July 2022


I wasn’t exactly surprised when my mom’s health deteriorated significantly over the last few months, ending with her death. She had a stroke 15 years ago, couldn’t eat by mouth, and had been in the hospital multiple times. Still, even a few weeks ago I wasn’t ready for her life to end. From comments others made when we had visitation last week, my experience was common. The refrain I heard again and again from those who had lost one or both parents was “I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t prepared when it happened.”

Other than having an aide to help her with her shower, mom was toileting, washing, dressing, and feeding herself without assistance less than four months ago. I had been living with her because she couldn’t manage the household by herself, but she was mostly self-sufficient. I seldom spent even a half-hour a day providing direct help. Then she had a fall on March 21, injuring her shoulder and breaking her scapula. Suddenly, she needed assistance with everything. She couldn’t put any weight on her right hand, and that kept her from using her walker, getting up without assistance, and handling many self-care tasks. She went to a rehab facility for the better part of a month to learn how to live with her restrictions. When she came home, the family had arranged for an aide to be in the house twenty-five hours a week, and I was there the rest of the time. We hoped things would be easier for her when the scapula healed. The second week of May, she was given clearance to put full weight on her right arm. Surely she would work hard and return to something close to independence. She was so determined and had come back so many times before. It would be the same this time.

But it wasn’t. Less than a month later, she was back in the hospital with difficulty breathing and fluid in her lungs. Her heart was failing. She came home on oxygen, but went downhill rapidly. Roughly two weeks after being discharged she died.

I was startled by how rapidly she declined. It might have been simply the result of a medical process that had progressed much farther than I or her doctors realized, but I tend to think there was more going on. In particular, I think she had worked so hard in the past because she was hopeful about recovery. This time, she had lost any sense that life could be anything except suffering. After previous hospital or rehab stays, she was always happy to get home, but she didn’t say that this time. Home seemed to her a foreign place. She said that everything looked different. She also couldn’t remember her routines and had to be guided through them. She was really bothered by trailing the oxygen tubing behind her all the time. Faced with all this, I think she gave up. After visits from OT and PT didn’t make any difference, my siblings and I decided it was time to call hospice to help her be comfortable during whatever time she had left.

A few days earlier, when I still thought she might rally, I was impatient on a few occasions when trying to help her. She was getting confused about simple things, so tasks took longer I may have been a little frustrated with the amount of time that things were taking, but I realized after a couple episodes that a bigger reason for my impatience was that I was having trouble accepting how rapidly she was declining. Even more centrally, I wanted her to still act like a mom—to notice all I was trying to do, to think about my well-being, and to have the same pride in me that she had always had. But that motherly attentiveness, though not completely gone, was mostly beyond her capacity. Once I realized that, I was more patient. I didn’t want to burden her that way. I had enjoyed that gift of being mothered for so long; I could let it go in order to be what she needed. I’m starting to think that letting go in that way freed me from the intense longing that I could have felt after her death. Perhaps I wound up better prepared than I thought. Thanks, mom, for having mothered so well.

My mom died a week ago today. So this is a time of mourning, which encompasses a great deal besides sadness. One thing that has struck me is how her death has resulted in a sudden change in my focus: from micro-attention to her daily ups and downs to expanded awareness of her life as a whole. I wrote the following poem about the vista that’s been opened to me as a result.

The last few years were mostly narrow,
so that she walked through places 
where the walls were tight, 
leaving only little alcoves where she could dress
and feed and sleep. Her step had slowed 
and sometimes going on at all took exhaustive effort.  
Long ago, most with whom she traveled trickled off 
to other paths, so few still walked with her.

At last the road choked down to nothing; 
Her walking ended and instead she flew away. 
At that the vista opened and I could see 
more than the cramped confines of final days
but a totality of life. 

Yesterday, I looked at photos taken 80 years ago
and there she is, Loie then, not mom 
or grandmother, a teen reclining on the beach,
smiling impishly, dressed in a swimsuit 
that her mother wouldn’t have approved of. 

Then she’s on a teeter-totter, floral dress flowing
off the edges of the plank, delighted to be lifted 
high, among the trees.

Here she stands in snow,
black-shrouded, squinting from the cold 
and cradling the family dog as if it were 
a plump and happy child. 
A few pages on,
her boyfriend sits back-to-back with her, 
playing his accordion. He will go to war, 
then they will wed and twine together 
more than sixty years. She’s leaning into him 
and holding up a cup as if it were at toast 
to what had been and what was then 
and what was yet to come: friends and faith 
and family, a broad and blessed life. 
Goodbye, mom,
may your spirit soar.