Tuesday, March 1, 2005

A Tribute for my mother

My mother died on February 22, 2005, after a long bout with Parkinson's disease. This is about my trip up the day before, after I received THE PHONECALL to come home. At first I was skeptical because she had been in the hospital many time throughout my life, many times we thought it was the end and she managed to pull through. But not this time.

I arrived at the airport at about 3:30pm and promptly went to the hospital where she was about 45 minutes later. My father warned me that she looked really bad and to prepare myself, but I wondered what that really meant....How can you prepare yourself when you really don't know what you're walking into? I was shocked when I saw her, she looked really bad at Christmas but this was beyond even then....she actually looked like an Egyptian mummy....that thin with the same sort of look on her face, just not all dark. I had to keep my personal alarm to myself. She was surrounded by my brother's family, my father, her grandson and all the kids and that seemed to make her a little happy. She absolutley lit up (as much as she could) when she heard me say hello to her. She was completely unable to speak and could not move, so I took her hand. For not being able to move, her grip on my fingers just about cut off the circulation. I talked to her a bit, as much as I could through my shock and just let the feeling of happiness surround us both. I felt like there was nothing else I could really do. After a while, the kids had to go home because of homework and such, leaving the adults there together. We watched TV for a while, then left my brother to sit with her while the rest of us went to eat and come back. I held her hand on & off, a few times I had to pull back to move my fingers about & the nurses came by to tend to her. My father took this opportunity to introduce me to her doctor where I was encouraged to ask questions.

I didn't know what to ask.....what was the matter? He spoke slowly (almost to the point where I fell asleep standing up) explaining that the Parkinson's had progressed to where it was in her neurological system and was shutting her body down. How long? Nobody could really tell....maybe days. Her condition was such that my father had insisted on force feeding her but this wasn't possible because she couldn't swallow and forcing a tube down her throat only caused her great pain. The whole point now was to keep her out of pain. It hadn't dawned on my what was really meant, maybe as a personal defense mechanism to protect me from my own despair. After this conversation, I was back in the hospital room at her bedside, holding her hand. Almost the entire time I was there, tears streamed from her eyes, she seemed just so happy I was there. I had spent a long day on airplanes and in frustration with flight delays and was getting so tired I couldn't hardly function. Everyone else had been there for a couple of days, without sleep and had starting biting at each other. Somewhere around 10:30 we started talking about going back to sleep and I got insistant because I was very tired. I pointed out, after my sister-in-law and father argued about who would stay with her that unless we took care of ourselves, we couldn't take care of anybody else. I was to stay at my brother's and I really didn't care, I just wanted to sleep. Besides, I figured I had a day or two to spend with her still. I kissed her on the forehead saying "Goodnight, Mama, I love you, I'll see you in the morning." I had no idea that these would be the last words I'd ever say to her. We left and I got to bed about 11:30. I phoned my husband to see how he was and he suggested from his experience form his grandfather that I tell my mother how much I love her and appreciate her before she went. I figured out what I wanted to tell her and went to sleep.

Gentle poking barely brought me to conciousness with me seeing my sister-in-law by my bed, I thought for a moment I had slept late and she was waking me to go to the hospital to see mom....but the look on her face was so sad, she could hardly say anything......then she said she didn't want to be the one to tell me (that's when I snapped awake and saw it was 2:15 am). She said the hospital had called.....They had called and said that Mom was gone. I could not comprehend the words (what do you mean "gone" I thought, she went somewhere like to the bank?). "She's gone." All I could do was comply...."ok" was all i could get out of my mouth a few times......"We have to go to the hospital." I don't know if I brushed my teeth, I barely remember getting dressed. It didn't really start to sink in until I called my husbad and my composure faltered. All I could tell him was that I needed him to come up as fast as possible. He was shocked ("what? already? it happened already?").

