By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
Last July,2012 in the article It’s Never Too Late I wrote about wondering what it would be like when my mother died. We had a complicated relationship and bringing her into our living community of 8 other people hasn’t been easy. I never experienced that uncomplicated relationship with her till the last week of her life, which ended on August 28, 2013. This has not been easy to write. The words fall short of the true experience. My head is full of her. I feel much like a battered wife wanting her abuser back, believing that the next time will be different. I know there are no more chances. The letter that follows is just a beginning of the grief work that lies ahead for me.
You’ve been dead 10 days now. I know how much you enjoyed receiving letters in life so I decided I’d write one last time. I was never faithful when it came to writing to you as you requested. My defiant nature probably had something to do with it, and partly it was because you made written correspondence a measure of whether a relationship was worthy of your time. I guess I was always pushing back against your relentless expectations. After you died and I called the people on your list of those to notify many said you stopped writing to them because they didn’t write back. You said you didn’t even want Bob, your only son, to travel 90 miles to say goodbye to you because he didn’t write letters to you. He came anyway and you were glad.
Some said you hadn’t been happy for years and had wanted to die for a long time. I knew that, too. Others were shocked because they had seen you recently climbing up and down the stairs looking for me and assumed correctly that you were in pretty good health for your age. I had to tell them you were not about to die as a result of illness but from self-inflicted malnutrition and dehydration because you were weary of life and wanted to be done with it.
I know you were disappointed that living in Oregon didn’t automatically make you eligible for ending your life under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. Being hard of hearing and facing macular degeneration didn’t qualify as a life threatening illness. You confided in me that you sometime thought about ingesting rat poison, walking in front of a moving vehicle, throwing yourself down the steps or taking an overdose of aspirin. I’m glad I was able to talk you out of those choices. But why did you decide to stop eating and drinking? And why now?
John and I had just returned from a five day holiday with some of our grandkids. You were welcome at such outings, but always chose not to participate. The rest of the folks in our house were keenly aware that you had been waiting anxiously for me to return. That didn’t seem unusual to me. You were always eager for me to return even if I had only gone to the store! I came immediately to your room to see you and to show you I hadn’t forgotten that this was Tuesday and that I needed to pour your pills. You said you were glad to see me, asked a few questions about our trip and then said don’t bother pouring the pills because you weren’t going to take them anymore. I didn’t try to talk you out of it. The next morning you didn’t put your teeth in. You had a little bit of coffee and then told me matter-of-factly you weren’t going to eat or drink anymore. I didn’t try to talk you out of that either.
I know that you would do anything in the world for me. I also know that, try as we did, we could not help you to enjoy life. But why now? Were you mad at me for leaving you for a few days of vacation? I’m choosing to believe you weren’t mad at me. I’m choosing to believe that you didn’t give up. I’m choosing to believe you knew you were done. I’m having to tell myself this a couple of times a day until I really believe it.
You started giving things away. You didn’t have much, but the sentiment was there. ”I don’t need this anymore,” you said. It was like you were preparing to die by suicide. If so was this a call for help? Should I be doing something? At first your grandchildren were annoyed. What were they supposed to tell their children (your great grandchildren) about what you were doing? They saw you often. They knew that last week you weren’t dying, but now you were. How do they wrap their heads around this sudden new reality?
I know that being a burden was one of your biggest fears and hearing you say that MANY times a day was my biggest burden. Obviously I was never able to convince you that your presence alone was sufficient and that the fact that you dropped things occasionally or needed help pouring your coffee was not an inconvenience to us.
It was hard for us when you didn’t want to join family gatherings because you said you wouldn’t be able to hear anybody anyway. It was hard when you would refuse to try anything that might make your life a little easier. We knew that your stubborn pride would never allow you to use a cane, a walker or a wheelchair.
Some people didn’t believe that you would go through with your plan to die. I knew for sure that you would when you asked me to cancel your eye appointment. You had been so eager to visit Dr. Crawford, hoping that maybe he had something new to try to help improve your vision. But even this was no longer important to you.
I also knew that after you decided to stop using alcohol 33 years ago you never once relapsed. Whenever you made up your mind to something, right or wrong, you would stick to it. A few days into your final fast you asked Codi if ice cream was food. She said, “I’ll go ask Pat.” I came to you and said that yes it is food and that I’d be glad to get you some. You said, “It’s not worth it if it would make me live one minute more.”
