The morning Mom passed away, the hospice staff asked me if I wanted some time alone with her body. “Yes, of course.” After the door closed behind me, I paced and wailed. “This is not fair. This is not fair.” Heartbroken, not making sense, I walked around Mom’s body and told to the heavens. “I don’t like this one bit. No, I just don’t like this.”
Pancreatic cancer stole my mother’s life in three short weeks from the time of the diagnosis. She was 79 and I was 52.
Mom was made comfortable at the edge of death and sustained by her deep religious faith. Before slipping into the final coma, she awakened several mornings, looked around, and sadly noted, “Oh, I’m not in heaven.”
Family members and beloved friends visited and said their goodbyes in person. Others telephoned. “A generous old gal,” was how her older sister, my aunt, described my mother. She had a great spirit.
Mom had a fragile side. She might sulk over a hint of criticism.When I was growing up, she had a tendency to erupt in shouting when she was unhappy. My mother’s rages defined my childhood and much of my adult life. Mom worked all week and saved up her considerable enthusiasm for housecleaning until Saturdays. Mom rallied my sister and me to help. How? By shouting at us.
As soon as one of her Saturday yelling episodes began, I escaped to the quieter sanctuaries of friends’ homes. I made avoidance an art as a child and an adult. I perfected running away so well that it took me decades to discover how to deal with problems in a more mature manner.
Kids have few options. Mine was walking away. My sister and brother took the direct hits of Mom’s shrieking. I became collateral damage, feeling the impact of the harsh words as if they had been spoken to me. For years I considered myself lucky, a mere bystander to the rougher time my older siblings must have had while I was out of the house.
Memories of Mom’s hard words occasionally nagged at me over the years. It took becoming a teacher to see that words spoken to one child are felt by every child in the room. The raindrops fall and touch all of us.
As a parent, I vowed to break the circle. I promised myself that with my children, I would create a quiet and loving home. I rarely raised my voice. I may have given my kids other issues to deal with in therapy, but memories of a loud household will not be among them.
When I was in my forties Mom wrote me a long letter that asked forgiveness. She could have but did not point blame toward anyone but herself. She was genuinely sorry and expressed that directly. In her later years, she filled her life with acts of generosity, friendship, kindness, faith, and charity.
It’s truly a gift when someone asks forgiveness. I’m extremely grateful that she took that step because it healed some of my wounds. What’s more, she gave me a positive example of how to express regret and seek forgiveness. I especially think of her when I try to express remorse to my own children for my mistakes. .
As Mom approached death, the tables had switched. I found it hard to care for a person dying of cancer while saying goodbye to the mother I loved so dearly. The array of medicines required to ease Mom’s pain overwhelmed me in spite of my best efforts to track the timing and dosage.
I felt the exhaustion one feels when tending a new baby. Although Mom intended to die at home, in the end she agreed to move the residential hospice.
Two days before her death, Mom opened her eyes, pointed to the ceiling, and said, “It’s glorious!” before returning to a comatose state. Did she really see the other side? Or was this one last hurrah in her lifelong tendency to add drama to ordinary life?
What more could we have said? Nothing could change the screaming episodes I experienced as a child. She might have apologized all over again if I had mentioned it during her dying days. After so many years I realized that she had let go and rightfully so. She had had a spiritual awakening and completely turned around her life in the years after I left home. She led a simple life and had many dear friends.
Meanwhile I was the one who had continued fighting the memories of the painful past. When Mom was unconscious, before she died, I still wanted to swing more punches at fate. I wanted one more round before the final count. While she held on to life I realized that the demons in the room were my own.
I haven’t ruled out the possibility of meeting up with Mom in another lifetime. Sitting with her while she was in a coma, I said, “Mom! The next time around, the raging has to stop. I don’t want you scream the way you did this time.” I had learned to identify what I needed and how to ask for it. Finally I let go.
On that last day at the hospice, after Mom died, I realized that when the time came, it made little difference that her death had been accurately predicted, calmly anticipated, and provided relief from the pain. I railed against the end of Mom’s life, the finality. I broke down. I wept for my mother and for myself.