Wednesday, December 5, 2012

When it's all been said and done

This picture was taken a year ago when my mom's siblings came to celebrate her 85th birthday, before the radiation and spiral downward began. It's how I want to remember my mom.

My mom died almost 2 weeks ago, holding my hand. The inoperable squamous cell carcinoma (skin cancer) that we had been dealing with for years had spread across most of her head, through the bone into her brain,  had probably gone into her right eye and had turned septic. Mom died of advanced sepsis and watching septic shock take her life is not an experience I would wish on anyone. Like most of our lives together, at the end it was just mom and I, sitting holding hands, except my other hand was on her wrist checking for a pulse and mom was in a deep coma, rasping breath followed by convulsion slowly fading.

When you are an only child it's all on you. There is no tagging off, there is no trading out. There is no one to play bad cop to your good cop; all the decisions, all the choices fell to me. Mom was never one to shy away from a tough subject, so we had had many conversations about what her wishes were at the end of her life. She had been firm in her instructions that no extraordinary measures were to be taken. When sepsis was confirmed, and before mom slipped into unconsciousness, I asked her one more time if that was what she wanted. She was lucid, and said "there's no point in prolonging this." A mother to the end, I knew she didn't want to leave me, so I told her that I would be fine, that I was okay and had lots of friends to take care of me. I told her it was time for her to go because love never dies. While she was still lucid, I asked her to send me a sign that she had made it safely to heaven. After my father died, mourning doves starting showing up regularly. I asked mom to send me a cardinal  as a sign, and she agreed. A few hours after she died, I looked out my kitchen door and there was a female cardinal sitting on the railing of the deck looking in, the male nowhere to be found. Mom kept her final promise to me. A little while later, a single mourning dove showed up. Mom and dad are looking out for me.

I am still a mother, too, and my daughter had a Christmas party to go to the morning after my mom died. My husband and I decided not to tell her until after the party. Mom would have been really ticked if her beloved granddaughter had missed a Christmas party, and mom wasn't going to be any more dead if we waited a few hours to break my daughter's heart. Her grief is coming out in unusual ways. She was really angry with me the first few days after mom died, I think because I was supposed to fix things, and I couldn't fix this. While we were driving to drop her off so my husband, my cousin and I could clear the contents of mom's room, the Kid asked how grandma was going to buy her Christmas presents. I told her Grandma already did, which was true. "No, next year..." she said. It broke my already broken heart. She's become very clingy, and I just take the emotion as it comes. She has a right to grieve however she needs to.

My mother used to tell me that she grieved her father too much to cry, and I never understood that. I do now. I do not wish my mom back in the hellish existence of the last year but I miss my mom in a million little ways every moment. I have been grieving the loss of my mom for 11 months, as she slipped away bit by bit, pieces of our life together falling away as her health deteriorated and she moved to a nursing home. This is different. It's a sadness deeper than tears and a profound, stoic resolve to get up, move through and do what needs to be done. It's how I was raised, and nothing less than mom expected of me. I still have to make Christmas for my 7 year old.

Isn't it funny how personal crises show you who your true friends are?  People I would have called a casual acquaintance turned up at my door with baking when I put out an SOS, while people  I thought I could count on disappeared like smoke. A couple of my friends don't typically bake, but baked for me anyway. And people whose lives mom had no idea she touched came for her funeral and made a point of talking to me after.

My mom's best friend of 70 years is shattered, as my mom would have been if Mary had gone first. Mary's daughter and I were petrified that the other's mom would die first because we knew how it would devastate the one left behind. Just before mom's health plummeted, she had one last, wonderful conversation with her friend on the phone. Mary has had serious health issues lately as well, and the phone calls haven't been as chatty of late. Two hours after the last phone call, mom was on oxygen and four days later, she was gone. I am thankful they had that one last call although it makes things harder.

I prepared the funeral the way mom and I had discussed. I made it through without "making a scene" as mom would have said, although when my cousin read a letter to mom that he had sent her in September, I broke down for a moment. We'd had some significant family rifts in recent years, and up to the morning of the funeral, my husband was under instructions to keep one of my cousins away from me, because I would no longer hold my tongue about how he had treated my mom. And then mom died, and he came to the funeral, and what did it matter now anyway? I even invited him back to the house after, because really, what did it matter now? Mom was still gone and he would have to live with the regret.

For this past year, I have taken care of my mom to the best of my ability. I've fought for her, I've held her hand, I've advocated for her, and I've made a million big and little decisions so that the quality of her life were the best they could be under the horrendous circumstances we found ourselves mired in. I've been judged, I've been challenged and I've been criticized. My health, our family finances and my career have been compromised and my life was not my own. Mom said to me recently that she was sorry she had been a burden, and I told her it had never been a burden, not even once. She was slipping into a coma on the night before she died, but the nurse assured me we were nowhere near the end, so I went home to put my daughter to bed. The last thing I always said to my mom was "I love you, mama, I'll talk to you later". It was the last thing I ever said to my father, and I wanted to make sure that it was what mom heard too. She was more or less unresponsive, but roused enough to say "love you." back. When mom went into the coma, we had said all we had to say.

I lost my mom, my confidante, my sounding board, my friend and my protector. I do not regret or resent one second of the past year, because I was able to give back some of what mom gave me over the years. I can look mom's family, friends, caregivers and most importantly, myself squarely in the eye because I know I did everything I could do to the best of my ability to take care of my mom.

I love you mom. I miss you. Be at peace. I will be okay. I had a good example to follow.