Saying goodbye to a loved one is never easy and even harder when that person is the one who bore you and gave you life. I had known for awhile that my mother had cancer and not only that, she had heart problems and COPD. As an adolescent and even a young teen, I was well aware of my mother’s mortality. She would ask that if something happened to her, who would I want to live with. My first answer was my grandparents but she reminded me that they would probably be gone before she was, and even if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be in very good health to raise a young person. It seemed like every time my mom got hurt – whether it was spraining her ankle on a curb or falling down the concrete steps where she worked or even when it seemed she just didn’t feel good for one day longer than I thought was right – I felt a sense of panic. But time marched on, and Mom always bounced back from whatever it was that happened. I moved away and became independent, got married and had children, settled into a nice career, and even turned my life around after my divorce. Back home, Mom was settling into her own life – one without the strains of an angst ridden teenager living under her roof. She found new friends and went out on dates. She became even more active in her church and the many other organizations to which she belonged. Her life didn’t revolve around me anymore. I was happy for her. After my grandparents passed away, she had even more time to indulge in what she wanted to do. If she wanted to spend the day sewing, she did. If she wanted to watch the Master’s Golf Tournament from start to finish, she could. If she wanted to travel, she did. Somewhere along the line, I forgot that my mother was forty years older than me; forgot that she was getting older before I hit middle age; forgot that her mortality could knock on the door at any moment.
Then in 1998, Mom had surgery to repair leaky heart valves brought on from a bout of childhood rheumatic fever. My family had already planned to be at my in-law’s 50th anniversary celebration so we traveled all night to get to Missouri, but I was not going to sleep until I knew the outcome of the surgery. All day I waited for my brother to contact me but still no word by early evening. Nerves on edge, I played phone tag with him but managed to talk with Mom’s doctor who let me know that she had come through the surgery okay. What a relief – then I slept. It took her time to heal, but she did. She continued to work full time even as she was approaching 80 years old. It was about then that I realized Mom might not have a lot of time left on this earth. We tried to visit more often.
In June 2001, her brother passed away and in August 2001, my brother passed away, and my mother was inconsolable. She kept saying that she wouldn’t be far behind. I was afraid that my brother’s death would cause her mental and physical health to decline rapidly but she was stronger than I thought. Mom pressed on knowing that life does not stop. Due to unfortunate circumstances, she was let go from her job. I always thought that if she didn’t have a reason to get up in the morning, that she would probably call it quits. But she made due with the hand that had been dealt.
Several years later, she had to have another surgery but due to the blood thinner she had to take and lack of attention by medical personnel, she began bleeding internally. It was then that I realized that she wouldn’t be able to handle any type of surgery – major or minor. Her blood pressure was getting lower. Her heart valves were starting to leak again. She started having breathing issues and congestive heart failure due to fluid around her heart. After testing some of the fluid from her lungs, they discovered that she had lung cancer. Surgery wasn’t an option for her so they gave her the chemo pill. She had good days and bad days but she always did her best to go to church each Sunday and drive to doctor appointments or to her friend’s home. It was such a blessing that my cousins were close by and if need be, one of them always helped her out. Being 900 miles away that knowledge helped ease my anxiety about her situation. She had a couple of TMI’s (also called “mini-strokes”) but she’d be okay after a couple of days. Her oncologist had put her in touch with hospice because there are several things that organization can help with even if it’s not at the end of life. Mom got a lifeline in her home so if she needed it, help was just a “holler” away. She was on oxygen all the time. Even though she could and still did cook for herself, Meals on Wheels delivered meals to her a few times a week. That would help on those days when she really didn’t feel like preparing food just for herself. Each time she had a spell that sent her to the hospital, she would have to go to a rehab for a couple weeks afterward so they could make sure she was able to take care of herself. She’d get so frustrated.
Summer 2008 – Mom and I just before we left
When my family visited in June of 2008, I kept watching her to see if I could tell how she was doing. It was probably to ease my mind. I went to the doctor with her. Not at any time did they ever give her a time limit. There was no one year or six months or anything. She kept taking the medicine she needed – especially her blood thinner and her cancer pill. She knew what she could and what she couldn’t eat. She knew if her oxygen was turned too low or too high. Walking out of that house to return to Texas after our vacation, I hugged her with the thought in the back of my mind that it might be the last time.
