On The Death Of A Mother

The call came this morning from a relative who asked what I was doing. I started to talk about my broken “F” key on my piano and went on for a bit about the tragedy. 

The relative finally blurted out that my mother had passed away. I asked why she did not just say what was going on.  She had a bizarre excuse for her behavior that did not sit well at all. People do not behave sensibly in the face of death of a loved one and need much patience and forgiving.

I had left my phone number with the care home where my mother was permanently residing and in great decline. They never called.

The first time that I had visited her, she was sparky and very, very talkative. My next visit was another story. She had undergone a bout of pneumonia that almost killed her, but was struggling to regain her abilities. I fed her her snacks, lots of juice and some coffee, then wheeled her around to look out of some of the windows, since her bed did not have a view. She dropped off to sleep as soon as she was lifted back into her bed and snugly blanketed in.

During that last visit, she had long periods of slumping in her chair and staring into space. But then she would snap out of it,  remember me and be suprised that I was there. Again and again, as if I had just shown up each time that she came out of her slump, she was suprised and glad to see me.

I gave her yellow silk roses and my huge scarf. She loved her yellow roses, zinnias, flags, lilac, red berry shrub and her walnut trees. She loved most things that grew and had the greenest of thumbs, not to mention the best of skills at dealing with small humans.

I was planning to make the drive to see her again this week. I had spent the past week with a horrible feeling that something was not going well with her. I knew deep down that she was going to die soon, but could not get over the denial and the rationalization that she would recover from her pneumonia and become the sparky Mom that I know and love before she declined into the full dementia.

The smallest gesture offered hope. The attempt to hold a cup or to use her own spoon was a sign of hope. The periodic period of lucidity was a little gleam of light to hold onto. But with pneumonia of that magnitude, the odds of recovering rather than going further into decline are just too high. The frail, failing and elderly system just cannot hold.

Her desire to die was there for years. The last of her siblings, the last of her friends and a mother who had already lost one of her children, she just could not find much in life to hang onto.

She would never see her beloved house and land again. She would never again whack weeds with her hair done and with lipstick and beads on. She would never wear her nice pantsuits while she hauled the huge piles of weeds to the burn pile to fire it up into an alarming conflagration.

 She had, for a long time, a wood stove. She would order wood by the truck load, haul that wood in, start a blazing fire and have the place so stuffy that we could hardly breathe. Then she would haul out the still warm ashes, complete with a few still glowing coals, and pile them up into an assembly that she figured would keep floodwaters at bay. She had over 52 years of caring for her house and land, out lasting and out living her neighbors.

 Things started to lose luster for her when her wood stove had to go. She was about to burn the house down with raging fires that went on all day and all night, but was happy with the gleaming new gas stove, with its deluxe front window and live flames.

She developed dementia, which is the only thing left to accompany a natural death of a person who never drank, never smoked, never had a major illness and was the picture of health. Even after having six children and getting them all through high school alone, after losing her husband to cancer, she raised one granddaughter until she was old enough for school. One by one, we left to live our lives and to find our fortunes. One by one she found herself more and more alone. One by one.

She was the daughter of pioneers who settled in the Valley. They were freed slaves of great character, dedication and skill. She was a pioneer herself, having managed the first home care program for the disabled in California. There were women who still reminded her that she was the only one to give them a job when no one else would help them through divorces and deaths and abandonments.

She was a sparky young girl with a year of college and a pioneering family work ethic. She was the prettiest thing, skinny and the light of a young musician and sailor’s life. She had an ivory tower husband who had big ideas that never panned out, but who would never leave his family. She had friends and siblings and houses full of her own children, with the odd niece or nephew thrown in for seasoning when someone had to work. Later, she had grandchildren and great grandchildren who ruled the roost with their delightful and commanding ways.

She was a renaissance woman who could read a classic, set up a camping trip for eight people, fix anything with wire or tape, play a bit of “Claire de Lune” on the piano, sew, create art, manage a huge crop of unruly children, keep the books, cook gourmet food, and talk about  any subject. She loved politics and news and would know the top stories before anyone else was up in the morning.

I was either her primary caregiver or financial support for 18 and a half years of life. I had to get away from the inconcievable and horrific onslaught of abuse and threats that began when the ambulance arrived and that didn’t stop until I left. I denied it, but knew that it was the dementia doing the work.

But I never stopped loving her, fretting about her, going to help her or worrying about her until another relative moved in. There was simply not going to be all of her children ignoring and neglecting her. She was going to have someone to care for her no matter how difficult it was, or how ugly and hurtful the events had been.

 A great woman and a great mother is gone so fast that she did not have time to miss her country views, her dusty walks to the orchards, her trips to the slot machines, her books and her raggedy chair in the grass and the sunshine.

She did not have time for the pain of reflecting upon her greatest joys and achievements, her heartbreaking losses or her huge, rambling and crumbling, but wonderful home. She wanted to die in her sleep and without a prolonged period of slow decline.

She was the luckiest woman I ever knew. To find her in a vast field of slot machines, we only had to follow along until we saw a string of payoffs on machine after machine. She would be sitting at the end, working on another payoff.

And she got what she wanted after a lifetime of disappointments of hope and of successes in surviving: a quick passing on, the reward that is due to a great woman who has led much great life.

She has walked down that dusty country road alone. We followed her until we could see her no more. And now she is gone.

Love is permanent, fixed and immutable.

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