You never know how you will react to a close loved one's death, much less your own mother's, even if you have accepted that this is inevitable and that she's been in bad shape for years. I was surprised that my personal reaction was rage. I thought I had a little more time. I wasn't angry with her, I'm not sure what my rage was directed at...maybe it was the situation. But I felt rage. In my mind I heard the lonely howling of wolves crying over the loss of one of the pack.

We gathered at the hospital, in her room to see her. She looked peaceful for all the pain she went through. Myself, my father, her grandson, my brother and sister-in-law sat ourselves around her bed to contemplate what had happened.....I stroked her hair one last time and felt the heat leaving her body. It was disquieting to fell her grow cold. I could not cry, I had to wait and be strong for my father, for everyone else. I just felt rage. In between the stunned silent spells between us, we tried to talk about what would have to be done. My husband called intermittently during this, trying to arrange a flight time and unfortunatly, my rage spilled out on him. My father was quick to correct my and my sister-in-law had to remind me that he loved me and was only trying to do his best. It was all a bit of a blur after that....

The rest of the day we all were like robots barely functioning trying to make the arrangements with the funeral home.....I was trying to look after my father, who had it the worst. This was the woman he had been married to for almost 55 years, had built a life with, had children with and did everyting he could to make her happy and now he had to learn to live without her. I took naps here and there but my father refused to. Let me mention now that arrrangements made before death, funeral wishes set down and set up before the inevitable happens, makes things so much easier to handle. The stress and grief that hit the remaining members is so great and so incredible, it really helps to ease the pain to know you don't have to make those choices. Just a few little details had to be settled.

We had to remind each other to eat. My sister-in-law's daughters were very good about having dinner made for the rest of us, I don't think we could have done well without that. My sister-in-law and I picked out a few pictures so the funeral home could make a little video presentation of mom's life and I purposely chose not to include any of the children's photos, which included myself. This was to be about her, not us. This was to be for how she lived adn who she was. I figured that we were a given. I will always stand by that decision. It turned out to be a very lovely little tribute to her.

The funeral home was good about getting the obituary put together, none of us knew what to do.

I was very glad to have my husband arrive, he became a great source of strength and calming to me.

Wednesday was an off day, in the most literal terms. Most everything had been taken care of, the flower arrangement was to be of yellow roses because she loved those (she told me often). I did the most morbid thing I have ever done in my life, I picked out a brand new dress for my mother to be buried in. I picked out a new dress and undergarments to lie in the ground on my mother's remains for the rest of days. Everything became so surreal and strange. I took great pride in the dress I did pick, I thought it was perfect. It was a lovely teal dress with a sheer overcoat, the kind she would have worn to the parties she used to go to or host. I wanted her to look pretty for the grand party she was going to.

She would have been pleased with her wake. The immediate family arrived an hour before so we could have our time. She looked very beautiful, her hair all done up and her favorite nail polish on. I kept picking little hairs off her, sweeping little flakes off her garment, keeping her just so. It was heartbreaking in a dull, deep sort of way. I couldn't stop fussing about her. I told mama goodbye and that I finally won, I always told her she looked lovely in teal and would have her wear it at the end. Her casket was in her favorite color, light blue. I swear she looked like she would leap up at any moment and laugh at us all that she had pulled a good joke. After a while, the visitors began to come. My father greeted them and talked with them, these first few people I did not know and I felt frozen anyway. As more people arrived, people I did recognize, I almost felt my mother's hand push me along, that I needed to get in and help them to feel comfortable; after all, my father couldn't handle them all.

So I put on my smile and did my best to talk to and introduce myself to everyone. She would have been so pleased to see that EVERYONE came for her. It was a comfort to hear the older people talk about her, even share a laugh. They all loved her dress and the presentation about her. They all enjoyed the wedding photos of her and dad that we had up. They all loved the ceramic bust I had made of her in high school. I think she would have been so very happy to know that they were all there to say goodbye.

