It’s been six months, as of today, since my mother died. I feel like I’m in a Greek myth-Freaky Friday mash-up: I’m Persephone waiting for Ceres to come back after her half-year in the Underworld. It ain’t gonna happen, but I still rather expect Mom to show up and want to know why we haven’t finished fixing up the house.
To mark the day, here’s one of my mother’s favourite poems, “One Perfect Rose,” by one of her favourite authors, Dorothy Parker:
A single flow’r he sent me, since we met. All tenderly his messenger he chose; Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet – One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret; ‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’ Love long has taken for his amulet One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose.
In my last post, I wrote that my mother’s story became mine, and that is true. But it is not mine alone, not by a long shot, and I am beyond grateful for that, for having family with whom to navigate this odyssey. However, I do not have permission to share their parts in this story. I have not even asked for it because I am not ready for the suggestions and censorship that would inevitably ensue. So I’ll restrict this posting mostly to what pertains to my mother and myself.
In early February — on the first of February — my mother fell ill and wound up in the ICU. The expectation was that she had only days left to live. She told me later that she had gone to the hospital thinking, hoping she’d die there.
However, my mother came from tough pioneer stock and her body held on despite her intentions to die. The doctors put a tube through her back, between her ribs, and into the lung that had been filling with fluid for longer than anyone could guess. Until this procedure, my mother had endured all the poking and prodding, imaging and invasiveness without complaint. But the drainage tube was painful, painful enough that one night it gave her dreadful nightmares of confinement and torture. She thrashed around and dislodged the tube and her IV and woke bloody and wracked. We had no idea then that the pain would never go away.
After almost two weeks in hospital, we took Mom home. Different doctors gave us divergent prognoses: two weeks, a few months, a year. We struggled to make plans. Was it time for hospice? A nursing facility? Could we handle what to come ourselves?
Mom seemed frail beyond belief, almost skeletal, nearly translucent. She had no appetite, no energy for eating. She kept the thermostat at 78º F; in the middle of a bitingly cold Winter, I wore tank tops and shorts and, if the neighbours hadn’t such a clear view through the family room window, I probably would have worn even less.
When the cold drove the cardinals to gather near the patio, my mother perked up. She and my dad, dead these dozen years, kept binoculars by the glass door in the kitchen to watch the birds, and we got them out to watch the red creatures flit through the bushes. (The neighbours never did anything interesting enough to warrant spying, so there was no Rear Window-ing.) My husband, back after a few weeks home, bought some bird seed for the small feeder — an up-side-down stone turtle dish — and the cardinals came and ate, one pecking at the turtle’s up-turned belly as its mate kept watch. (It was all rather Promethean, but I didn’t mention that.) Eventually, the cardinals nested in the bushes lining the patio and in the hedge by the back bedrooms abutting it. It was hard to get a true count, but there were five or six nesting couples. My mother was delighted.
In years past, turtle doves had nested in a flower pot by the kitchen door. This year they flew in, but didn’t stay. I did what I could to coax them back with bird seed and by transplanting some soft ground cover into the pot, but they would only stop by to visit rather to set up house-keeping. They had always been so calm, so trusting, so unfazed by Mom’s comings and going, that she had found their confidence enchanting, and was disappointed that they abandoned her this Spring. I still haven’t forgiven them.
As the rains poured down, as the thunder welled and the lightning flared, Mom grew stronger. I cooked real meals, and she ate just enough to gain some energy. Eating wore her out, though, and she would head to bed to sleep for a while after dinner, always re-appearing just as I finished cleaning the kitchen.
In the hospital, Mom had been put on oxygen and, once home, tubes tethered her to tanks, but the oxygen sharpened her mind marvelously. The forgetfulness we had attributed to age, we now realized had been induced by how little oxygen had been making its way form her lungs to her brain. Nevertheless, Mom would still ditch her tubes to smoke in the greenhouse, sitting there in peace, looking at the yard, the birds, the sunset, and Hamlet’s undiscovered country drawing near. She ate more; the thermostat started to edge down. But the pain from the drainage tube persisted and increased. Meds took off the rim of the pain, but never made Mom comfortable. When others were around, Mom would pull together and push aside the pain, but it would come roaring back and she inevitably paid for her efforts later, panting panting panting from the pain. Despite the on-going agony, Mom was kind and grateful, though being so was patently a Herculean labour.
