A Meditation for My Mother
Six years after my mother's death, I mark a milestone in my life without her.
Posted Sep 28, 2015
My mother was born in early fall, and it seems to me a blessing that she died in that same season of mild weather and soft, diffuse sunlight. My brother and I had been planning a small family celebration for her 90th birthday, but she died six days before the party—a final reminder, I thought, that she was never fond of disclosing her age.
My mother lived through the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, but from my perspective the last years of her life were especially tough. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 79; three years later my brother and I had to move her from the spacious apartment she loved into an assisted-living facility. After she fell and fractured a hip 17 months later, she moved again—this time to a nursing home.
A month before my mother fractured her hip, her doctor had told my brother that her Parkinson’s disease was advancing rapidly; she was deteriorating physically and mentally. I was living in Honolulu then, and I quit my job to move back to Pennsylvania and help my mother in what the doctor estimated would be the last several months of her life.
By some miracle, however, when my mother arrived in the nursing home after an extended stay in a rehab center following her hip fracture, she began to improve both physically and mentally. She lived for another six years, giving us time together that I never could have foreseen but that I now treasure.
I got another job in Pennsylvania, but my life during those years revolved around my mother. I visited her nearly every weekend and called her between visits. I did her laundry and her ironing so she could continue to wear her favorite skirts and sweaters instead of the more casual attire the other nursing home residents favored. My brother and I took turns taking her to doctor’s appointments.
When my mother was still able to travel half an hour by car, I brought her to my brother’s home for family celebrations that included her beloved grandchildren—my brother’s two young sons. When she grew too weak to make the trip, we had family get-togethers in a private lounge at the nursing home.
More than five years passed in this way, and during this time my mother and I developed a completely different relationship than we had had before. I had never been the sort of daughter who tells her mother everything. In fact, after I left home for college, I returned only for short visits in part because I had always been a little afraid of my mother. I knew she loved me deeply, but she could be critical and she was subject to occasional dark spells of anger. Until I moved back to Pennsylvania in 2003, after high school I had never lived closer than 100 miles from home. Honolulu was the apogee of my orbit around the family circle: I lived there for nearly 15 years.
In my new role I became, as much as anything else, my mother’s champion. I talked to her doctors and nurses about her medicines, her diet and her latest symptoms. I became friends with her nurse's aides, who cared for her with kindness and great affection. I tried to keep her spirits up. I never learned to share my innermost thoughts with her: The close-mouthed habits of a lifetime were impossible to break. Still, I hoped my mother was comforted to know that I would be her faithful and determined ally in her battle against a disease that was slowly but relentlessly eroding her physical and mental abilities.
Until early 2009, her decline was gradual. But then my already diminished mother began to lose even more weight, and in June an aide found a lump while she was giving my mother her weekly bath. A mammogram confirmed the aide’s suspicions, and the nursing home doctor urged us to allow a cancer surgeon to remove the lump.
“If she has breast cancer, it could spread to her bones, and that is extremely painful,” the doctor said in response to my objections that she seemed too frail to survive surgery. “You don’t want your mother to die that way."
My mother agreed to the surgery and the surgeon removed the lump, which a biopsy showed was indeed malignant. But my mother was weak and exhausted for days afterward, and when we went by wheelchair van for a follow-up visit, she refused the surgeon’s request to drain some fluid that had accumulated at the surgery site.
“Absolutely not,” my mother said firmly, her black eyes flashing in her pale, drawn face. As I stood next to her wheelchair in the examining room, I breathed a silent prayer of thanks. That would have been my decision, too, but I was grateful that my mother spared me from having to make it.
My mother died one month to the day after her surgery. She was on oxygen in the nursing home by then; two days before she died, my brother, my nephews and I were visiting in her room when a nurse came in and, in the kindest way possible, asked my mother how her breathing was.
“It takes an effort,” my mother replied, as calmly as if she were commenting on the weather. She was fully conscious, seated in her wheelchair and dressed in one of her favorite skirt-and-sweater outfits. Her spirits seemed higher than they had been in days.
That night, in response to her disclosure about her difficulty breathing, the nurses started my mother on morphine, and the next day she slipped into unconsciousness. My brother and I visited her together, and I stayed in her room that night, dozing fitfully in her lounge chair a few feet from her bed. At sunrise, I moved to a folding chair by her bedside. I was watching her when she drew her last breath, on a mild Monday morning in late September. I had tried my best to be her champion to the end.
In the first several months after my mother’s death, I was numb and blank with grief. Work was a kind of solace; it took my mind off my loss. But I found I could not be in social situations with more than a few people; I would look around the room, feel my throat constrict and have to excuse myself before my eyes filled with tears. In a condolence call a few days after my mother died, a friend’s husband had shared with me his perspective that grief is “wavy and unpredictable.” His words were a balm to me in the weeks that followed because they described so perfectly what I was feeling. After six years at my mother’s side, I felt off kilter and unbalanced without her.
At another friend’s urging, I began to see a grief counselor; she was patient, kind and enormously helpful. By the following September, when I returned to my mother’s nursing home for a ceremony honoring residents who had died in the past year, I felt I had moved from the darkest depths of mourning to a place of tentative acceptance—a lightness of spirit I had not experienced before. I was even able to visit the nurses and aides on my mother’s floor that day without being overwhelmed by sorrow for both her suffering and her passing.
In the years since her death, I have made countless trips to the cemetery where my mother is buried next to my father—whom I adored and who, sadly, died after a stroke in 1983. It is a place of solace for me, with birds chirping and squirrels chattering in the branches of the sheltering trees as I kneel on the grass at their grave, say a prayer or two and tell my parents my latest news.
On past visits, my mother’s death felt recent to me. Even the grass on her side of the cemetery plot was not yet as thick and full as that on my father’s side. But my visit this past weekend—to mark the sixth anniversary of her death—felt profoundly different.
After I finished cleaning the grave marker, arranging the flowers in the heavy bronze vase and reciting my prayers for my parents, I had a sharp, rising feeling of panic. I was there at sunset, later than I normally visit. But the cool breeze of the early fall evening and the fading light in the sky were not the cause of my uneasiness.
Instead, it was a sudden, unfathomable conviction that, six years after her passing, my mother was finally slipping permanently into the shadowy realm my father has inhabited for more than 30 years. And as she crossed this border, she seemed intent on easing the sorrow I still feel and mercifully blurring my vivid memories of our last years together, when we were a gallant team fighting an implacable enemy.
As unsettled as I felt, I was not daft enough to think that my mother could speak to me on her incorporeal journey. But if she could, perhaps she might have said this, to soothe and comfort me: “You took care of me for six years, and then you mourned me for six years. You were a good daughter. Now go, and live the rest of your life.”
Copyright © 2015 by Susan Hooper
Flame and Branches Photograph and Cemetery Flowers Photograph Copyright © 2015 by Susan Hooper