November 2008 – Mom looking at an old photo album
That November, my sister and I made a special trip to visit her. It was the first time in many, many years that Mom, my sister, and I were under the same roof for several days. We had a lot of laughs and made some good memories. I dug out really old photo books that Mom hadn’t seen in eons. As my sister and I looked at all the stuff in the house, we knew what a task we would have one day. Mom would get too anxious about throwing stuff away so we didn’t. By that fall, she had lost a lot of weight and was looking frail. She got cold easily so she always had a blanket around her and several tissues ready to catch the drip of her nose due to the oxygen. I can still here her cursing her nose! She’d cough and couldn’t quite get it all up and out.
By March 2009, Mom would tell me at least a couple times a week during our daily phone calls, that she wondered if it was all worth it. I think she was getting tired. All I did was pray harder. Her back would hurt where the tumor was. It was hard for her to get comfortable. She was continuously losing weight. But she was still driving where she needed to go. She had gone to the hair dresser and when she got home, two nurses came to visit. They asked her if the doctor had told her how much time she probably had left. Mom said no so they told her that they didn’t think she had longer than six months. Well, that threw her into a tailspin. They kept pressing her as to where she would want to go – what nursing center. Mom adamantly wanted to stay in her home of over 30 years.
My sister and I discussed it, and one idea was for my mom to go ahead and move to Texas and live with my sister. Both she and I started researching places where my mom could be treated on her Tricare (military dependent) insurance, oxygen companies, hospice agencies, etc. We both knew that even though Mom agreed to that, she really didn’t want to leave her home or her companion or her friends and the family that was in Ohio. My sister made other arrangements to move up to Ohio on May 2nd and stay with her as her caregiver until the end. I think I could hear Mom’s sigh of relief that she wouldn’t have to move. Not long after, she had another bad episode of internal bleeding, and my cousin got her to the hospice hospital in Dayton. Not knowing what was going on or if the end was near, my sister and I loaded up and took off for Ohio. Luckily, my husband was supportive and did everything he could at home to help with our grandson and his getting to and from school and other tasks that needed to be done. My other children also pitched in to help – whether it was picking my grandson up from school to making sure his homework was done to giving the house a thorough cleaning to cooking the Easter dinner because I was gone – it all helped so I could focus on my mom. When we left, we didn’t have a time table on when we’d be back. We were there over Easter 2009. Mom was even more frail than when we had seen her in November. She was down below 100 lbs and had aged about 10 years or more. Sometimes she said something that didn’t make a whole lot of sense – things that were relevant 20 or 30 years before. She told us that she didn’t want to linger in a comatose state like some of the other patients there. She was so worried about that. She wanted to be at home. She wanted to die at home. We were told that she would be released very soon but she would need a place to go and someone to be there. Before we left the hospital that last day, I hugged Mom as tightly as I dared and spoke only to her. I thanked her for being the best mom I could ever hope to have and for doing everything she had done for me. Then I told her that I loved her so very much. It was the last time she reached out to hug me back and give me a kiss goodbye. My sister drove me back to Texas, and then she loaded up her dogs and clothes and went back to take care of our mom. She arranged for a hospital bed to be waiting on mom when she was released. They had told us that they didn’t think she would be with us in three months.
April 2009 – Mom with my sister and me
(the last photo of us all together)
Mom went downhill very quickly after she got home. Each day when I called, my sister would give me the update, and then I’d talk to mom. On April 28th, my sister told me that the hospice nurse didn’t see that Mom would make it past the weekend. What was my plan? I decided to fly out on April 30th for Ohio. That happened to be my grandson’s birthday so the day before we had a mini-birthday for him and then very early the next morning, I caught a flight out. I heard her voice for the last time that evening. I told her I was coming. She kept calling me by my sister’s name (well, she’d done that my entire life!) but my sister got her to say my name and told me that she wanted me to hear Mom say my name. Mom had been calling my sister by her sister’s name and talking as if she was back in the 1940s or 50s. My sister had hardly slept as Mom had been trying to get up in the middle of the night, and it was all my sister could do – even at my mom’s 97 lb weight – to hold on to her so she wouldn’t fall down and get her back to bed.
