I thought I was ready for my mother's death. At times I even wished for it. Over the past five years, the ugly issues of aging went from simmer to full boil. My siblings and I forced Mom from her beloved home into independent living after several falls. Despite a blind eye and mollusk-like reflexes, Mom insisted on driving. I yanked the car keys from her hands to screams of "I hate you! I hate you I hate you!" The scene felt like a reverse replay of my adolescence, a strange form of karmic payback. We all took turns as Mom's human punching bags after the forced move. Being her favorite, I was her favorite bag to punch.
Over Christmas this past year, my mom and I made peace. She admitted she liked the retirement center and counted most of her friends there. We laughed. She showed spunk I hadn't seen in years. She hiked down a slanted beach with her cane unassisted. She demanded a spot in the hot tub. She played poker. She was kind. Then, as happens so much at the end of life, she fell. Her fractured arm set off a rapid deterioration. At the moment she embraced Independent Living, a move to Assisted Living was imminent.
About six weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, I got a phone call from the emergency room. "Your mother's had a massive stroke. You need to make the decision right now as to whether we send her to Charlottesville for brain surgery." Brain surgery? I asked the doctor the best prognosis if Mom lived. Complete paralysis on the right side, maybe a chance of speech with massive rehabilitation. Mom was 85 years old, with a DNR. She told me numerous times over the past 10 years that she was ready to die. I told the doctor "No." After the doctor made sure I knew I was killing my mother with my decision, he agreed to make her "comfortable."
Mom died three days later, giving all my siblings and me a chance to say good-bye in person. I helped plan her funeral as I did for my father who died at age 58. At 85, the numbers reversed, death seemed almost a celebration, a send-off party to her next phase of existence. We cried, but the salt from our tears didn't sting.
The sting didn't happen until a couple of months later. Something good happened in my day, something small but happy, I can't even remember what it was. I picked up the phone to call my mom. I remembered before I dialed. She's not there. As much as my mom drove me crazy, I loved the sound of her voice when she picked up the phone and realized I was calling. The lift in her voice made me feel as though there was no one else in the world she'd rather hear. That lift might only last 20 seconds or so, before she picked and I snapped back, but what a gift. I knew she loved me. Mom couldn't fake anything, not in her makeup. I knew that love was real.
So as an orphan, I'm now forced to say hello to my parents in a different way. I send up a message and I imagine Mom's words and Dad's fierce hugs. I miss them. All orphans do.
For more information on Julie K. Hersh or Struck By Living go to www.struckbyliving.com