But the last week of your life was probably one of your happiest. You were peaceful. You never complained. You were full of grace and your funny self showed up to lighten the time. You got all the love and attention you always craved. But you were still you, making sure everything was in its place and giving me orders about what needed to be done next! And wondering why it was taking so long.
You enjoyed all of your visitors and had conversations with them, listening intently as they told you what you meant to them. You were even able to hear them without having your hearing aids in. I couldn’t help but wonder if you were sorry you had made the decision to die now. When your visitors were gone you were off to sleep getting energy for your next performance.
You always complained that I was the only one you wanted to hear but that you couldn’t hear me because of your hearing problem. I think the clutter in your head was now gone and you were able to focus on what really mattered. I could talk softly to you and you heard every word.
I asked if you were having any pain. You said you always had pain from your broken arm. But, no. Dying didn’t hurt. Was it supposed to? This is weird, you’d say. Someone should write a book about this!
You got pretty weak and were unable to walk on your own. At night you would try to crawl out of bed and would land on the floor, so I started sleeping with you. One night as you attempted to escape my supervision I grabbed your pajama top and held it tight. You started fighting and screaming for help, then blowing your whistle to get someone’s attention. I was sure the police would be beating down the door at any moment. I tried to get the whistle away but it became a tug of war between you and me. You finally yelled at me, “Get your own damn whistle!” I managed to get the whistle off the lanyard and then let you have the lanyard minus the whistle. After attempting to blow on the end of the lanyard you announced that the whistle was broken and gave me the opportunity to try. Yep, it was broken. You then willingly let me hold you as we fell asleep together.
Not long before you died we played a recording of the Marine Hymn. This is not the type of music generally chosen to play for one who is about to die. But it seemed quite fitting for you, and after all it was your death. You have always told people you are planning to come back as a Gunny Sargent in the US Marines. We thought hearing your favorite music would give you your marching orders and help you move on to your next adventure. You died shortly thereafter. You just slipped away. No big deal. As promised I was by your side reminding you that I love you.
After your last breath we offered a toast and I washed your hair one last time. Just in case you wondered, all your wrinkles that you hated went away. We dressed you in your clown outfit as you had requested including white face and a big red nose. You stayed the night. I just wasn’t ready to let you go. And besides, it was raining and you never liked the rain.
You gave me wonderful memories that last week that reminded me of a woman I knew many years ago.
Mom, you weren’t easy to live with these past four years but I’m glad we did invite you to be with us. I’ve been looking at you for the last four years and wondering what happened to my mommy. Who was this person that climbed into my mother’s body? I know you and Tom hadn’t been happy for those last years before he died and that you had developed a habit of being mean to each other.
I can’t remember when I lost you. Was it when you fell heavily into alcoholism and became a victim to your own life? Even after you stopped drinking you remained bitter and unwilling to forgive. You quickly assumed that nobody cared, and pushed people away if they tried to care. We hoped a new environment would change your world. I had to learn over and over that it wasn’t up to me to determine the quality of your life.
I’m beginning to believe you actually died, or your spirit died, a long time ago and that it was just your body that hadn’t died yet. You were brave enough to realize that and didn’t want to live in that shell any longer.
Your death has taken away the sting of your life. I can remember if I want to the stuff that drove me to want to end both of our lives but there is no emotion attached to it anymore. I can now enjoy the quirky parts of you that used to embarrass me, like the funny faces you would make and the little dance steps you would perform as you were coming toward me, or telling me you wanted a “huggypoo.”
Saturday before you died you asked me if you could ask me a question. I said “Yes.” You asked, “Did your dad molest you when you were a child?” I said yes. You said “I’m sorry.” I saw a tear slide down your cheek. I had waited for many years for those two words.
Do I miss you? Yes I miss you very much. And I’m glad you were my mother. You taught me everything you knew. I am who I am today because you were my mother.
As you were giving birth to your liberated soul I was giving birth to my new life. My new life will be filled with memories that I haven’t had for years--memories of when it was just us, you and your four children against the world, when we looked out for each other and pretended everything was okay.
I’m glad to have my mommy back.
Read It’s Never Too Late