Later that night, at my niece's house, the family gathered and were all talking. The children, understandably, were playing games because things like this don't necessarily concern them and can be boring. They don't have to deal with this sort of thing yet. I taught them the poking game the night before (I thought I had come off as a big nerd because they seemed stunned by it) and it had become a big hit. One of my niece's daughters, who is about 12, took a liking to me and my husband and took great delight in playing the poking game, even running the gauntlet right next to us, not knowing if we would poke her or not! She turned out to be a great source of comfort at the funeral.

The funeral. The finality of all finals. It was a big, traditional catholic send off. This was where I had to be strongest of all, my father lost his composure and just cried like I had never seen. I held him, I held his hand, I gave him all the tissue I had. I could not cry. He was just so vulnerable, the strength sapped from him. His whole life was gone. This was the weakest moment for him. I could not feel for myself, I had to be for him.

This little girl I mentioned earlier was the most remarkable person I had ever seen, especially at such a young age. When we came into the church adn the casket was wheeled in, she came over and stood by my father and me. Her bright little face was so comforting and soothing. It was so dear to have her by us at that time, I don't think she'll ever know the great service that she did for us that day. When the funeral service ended and everyone separated to their cars for the procession out to the cemetary, this bright spirit bounced over to our lead car and hopped in with us. Her mother thought she had made a mistake or was upsetting us with this and came over, but I told her that her daughter was welcome to ride with us if she wanted to. So this little flower of joy rode with us to the cemetary and told jokes and all sort of happy things. For a moment, those of us in the car forgot our sorrow. We saw through her eyes the rays of hope and the joys of life. She will probably never know how much that meant in that hour. It made the thought of burying the woman who bore me life and raised me, taught me right from wrong, supported all my weird little phases and artistic temperments just a little more bearable. My rage was lessened and I shall never forget that.

My turn came later that night, when I had to cope with the thought of my mother lying underground in the cold hard dirt, never to return. I remembered the first time my parents went out without me, when I was about 18 months old. They left me behind with a babysitter. I remember them saying goodnight, to be good and that they would be back soon and walk out the door. I stood at the door watching them leave and as the door closed I cried "MAMA!!!" The babysitter distracted me from my distress and of course later, my parents came back. But that night after the funeral, I was reduced to a crying 18 month old again, wailing at the door for mama. This time she wasn't coming back. I looked at the moon and thought about how cold it was and here lying in her coffin in the ground. I could not bear the thought. I was a grown woman at that door where mama had gone and I couldn't see her again. I cried until I was a raw husk inside.

It's a week later and it's still raw inside. I still cry now and then. I suppose I will for quite a while. I thought I was doing alright until I got out in public, seeing people going about their regular lives. Everything is so surreal and strange. I am so sad, it is a dull, deep pain that language has no description for. I guess one can't really understand until they lose someone they love, you don't really know what it is like or how it will be. Grief is something we all have in common, we are destined for it and yet it is such an individual experience. It is only at this point that one realizes that grief is something you have to learn to live with, an experience that is a part of who we are, what makes us human. There's a difference between those who have lost deeply and those who have yet to. It is unexpainable, it can only be experienced.

Mama, thank you for all that you have done for me, for all the sacrfices and heartache you went through on my account, for all that you taught me. I am a better woman and human being for it. I shall carry these things always and do my best to make your memory proud. I love you and I know you shall always love me, without fear, without shame, and maybe with just a little prejudice because I am your only daughter. You no longer suffer and I hope that great party you have gone to is everything you wanted it to be.

My last visual of my mother came at the end of the funeral service, when incense was being wafted about her casket. I saw her walk up to where all the ones who had gone before waited for her. Aunt Fan, Bill, Uncle Bill, Milt, Paul, Grandma Totten, Grandma Stevens and all the rest greeted her with screwdrivers and champagne, just like she always wanted, ready to include her in this fabulous party in her honor. She turned to me, dressed in her beautiful teal dress, looking happy and healthy as she had been in her better days. She smiled and waved. Then she went with them laughing and joking all the way into the mist. And that 's the way it should be.

Grace Eleanor

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