Three years ago today, I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath. This is the post I wrote the day after. Today I am remembering a moment towards the end of her days when she was at Hospice. I never had a lot of time to have the heart-to-heart conversation with her that I yearned for. Things were moving too fast; I was too busy with Dad, and Mom was too sick. But on this afternoon, for the minutes she was awake, I leaned over her bed and said, “I’m going to have to find a way to talk to you.” She said, “Yes, you will.” Then I cried the tears I tried so hard to hide from her. She reached up with both of her arms and cupped my face between her two hands, giving me a lifetime of gratitude and love, a million words of goodbye, in one moment I will cherish forever.
On Thursday night I heard my mother stir and I rose from my bed on the floor in the corner of her room and hurried to her side.
“What’s wrong?” she asked as she roused from the deep sleep she had been in all day.
“Nothing’s wrong, Mom.”
“Someone’s crying,” she said.
In my mom’s 78 years on this planet, I imagine she heard and answered a lot of someones crying. In the 1950s through the 1970s she was raising five children who had been born within six years, including my sister Annie who was extremely disabled. I suspect there were a lot of times someone was crying.
Even as we grew older we were sometimes crying: me coming home from college carrying a basket of laundry when a relationship ended; a long-distance phone call to speak of a loved one who died; a conversation about one thing or the…
The ornaments are wrapped in their boxes and stacked on the shelf in the basement. The cookies have been devoured. Containers of leftovers from elaborate meals now empty, washed, and stored. The lighted angel is silent, the announcement of a birth long past, she stands in the dark downstairs beside the box of strings of lights that brightened the bushes outside our window. The sheets are changed and the towels washed. Toys are put away. Santa came and went in a flash. But the amaryllis remains.
I dress more for comfort than style, you might say. Unless you are my daughter, and then you might say that I never dress for style. But I maintain I do have a style, and it is called, comfort.
One of the things I like about my particular style, is that it requires little to no ironing. Wash, dry, fold or hang-up and my clothes are ready to wear. There are one or two exceptions for special occasions, like Christmas.
I wanted to wear a light-weight wool sweater today for the family party we are hosting. It is a rich cranberry color and mostly I save it for the holidays. I washed it, dried it flat, and it is not ready to wear. Iron on a warm setting, the tag informs me.
So I pull my rickety ironing board out of the closet, unwrap the iron’s cord from the handy shelf/bracket I installed in my closet five years ago expressly for that purpose, and plug my iron in.
My mother taught me how to iron.
In fact, when I was young, I loved to iron. My mom would save my father’s hankies, and all the pillowcases for me to iron. In those days she didn’t have a steam iron. She dampened the things that needed to be ironed, which I suspect were most things in those days before the miracle of permanent press happened.
Mom had a shaker bottle that she filled with water. She would lay the clothing or household article flat on the table or ironing board, and sprinkle it with water. Then she rolled it up and placed it on its end in the laundry basket to wait its turn. I can remember it as clear as if it happened yesterday.
I would unroll the damp pillowcases and go to work on them with the iron, transforming the wrinkled and damp to dry and smooth. I folded the pillowcases as I worked. I folded each one into thirds lengthwise, making a long narrow, neat column that I would fold in half and again into fourths, pressing each section as I went and ending with a nice neat little square that stacked perfectly in the linen closet.
I can’t remember the last time I ironed a pillowcase.
I liked doing my dad’s hankies even more. They were quick and sweet and made a nice little square when folded in half eight times.
I still have one of my dad’s hankies. I stuck it in my pocket when we cleaned out his room in the nursing home the night he died. I took it with me to the cemetery at his funeral where I dampened it with my own tears and pressed it between my fingers.
Maybe I’d still enjoy ironing pillowcases and hankies today if I took the time to do it.
At my writing group last night one of the women wrote about care-giving for her father who had Alzheimer’s. She wrote of herself as a reluctant caregiver. She found a lot of reasons why she didn’t want to make the 2-hour drive to Columbus and stay overnight at her parents’ house.
I applauded her for her honesty.
And then I started to wonder about myself. Did I resent feeling a responsibility to take care of Mom and Dad over the past years? I don’t remember not wanting to go visit them. I don’t remember it being a burden. What I remember most was being driven to try to fix the problem, to help ease their pain, to scramble to make things better somehow, someway. It was a vocation for me.
I’m sure there were days when I might have preferred to stay home, but I really can’t recall feeling that way.
And it makes me wonder whether I am now in denial, or whether my personal history has made me approach or feel differently about care-giving than some others might. I learned care-giving from a very early age as I stooped to pick Annie’s toys up off the ground where she dropped them, or straightened her up in her chair, or fed her a meal. When I moved away from home it wasn’t very many years before I was giving care to what would eventually be four children in our family.
I know there were times when I grew tired, or frustrated, but I don’t think I would ever refer to myself as reluctant. I wanted to help my parents. I was desperate to make things better.
When things fell apart last December, I spent nights on a sofa in the lobby of a hospital, on a sofa at my Mom’s house, on a Hospice chair that converted to a very hard bed, on an air mattress on the floor, in a recliner beside my father’s bed. I wanted to be there. I went home and slept in my own bed only because I knew that if I didn’t take breaks I would not be able to sustain the level of support I wanted to give.
But in this place of grief where I now dwell, I wonder if I will ever know the truth of any of it anymore. Can we ever really know the truth?
Grasshoppers dot the sun-warmed paved path every couple of yards or so where I walk Arthur beside the rippling lake on a cool autumn day. Arthur gets close and pokes his nose at one. It hops away.
Arthur scampers along beside me in the grass, his nose to the ground. Following a trail. His little white paws startle grasshoppers hiding there. Arthur ignores them.