I didn’t know what I would find when I arrived. Would she still be alive? She was. Would she still be alert? Not really. How much time would there be left? Not much. All afternoon and evening after I arrived, friends, relatives and the minister came by. Hospice nurses switched shifts. My sister and I talked to Mom. She began to really “go away” that evening. We talked of how she didn’t want to linger. We had to let her go. I didn’t sleep that night but my sister said she got a good night’s sleep. I sat next to Mom’s bed, holding her hand, listening to her breathing, and just making sure I could remember how her hands felt – soft – and that she was near. The next day dawned, and she was still with us. More relatives came by. People called on the phone. We all told her that it was okay for her to move on, to go to our grandparents, her sister and brother, and our brother. My nephew drove in from Texas. I called family members and Mom’s special gentleman friend and told them they had to tell her that it was okay to let go – that it wasn’t fair to her for them to hang on to her. I’d put the phone by her ear and pray that she heard their words. That evening, I told my sister I was going to try to nap for a bit but to wake me just in case her breathing changed. It wasn’t long before she roused me. She, my nephew and I sat with her and told her goodbye. My sister told her that it was okay to fly away like a butterfly, and then she took her last breath. Amidst the tears, sorrow, and grief, we helped bathe her, brush her hair, put lotion on her, and then called the relatives who wanted to see her one last time before the funeral home came for her.
In the days that followed, my sister’s husband and my husband and family arrived, final preparations were completed, a memorial service was held, and then our husbands and families left. We still had the interment to follow a week after the memorial service. We still had a house that needed to be cleared out and readied for sale. We had an attorney to find in order to start probate – and without a legal will – that was absolutely the worst thing to endure while going through the grieving process. There were times I just wanted to go off on whoever was giving me an attitude – in fact, I did at a clerk in the probate office who kept pointing to forms when I asked her what I needed to do. There were times that I didn’t want to have to pack the car just one more time for one more trip to Goodwill. There were moments I wondered why we had never made sure she had a legal will.
May 6, 2009 – Memorial at the Celebration of Life service for Mom
After cleaning out the house – which made it practically impossible to give in to grief – and having our cousins around trying to provide some sort of support for us, my sister went back to Texas after Memorial day – after we had ordered Mom’s gravestone. I had to wait a couple more weeks until my grandson was out of school so that my husband could drive to Ohio to pick me up – along with renting a U-Haul truck and being loaded down in my van with stuff to bring back to Texas for my sister, niece, nephew, and my own kids. It still took almost two years for Mom’s estate to be probated and her home to be sold. Until then, it seemed as if every communication from the estate administrator or the attorney was like ripping a bandage away from a wound. The sorrow and grief were always there – not to mention a bit of anger that Mom’s wishes were not being carried out the way she had meant.
On what would have been her birthday the fall after she passed away, I was busy waiting on my grandson to be born. For my sister, it was a very difficult day. Mom never knew that she would have a new great-grandson, but I knew that she was probably arranging his birthday to be the same as hers after she was gone. During one moment when I had sat with her alone, I had asked her to indicate her presence to me with a penny. When we were cleaning out her home, I would find pennies in the most unusual spots. In an old change purse, I found a penny dated the same year I was born. That was good enough for me. Although, in the jar marked “pennies” there were none to be found – only nickels, dimes, quarters and silver dollars! To this day, my children and grandchildren have had butterflies glide along beside them as they play or light on their hands and arms – just sitting for a few moments. We always say that Grammy (what mom was known as to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren) is nearby.
And now, five years has gone by since she’s been gone. I dreamed about her several months ago – a dream that wasn’t a memory of something that had happened earlier in my life. It was a dream that she was real and was standing in front of me. I was able to hug her and feel her. It was comforting to know that my mother’s arms are still around me even if she’s not physically with me anymore. The dishes that once belonged to her, I still use – but only for the same thing she used them for. One bowl is only for mashed potatoes. The top part of the large double boiler was only used to heat up soup. I am so lucky to have digital recordings of her voice so I can still hear her. I have some old videos so I can still see her in motion. I have letters that she sent to my grandparents in the 1950s when she lived in Japan so I can read her words and know her thoughts. And I have photos – tons of photos.
Each year my sister and I buy a silk flower arrangement for the vase on her gravestone. The cemetery leaves it there from spring until fall. And we will continue to do so until neither one of us can do that anymore. I miss our daily phone conversations even though there were times neither one of us had any real news of the day to share. Occasionally, I have to keep myself in check because I haven’t picked up the phone to call her before realizing there’s no one to call anymore. When I hear hateful words between family members, I’ve had to say that I wish I could argue with my mom but I can’t because she’s not there hoping to make someone realize that life could change in an instant.
This is just a small part of my mom’s story. But it’s her final story. And whether it’s five years or fifty years, I’ll miss her everyday.
Mary Helen (Johnson) Amore
September 21, 1921 – May 1, 2009