Wednesday, August 17, 2016

My Mother's Final Gift

23 years ago today, my mother died.  Truly the pain of losing a loved one never really goes away.  But one adjusts to it – it’s either that or a life spent in sadness.  There have been many times, particularly in the last decade, when I’ve wished I could tell my mother how happy I finally am - with my career, my place in society, and especially my husband.  But if all wishes were granted we’d have nothing to strive for, and as C. S. Lewis wrote, “The pain now is part of the happiness then; that’s the deal”.

I was at a difficult point of my life in August of 1993: broke, unemployed, unsure of where I wanted to live, a relationship recently fizzled out – one of many up to that point.  After eight years living and struggling in Haverhill, Massachusetts, I opted to move to Florida with my sister Sarah and her family – with hopes of a brighter future.

But my troubles were nothing compared to my mother’s, someone to whom life was cruel.   After 23 years with a husband she didn’t understand, and who was unable to understand her, my mother found herself abandoned for a younger, more compatible woman.  She tried to pick herself up, tried to hold down a job – but a combination of mild Cerebral Palsy and increasing  mental illness impaired her ability to do so.  During her final years, she was intermittently hospitalized, homeless, and hopeless.  Her decline over those years was chronicled in a series of letters she wrote to me – each less coherent than the last.  In her last letter to me, she complained of abdominal pains and intestinal bleeding.  I advised her that she needed to see a doctor immediately.  When she did, she claimed she was being poisoned, and was placed the mental ward.  Her pains were written off as psychosomatic, and in a health care system which put profit above providing care, there was no examination of her physical symptoms – not even a stool sample.  It wasn’t until my mother fell and broke her hip that she was taken to the emergency room and physically examined.  By that point, her belly had distended and the doctor decided to perform exploratory surgery.  The results were heartbreaking: her small intestine and part of her stomach were gangrenous and beyond repair – a result of vascular disease caused by a lifetime of smoking.

On the evening of August 15th, my sister Sarah and I received a phone call from our sister, Pixie, telling us of the results of surgery and advising we needed to get ourselves to Cleveland immediately.  We flew to Cleveland the next morning – the first time I’d been in Cleveland in over five years.  My mother was in the intensive care unit – but she really wasn’t there.  She was on morphine with a Demerol drip due to the pain in her intestines.  Despite her belly’s distension, she weighed only 88 pounds.  I held her hand and whispered into her ear – but her hand was unresponsive and her eyes, despite being partially opened, showed no signs of life. 

Shortly afterward, my grandmother arrived with my uncle, who she had been visiting in Atlanta.  While my uncle spent time with my mother – his older sister – he and the rest of us advised  my grandmother not to go into the ICU.  At 84, we felt it best for my grandmother to be spared the shock of seeing her daughter’s condition.   As evening approached, it was mutually decided that my sisters would stay with my mother to the end, and I would accompany my uncle and grandmother to her house.  I don’t recall the rest of that evening, except that my emotions were torn between grieving my mother’s imminent death and a sense of relief that her pain would soon be at an end. 

I am not a believer in the supernatural, but as I lay fitfully sleeping on the sofa bed in my grandmother’s family room, I had a vivid dream of her seeming to ascend heavenward, while waving goodbye, broadly smiling.  She looked very much as she did in the photo below, which I took in 1977.  As she disappeared from sight, I was jolted awake by the telephone ringing, with the news my mother had died at 2:30am.  My grandmother and I sat on the sofa in the living room, quietly talking through the night – waiting for my sisters to come home.  She held herself together like the trooper she was, and it was only after my sisters arrived that she broke down in sobs – the likes of which I’d never heard from her. 

Over the next few days, funeral plans were made, the service took place (led by a pastor who didn't know my mother from Eve), and my mother was buried under the shade of a tree at Lake View Cemetery.  

But it was what happened 24 hours earlier that reminded me of my mother’s ceaseless, undying love, which endures to this day.  As related to me, while my mother lay in intensive care, her vital signs crashed, her heartbeat flatlined – my mother died.  My eldest sister Pixie, who had been with my mother in her final days and sat vigil over my mother while Sarah and I prepared to fly to Cleveland, began weeping, telling my mother that we were on our way to see her – and begged her to hold on for a while longer.

And my mother’s heart began faintly beating again, her vitals stabilized.   It would have been easier for my mother to die at that point, but whatever conscious thought that remained with my mother in those moments ordered her heart to start again, willed herself to go on.  It was my mother’s last gift – which allowed me to be able to hold her hand, tell her how much she meant to me, and that it was alright for her to let go.    

Just over a year later, in September, 1994, I returned to Cleveland, to take care of my grandmother in her advancing years.  At one time, our whole family was here.  Now, it was just my grandmother and me.  I’ve often written that I’ve never regretted my decision to return to Cleveland after nine years of living elsewhere – and I’ve extolled all our area has to offer.  But, with my grandmother now gone, I’m the last of our family still here.  So, in addition to the many reasons I stay, there is another, hitherto unmentioned reason: my mother’s remains are here.  She is the only family member buried in Cleveland.  And, when my time comes, half of my ashes will be placed on top of her grave (the other half will be buried with my husband, when our time has come), and I will be able to, symbolically at least, keep her company.  I owe it to my mother, who gave me life.