As Spring came on, the pink-bud bloomed. Bright buds of mauve and purple lined the branches; bright green leaves unfolded; bright cardinals and subfusc wrens perched on the limbs. We enlisted a home health nursing service, but time and again they could not apprehend what Mom needed. They came with pre-conceived beliefs that physical and occupational therapies would strengthen Mom when all they did was wear her out and exacerbate her pain. When we asked for guidance to help with Mom’s anguish over not being able to work, we were told to have do whatever made her happy, but it was being useful, feeling she had a purpose, running the family business that made her feel content.
When we had to make the shift to hospice, the doctor and nurses promised that they would see to it that Mom wouldn’t suffer, but her pain and sense of uselessness were equally anguishing. She felt betrayed by every effort to keep her alive; she wanted the hospice folks to speed her on her way, but state laws forbad such relief. “They promised,” she kept saying. “They promised I wouldn’t suffer, and this is suffering.”
Sitting in the kitchen, looking out at the yard, Mom found herself longing for more colour. I planted such flowers as I could find at the nursery and scattered seeds to bring more blooms later. The rains coaxed out more leaves, more flowers, more growth as my mother flagged and diminished. I intended to go back when there would be more plants available, but Mom started to decline and it was hard for me to leave the house for long.
Mom had some good days, too. My kids flew in and out to visit to see her a few times, bringing life and youth and more love into the house, and reminding Mom that she had helped shape the next generation, that part of her would live on in these quick, bright things. When the end became clearly in sight, Mom rallied a few times to tie up loose ends and legal matters. She wrote in her computer journal, committing to the machine stories of her own mother, philosophical thoughts, unresolved sorrows. She and I had time to talk, to argue politics and discuss Shakespeare. We said “I love you” a dozen times a day.
She’d say, “I hope you’ll miss me.”
I’d say, “I’ll miss you like mad.”
Her last really good day came when the neighbours came over with their grown son, his wife, four kids, and a huge, fluffy puppy. My mother, who loved animals,* especially dogs, was enthralled. She sat on the floor with the kids and the dogs and radiated warmth and happiness from the presence of the pup and the knowledge that, over the decades, her life had become so intertwined with these kind and generous people.
In the end, I think it was the pain more than the cancer that overcame her. Even the morphine she had been taking did little to ease the pain. Everything revolved around the regime of pain medications we kept hoping would bring some relief; eventually, because she was too thin for a morphine drip IV, we were giving her pills or liquid morphine every hour around the clock. I snatched occasional, twenty-minute naps and lost all sense of time. The mid-Spring days grew longer and brighter; my mother’s season diminished and faded.
And then, on 12 May, 2019, my mother died.
And I miss her like mad.
* I always said that I never worried about my getting lost in a forest because I knew all the woodland creatures would flock to her and lead her to the nearest house of hospitable dwarves.
Does anyone else remember this classic Far Side cartoon by the inimitable Gary Larson? It was a favourite of one of my closest college friends (hey, Sara!):
Well, I ran into my own Far Side moment the other day.
It was a lovely day in Colorado and I was walking along the West End of the Pearl Street Mall, headed for a coffee shop, talking on the phone with my friend and colleague Jaynie (hey, Jaynie!). I stopped outside Ozo’s to finish my conversation, and as I soaked up the bright autumn sunshine, I noticed a small, grey, slightly fuzzy spider valiantly trying to spin a web across the busy sidewalk. She was slightly larger than the top of a pencil eraser, and on a cloudy day probably would have been virtually invisible. But as I was standing there, the sun shone right down between the buildings and caught her like another strand of her web. Even so, no one else seemed to notice her.
What blew me away was that she had managed to get at least four long strands in place, one from the awning of the coffee shop, one from the wall next to the awning, and two others across the walk, attached to a low newspaper dispenser by the curb. The spider herself was hanging upside down, binding her anchor threads together, about four feet right above the middle of the sidewalk. There were a lot of people walking by in both directions and I have no idea why no one had torn through any of her threads.
(I couldn’t get a photo, so you’ll have to imagine the scene from my sketch.)
Alas! Her good fortune did not last. First a young man walked, all unaware, through the webbing that ran from the wall. The spider swung away, but not far, since she was still attached to three of her strands. Then, as the spider swung back, still working to tie together her workings, a woman in a coat of the same grey as the spider, ran into the weaver. I thought for sure that the spider would be off for a ride on the camouflaging coat, but after a second I saw her on the sidewalk, crawling back toward the wall. Dozens of people and a couple kids on bikes all came within a hair’s-breadth of squashing the little arachnid into oblivion, but she seemed to have a force-field around her because everyone swerved without even seeing the scrambling spider and she made it safely to the lea of the wall.
I don’t know what happened to her after that. And I don’t know what the moral of this story is. I guess I just have a fondness for the quixotic, for creatures that decide to tilt at windmills — or try to spin them for themselves.