in them, the aides who earn their living giving care under difficult circumstances. I witnessed this in me.
|Sara (my mother's care giver), Cooie Hedman, and Sky|
My mother smiled at me when I arrived, usually, and that would be the best gift. There were times when she did not, and I would try to root out the cause. It could be simple—the wrong skirt on, or a wrinkle in her socks, or being left too long in one position. It could be that the bird feeder was empty, or that she was confused about the day. Sometimes she said it hurt, but I didn’t know what hurt. I tried all the remedies that I could think of. I asked the nurses to give her more Tylenol. The aides promised to get her into bed early. We tried shifting her in her chair. I ordered her some ice cream. I played with her animals, making them all sing. Later, I realized that none of these remedies addressed the pain that she was experiencing. She said, at the end of her life, “It really hurts.” I couldn’t help her except to call in the nurse, and eventually, to sign up with Hospice. I encouraged her and told her how proud I was of her, because I was. She did not complain much. When we finally realized that she was eaten up with cancer, I was humbled by how brave she had been.
Who she was to me… Someone I cared for, loved, but whose needs I juggled with my own, until the end. Then it was too late. There wasn’t enough time left. I was there with her, Mari and Kit were there, Lynne was there. The ones who wanted to be there, were there. She was someone different to each of us.
I admire the women who say of their mothers, “I wish she was still here,” and “I keep her always in my heart.” I do keep her in my heart, partly because her story is my story. Her path was as uneven as mine. I see myself in her. I yearn for love the way she did. I was not granted physical beauty anymore than she was. I struggle to find my place in the world as she did. She counted the badges she earned, she kept her awards and her certificates of thanks. She took her volunteer jobs seriously, just like I do. I define myself by my work, and without it I am lost.
On the Friday before she died, she was alone in her room when Sara came. Sara let the silence remain as they sat looking out the window. My mother said, “I hate not having anything to do.” So they colored, until it was time to eat.
At her burial, my brother Thom brought a piece of embroidery that my mother had started, but never finished. It was a Girl Scout insignia on white cloth. The length of green thread that she had started to sew with was still there. “This gives her something to work on,” he said, as he placed the embroidery hoop in the hole in the ground.
The unfinished embroidery is in the ground with her ashes. The need to define your self with work lives on in me.
I have her ceramic Christmas tree on a table in our living room. It is lit by fiber optics delivering colors from the color wheel out to the tip of each branch. It fades from the glow of green to the glow of red to the glow of blue, then yellow, noiselessly. I gave her that decoration when she moved to her first “independent living” apartment in
She put it on the pass-through between her kitchen and her living
room. In time, she moved it to her
assisted living studio, and then to her second assisted living apartment. I went to that apartment when she was in the
rehab unit. There was the ceramic
Christmas tree, alone is her empty apartment.
I mentioned it to my sister who helped pack up her belongings to send to
Bellingham. It made the trip, and displayed its rainbow
of colors each of the three years that she was here. She loved the tree. The last year, in her room at the end of the
hall in the long term care facility, it stayed on 24 hours a day. She was past
the point of noticing it. As Christmas
approached, I think it was on more for my spirit than for hers. I had bought a Christmas outfit for her baby
doll, but by the time I brought the gift to her room, she was fading away,
hardly able to acknowledge the doll which had been her darling since we gave it
to her for her 98th birthday in July. We propped the festively dressed doll up in
bed next to her head, but she was already drifting into her final sleep. I had hoped for one more expression of
delight for her, but I was too late for that.
In early December, I had decorated her door in hopes that she would like it, covering the door with red Christmas wrap and hanging up a red wreath and some gold ribbon. I had asked my friends to come to her room to sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve, and they had kindly agreed. The day before, I sent a short email of cancellation. The moment was passed. She had died on December 23rd, 2014. We spent Christmas Eve dismantling her room, taking down her decorations for the last time, and dispersing her belongings. She didn’t need them anymore.
We are decorating this year. My youngest sister Mari sent me three electric deer which I have planted on the front lawn. I hung the white icicle lights on the front of the house and the colored string of lights across the front fence. I hung up the crystal reindeer that Viv, Lynne’s sister-in-law, had given us many years ago, when Lynne’s mother was alive and we celebrated with Lynne’s brother and sister-in-law visiting from
|Totsie Pharis, Lynne's mother, Christmas 2003|
We lived in a big stone house in
put up a tall Fraser fir tree in the living room, and had so many presents that
they couldn’t all fit under the tree. We
spend Christmas morning playing Santa.
Viv had a particular knack for giving creative and thoughtful gifts,
including to the dogs of both households.
Lynne’s mother would enjoy spending the entire day with us, keeping up a
stream of conversation from her mid-morning arrival until after Christmas
dinner in the evening. The first few
years, Richard brought venison, deer steaks and duck that they had hunted in Canada, and the
house would fill with the smells of game for Christmas dinner. Lynne misses those years. Her mother is gone, Richard and Viv leave for
before Christmas. We have a new
tradition of celebrating with newer friends here, but we have wistful memories
of those traditional celebrations.
Lynne misses her mother, in the classic way. She wishes she were still here.
I am painting a portrait of our experience of this Christmas. It is a mixture of memories of earlier Christmases, some treasured and some hard. I am eager for this holiday because I notice in particular the messages of love and peace, of good cheer and delight. I hear more music, and I sing along. I delight at the Christmas lights, especially in contrast to the long hours of darkness that wrap around our short days here in the Northwest. Today was the first day of sun for a week.
has a record
snowpack. Lynne is playing the piano,
and Winnie is asleep on the floor at my feet.
Life is complex, and beautiful. Mt.