June 20, 2011
Dear Family & Friends,
Yesterday morning, a friend wrote, “The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.” Yesterday, she saw her mother for the last time and she had the honor of being with her mother, as she breathed her last. I immediately wrote my friend a note of condolence, for she and I now share the grief of being “motherless daughters.”
Six years ago, I saw my mother for the last time, on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 19, 2005. My husband, son, and daughter drove five hours, to the town in which my parents lived, in order to spend the weekend with them. My father, at that time, still lived in the home they had shared for 35 years. However, my mother, hospitalized in December 2004, had steadily declined, physically and mentally, for six months. She could not return home nor could she benefit any further from rehabilitation therapy. She was, therefore, in a “netherworld:” the long-term wing of a skilled nursing facility, where small doses of drugs kept her free from anxiety and pain. I visited my parents often during this depressing six-month period, sometimes staying for weeks at a time, as did my two sisters.
I spent the Father’s Day weekend driving back and forth to the nursing facility from my parents’ home. I was shocked to observe that neither the hospice staff nor the nursing staff had properly attended to the bathing and grooming needs of my mother. So, I spent Saturday taking care of these needs: I washed and conditioned her hair, gave her a facial, trimmed her nails, applied lotion to her parched skin, scrubbed her dentures, and made arrangements for her to receive a complete “wheelchair shower.” I went through her closet and dresser drawers and organized her belongings.
The aides transferred her to a wheelchair and I wheeled her outside, to enjoy the sunshine, flowers, and birds. I thought she would enjoy this but, now bed-ridden, her world had collapsed and narrowed, until she could focus on only one thing: her bed. She begged me to wheel her back to her room.
Of course, I did. Together, we looked through the photograph album that my sister had created for her, for Mother’s Day. We viewed and rehearsed the names of each of her children and grandchildren. In spite of Alzheimer’s, she recognized everyone.
On Sunday morning, Father’s Day, in my father’s home, my husband prepared breakfast for all of us. Our family of four packed up and drove north to return home. The nursing facility was also to the north so we dropped by to say “Goodbye” to my mother. Nothing had changed about my mother’s condition on that day. In fact, she seemed amazing alert and, ironically, witty.
When I pressed the “Call Button” beside her bed, to ring for the nurse, my mother asked, “What are you doing?” I replied, “I am calling to summon the nurse.” My mother snorted in derision, “Hmmph! You will be waiting a long time for that!”
The weather was very warm and I was dressed in a linen dress. My mother startled me by saying, “Turn around!” I complied. She said, “Well! My mother would never have allowed me to go outside wearing a dress as wrinkled as yours!” I teased her by retorting, “Well, that’s rich, coming from someone who has not ironed anything in the past three or four decades.” [She thought that “Perma-Press” was the best invention ever.]
It was time to leave but I lingered and adjusted her bed. None of the positions seemed comfortable to my mother so we went through all the positions again. Finally, she seemed content and I left her room.
As my family headed north toward home, I began to sob, wondering if I would ever see my mother again. I considered asking my husband to turn the car around, head back to the nursing facility, and leave me and my luggage there. There, I would stay with my mother, supervise all of her needs, be an “elder-care/health-care bulldog,” [as my son refers to me], and become the worst nightmare of the nursing staff.
I continued sobbing and my family consoled me. We continued driving home to Tallahassee.
The next evening, exactly six years ago, the telephone call came from my sister, to tell me that my mother had died just one hour ago, only one day before her 59th wedding anniversary. It seems trite to say that nothing can prepare you for this news. I doubled over in physical pain. My husband, son, and daughter, gathered around me and tried to console me.
The first sorrow may be the death of your mother but the second sorrow is knowing that she died alone. I missed being with her when she breathed her last. I missed it by one day. I wanted to be there — I should have been there — to comfort her. Now, I weep at the thought of my once-beautiful mother, not properly cared for in that “netherworld,” instead of in her own home, surrounded by her family.
This knowledge haunted me then and it continues to haunt me now.
It is a double sorrow. It is grief multiplied.