As I drove to work this morning, I noticed that the morning sky was particularly gray. Looking out at the road ahead was like looking through a velvety fog of gray and white. Earlier this month I wrote about January; for me, the month of gray skies and a blue heart. Still, when I drove through the gray blanket, I didn’t think about the date and its significance. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon when I read an email from a close friend that I remembered what today meant for me and my family.
Two years ago today, in the very early hours of the day, my mom left us. Her long fight with Alzheimer’s Disease was over; her frail body unable to withstand another bout of pneumonia or bronchitis. She was 86 years old and resided for almost six years at St. Ann’s Community, first at The Heritage and later at St. Ann’s Nursing Home. During those years we watched her fade away from us, slowly at first and then with increased speed. Each time she was physically ill, a little more of her memory would slip away. She made lots of friends during these six years. The first five years she lived at The Heritage and spent almost all of her time in the lounge with so many other residents. My sister and I were frequent evening and weekend visitors. Many times Donna and I were “the best show in the lobby,” as we entertained Mom and her many friends. We would ask them to tell us stories about their families and jobs and old neighborhoods. Some would tell sad stories and some would tell unbelievably fantastic tales. These seniors were different in many ways — some were nice, some were nasty, some were lucid and some confused. Yet, they were the same in their desire for company and conversation, a hug or a kiss. There was often some type of entertainment for them, but if a particular evening was quiet, my sister and I would start our own little sing-a-long. We always tried to sing songs from earlier times. I think we had more fun than they did. We loved watching them smile and sing, clapping their hands as we would repeat verses when we couldn’t remember the words.
About a year before she died, Mom’s mind and body began declining more rapidly. My brother came to town often in those days and we eventually made the difficult decision to move her from assisted living to full-time nursing care. She didn’t adjust well. She tried to escape multiple times. She became increasingly combative and angry. She screamed obscenities at us and at her caregivers. It was awful. During those difficult times we did a lot of crying and praying. We were so grateful to her caregivers for their compassion and loving care. When she wasn’t fighting them or us, Mom was extremely loving. Every day she became more childlike. The roles had completely reversed. She told everyone I was her older sister, something that always made us laugh. We had to laugh or we would cry. We learned to agree with her about everything and did our best to reassure her when she was afraid and couldn’t sleep without having the light on. She started receiving hospice care the October before she died.
It still amazes me that the hospice caregivers were so correct in their assessment of the time she had left. A few days before she passed, one of the hospice workers called us to “vigil.” For three days and nights our routines stopped. We spent all of our energy and time at Mom’s bedside. For most of those three days, our families, extended relatives and friends were with us in her tiny room. I was grateful that so many were there for Mom. She never liked being alone; in her earlier, more lucid moments, she implored us to be at her side when it was her time. I watched each of my children, nieces and nephews wiping their tears as they came to join us in the hall after their private time with Grandma. She was awake much of the time during those three days but unable to speak. On Saturday morning she slipped into a coma. Most of that day Chuck, Donna and I sat quietly at her bedside talking about life with Mom. By late evening, exhausted from his journey, Chuck left for a while to try to get some sleep. By midnight I told Donna the two of us should do the same. Donna refused to leave Mom. Reluctantly and with guilt feelings, I put my coat on and my sister left Mom’s bedside long enough to walk me to the elevators. The night nurse on duty was at the desk. I asked how much time she thought was left and she told us she was fairly certain the time was close. Together, we turned and headed back to Mom’s room. We didn’t talk anymore. We watched and waited as some of her aides came in to pray over her, smooth her covers and generally try to make her comfortable. Just after 12:30 a.m. Mom suddenly opened her eyes. We jumped up from our chairs and hovered over her, each of us taking one of her hands in ours. She looked at us and tried to say something but her tongue just moved about in her mouth and she was unable to speak. We told her it was okay to go and that Dad was waiting for her. We sobbed and prayed at the same time. After a few minutes she closed her eyes and seemed more restful. We watched her breathing begin to slow, her chest heaving at first and then only her mouth moving, and eventually a quiet and eerie silence.
I lost my parents in completely different ways. I never got the chance to say goodbye to my Dad; his death was sudden and unexpected. After he died, I always believed being with a loved one at the time of their death would make the parting easier. It isn’t. Rest in peace, Mom.