The call came around noon on Tuesday. It was from my son, who was in Cincinnati for business and had stopped to see his grandmother.
“Mom,” my son beseeched, “you need to get to Ohio as fast as you can. Nana’s not doing well.”
It was something I had suspected over the past few weeks, but I was dealing with my husband, who had just had major back surgery in New York City. I was torn apart by where I should be.
“Okay,” I replied, already hastily throwing jeans and sweaters into a carry-on suitcase. I booked a flight and headed for the airport.
By the time I arrived, my mother had been admitted to the hospital and was sitting up in bed, calmly reading USA Today. She looked pretty good actually.
Her blondish-gray hair had recently been blown-dry, she had her big black reading glasses on and her nails were painted in her favorite sparkly nail polish – a sure-fire attention-getter for her at age 90.
“I think I have pancreatic cancer,” she blurts out to me as soon as I bend down to kiss her hello.
“Mom,” I said. “That’s ridiculous. Where did you even hear of such a thing?”
“The doctor just came in a little while ago and broke the news,” her devoted helper, Maria, declared in a quavering voice.
I was speechless. I knew she hadn’t been eating. I knew she was sleeping more. I knew she was finding it more difficult to leave her apartment. But her gerontologist had assured me – just days before – that her blood work was normal, and she was just exhibiting sings of a typical 90-year-old.
Wednesday evening, she left the hospital and entered hospice care for observation and so her meds could be regulated to deal with the anticipated pain she would soon be experiencing.
The plan was to then send her home for six to eight weeks – until she reached an acute stage. At that point, Hospice would re-admit her for the duration.
It all sounded so grim.
My mom, clear-headed and comfortable, told me her bills were paid and admonished me to keep her check book balanced. (That wasn’t happening. Unlike my mother, my checkbook never balanced, except maybe once or twice accidentally.)
She told me her taxes were complete and just needed to be sent to her accountant. And she apologized for not having picked out a casket beforehand, but she would be fine with having the same style casket my dad had been buried in five years earlier.
I sat there dumbfounded. If I was in the throes of dying, my kids would be left with a disorderly, confounding mess. (Note to myself: Get organized!)
She continued. “I’m asking three things. I don’t want to be in pain. I don’t want to die alone. I want to die on Saturday, in my sleep, on my birthday.” My mother entered Hospice, as planned, but she never came out.
As Thursday slid into Friday, she became weaker and weaker. I realized, as the minutes ticked by, that my mom was no longer responding to my touch or voice. Hospice nurses kept the pain under control.
On Saturday, my siblings and I – accompanied by a ragtag group of friends and family, sang her “Happy Birthday,” cut the chocolate frosted cake, poked at the pieces without much enthusiasm and watched her carefully.
My mother drew her final breath twenty minutes later and, soon after, was officially pronounced dead.
I think about the future as I grieve the loss of my mom. Sure, I’ll still visit my hometown. I’ll still see my sister-in-law and brother-in-law and niece and nephews and mother-in-law. And I’ll still run into my high school cronies and lunch with irreplaceable confidants, whose friendships span decades.
I’ll even have my mother’s two-bedroom apartment to return to for the next couple of months. But something has fundamentally changed when returning to the city of my birth where I’ve lived most of my adult life. Quite simply, my parents are no longer there.
I know I am identified in many ways – wife, mother, nana, sister, friend, writer, speaker and author. But as long as my mom and/or my dad were alive I was still somebody’s little girl.
The world may see in me a woman whose gray roots are peeking through, whose hands are sporting a few age spots, whose eyes are ringed with bags, whose balance is a tad compromised and whose knee caps jiggle as she walks.
But to my mom, to the very end, I was always that little girl with the sparkling brown eyes, wildly swinging pony tail and skinny legs – running home from the bus stop to show her my newest creation.
A friend and fellow writer said it best, “I know as long as my mom is around, someone is really reading what I write. Someone is really proud of how I’m stringing my words together. Someone is remembering weeks later a quote I used, a new word I embraced or a new slant I expressed.”
I’ll miss a lot of things, but I think that unbridled love and devotion is what I’ll miss most.
Have you lost one or both of your parents? What did you learn from the experience? Please join the conversation!