I remember a long ago fall day on the river levy of my dad’s youth where we scampered along the hillside, our little Ked’s-clad feet startling the grasshoppers who hid there. Grasshoppers popping up all around us.
We set chase, catching them with bare hands then letting them go again. The thrill of the catch enough.
I feel my past slipping away like a landslide, the topsoil steadily moving down behind me like a carpet pulling everything with it into the deep dark void. Unstoppable. Taking the houses, the trees, and me.
“Who took the Adams’ Bible?” my aunt wants to know. “There was a big ruckus over that Bible. It landed in the hands of an alienated family member. Aunt Flo finally got it back and your mother got it from her.”
I scanned all the black and white photos in Dad’s leather album from his time in the army in Germany, transcribing all the little handwritten notes on the backs.
“Me standing at attention. Shaner messed this up. He didn’t tell me I was shadowed.”
“This is my equipment that we had to carry most of the time. I took it Sunday when we had inspection.”
“We had a demonstration yesterday and here is a shot taken right after the air force dropped some napalm on the target before the tanks and big guns moved in. It was some show.”
“Me sewing up a pair of shorts. The general is coming to inspect. (It didn’t do any good. We failed.)”
Mom’s framed wedding portrait with a telegram from my grandfather to my dad in Germany.
“Congratulations. It’s a little girl. Arrived at 9:30. Everything okay.”
I scanned all the photos of Mom and my sister in the back of Dad’s army album that I never realized were there.
“She’s got her eyes open a little bit more here. Isn’t she the cutest thing you ever saw?”
“This is where I give her a bath. Right by the stove. I turn the burners on so it will be nice and warm for her.”
Mom and Dad’s memories, recorded on film, sent across the ocean, returned home, arranged in a photo album, held in place with black photo corners.
Envelopes of color photos from the trip to D.C., my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, Mom and Dad’s 50th anniversary. Grandchildren.
I’ll keep the things they saved from their parents. Photos, marriage licenses, death certificates. A hand-written diary from Mom’s grandfather and his farming days.
I’ll put it all in the cedar chest with their high school graduation photos and yearbooks; with the outfit Mom wore in the photo with her great-grandson just two years ago, and Dad’s captain’s hats from his pontoon days at the cottage at the lake.
Little mementos. Articles of genealogical interest. Sentimental items.
I’ll store them all away, for what purpose I do not know. Small fragments of a past that is no more.
I woke up to a fascinating, no, more than fascinating, soul-stirring, comment on one of my blog posts. Although I had planned to do another post about our recent trip to New Orleans, in keeping with my intention when I started this blog of writing about what was on my mind when I woke up, I am sharing this story with you.
When I arose this morning, I checked my iPhone for email and found this blog comment to moderate by a new reader, Roseanne, who wrote, “. . .I was just lying here looking for sleep, when my Mother came into my thoughts. I got up and put into the computer ‘My Mom had a very hard life ‘ and found your blog. I’m going to put it in my favorites and follow you. I have never done anything like this before. . .”
But Roseanne’s words struck a cord with me, because even though I had never written about it, my mom had a hard life, as most of my loyal followers might imagine.
When she was young my mother often had to care for her two younger siblings because her mother suffered from heart disease and was quite ill a lot of the time. Then my father was sent to Germany in the army and Mom had their first child, my oldest sister, while he was thousands of miles away. A few years (and children) later, Annie was born with severe brain damage and Mom, along with Dad, took care of her every day for 51 years. Annie died shortly after Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mom went directly from caring for her daughter to caring for her husband. She never got a break. Not one. That’s one of the hardest things I’m dealing with now in the throes of my grief.
So the fact that Roseanne found me by searching for those terms had me take notice. Thank you, Roseanne.
But Roseanne wasn’t the first person who found me recently. A few days ago I got a couple of comments from a person named Kathy and her brother Kenneth on my “Remembering Grandma” post that I had written about my mom’s mother. They recognized the Adams’ name and the house that my grandmother grew up in.
It turns out that they are distant relatives. Their grandfather Adams was my great-grandfather’s brother. They have remained in the same basic location that my, and their, Adams’ family set down roots when they came to Ohio from New York sometime in the 1820s. We are talking about meeting each other in the near future. It is an exciting find for an amateur genealogist like myself, and even more stirring for my heart that has found new family, albeit extended, after experiencing the painful sense of loss of family following the deaths of my parents. I only wish I could tell my mom. She would have been thrilled to know. Thank you, Kathy and Kenny.
My new “cousin” Kathy wrote me and said, “I just have to say that I think my Grandma Adams up in heaven was pushing for us to meet. There were so many events leading up to me finding your blog and things that occurred afterwards that led me to believe it was not ‘just a coincidence.'”
I wrote her back and said that I believed my grandmother, in cahoots with my mother, may have had something to do with it too. Isn’t it a nice idea to think about loved ones plotting and scheming in Heaven, trying to find a way to break through the veil of life that separates us?
Now, I realize some of you will agree with me whole-heartedly, and some of you will think this is a bunch of bunky and I should devote my active imagination to more production purposes like writing a novel, perhaps. And I’ll be honest and say that I have been all over the map in what I believe about after life.
I can say, though, that when you lose someone you love dearly, it can make you want to believe. And belief, after all, is a choice we make. Belief, according to dictionary.com is, by definition, “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.” If there was proof, you wouldn’t need to believe. You would simply know. It is something we can choose to do.
My mom believed in the power of prayer. And in the thinning of the veil from this life to the next. As she was near the end of her days in a bed at Hospice I told her, “I’m going to miss talking to you, Mom. I’m going to have to find another way to talk to you.” And she replied, “Yes. You will.”
So I’ll repeat the question I asked in my very first blog post, that I read again today while I was looking for what I actually said about the purpose of my blog: