In the end, my mother got an infection that weakened her beyond the point of no return. After she was able to get off the ventilator successfully, I had hope that she might surprise everyone one more time and recover enough to at least go to a nursing home and continue to enjoy a few more days and weeks. But c. difficile, brought on by the strong antibiotics they were giving her to ward off pneumonia, did her in. She became weaker and less responsive, and was unable to get off the bi-pap mask that kept her breathing. Like a very old cat who had used up the last of her nine lives, my mother was finally giving up, little by little.
The last night before she died, I had gone to see her in the hospital and could see how weak and unhappy she was.
I had sent my husband up to Cape Cod that day because that week was the week we had originally booked to take my mother up for one last trip to the Cape, and the cottages were paid for. His dad was going to join us on Monday so I told him to go anyway and at least he and Dad could enjoy a week up there. So I was alone that night after I left my mother in the hospital, and I didn’t feel like cooking for myself.
So where else would I go but Star Tavern, where all the waitresses know me and I could sit at the bar and have a pizza and some wine, and think? I arrived and found myself a seat at the bar. The woman behind the bar asked me what I’d like and I ordered a glass of wine and a mushroom pizza. There was a man sitting next to me who turned out to be her husband, and I started talking to him, telling him about my mother’s situation.
They say angels come in all forms and perhaps he was one of them. He had gone through the same thing with his mother in 1994, and told me that I couldn’t ask my mother to make the decision to end her lifesaving care. He said I had to make the decision for her. He said he did it for his mother and it was the best decision he ever made, that it gave him control over the situation and he was able to be sure to be there with her when she died. “You have to make the decision, not her,” he emphasized.
When I left that night and went home I knew what I had to do.
The next morning I called the hospital and told them that when I got there I wanted my mother taken off the bi-pap machine and that I wanted to let her go peacefully.
My aunt and I arrived at the hospital at around 11:30 and sat with my mother for about an hour, talking and reminiscing about happy times in our lives together. My mother was alert and was listening to us. Then finally the doctor’s orders to take off the mask were finalized and the nurse came in and removed it. I looked at Mom and said, “I’m here, Mom,” and she smiled at me. My aunt later told me my mother had squeezed her hand at the same time.
A few minutes later she had trouble breathing so I told the nurse and she came in and administered morphine to calm her…she must have been close to the end because within five minutes she gently stopped breathing and was gone.
Naturally I am sad, and of course I still keep reliving that scene in my mind, and thinking about all the decisions I’d made or events that had happened that had led up to that moment. Should I have stayed home that last weekend she got so sick instead of going to the cabin? If she’d gone to the hospital sooner, would she still be OK? Should I have let her go when she choked on the milk five days earlier, so she wouldn’t have suffered with the infection? Should I have said something to the doctor when he ordered the additional diuretic two weeks earlier, when I knew my mother could easily become dehydrated as she had once before?
But when it all came down to it, I knew I was quibbling about details, about days or weeks, not months of life. My mother was 91 and she had lived a good long life – and was never ill until the last few months of it. My mother hated being sick; she considered it some kind of moral failing. I knew she hated being an invalid and wouldn’t have wanted to keep going in the condition she was in.
Rather than have a viewing, I decided to have her cremated and have a memorial service later, in June. I rode up to Cape Cod that Monday with my father-in-law and we enjoyed a peaceful week at the Cape, reminiscing about my mother and remembering all the good times she had there with us. We had the funeral home divide her ashes so I could bring some of them up to the Cape and scatter them there later this summer; the rest are buried next to my father in the cemetery.
So now I’m left with the other tasks that fall on those who are left when a loved one passes. I worked with the funeral home to finalize her obituary – how do you sum up someone’s life in a few paragraphs? Next comes the planning of the memorial service, which will have a bagpiper play at it as my mother once said she wanted at her funeral. And finally, the mundane things: canceling the cable TV, the telephone service, the newspaper subscription; cleaning out the apartment.
Once all that is done, perhaps I can start thinking about something else. But right now I am still trying to think of a way to honor my mother’s life with something longer than the brief paragraph in the newspaper: “active for many years in the Community Church, sang in the choir, medical writer, avid bowler, Girl Scout leader for over 25 years…” Yes, all those things were important, but don’t sum up who my mother was.
To begin with, she grew up in Massachusetts but once she graduated from Simmons College in Boston with a journalism degree, she took the big step of leaving home and coming to live in New York City, working at a small publication in her first job. I always thought that was pretty brave and rather glamorous.
She then moved to New Jersey and worked for Hoffman LaRoche, writing for their in-house magazine, the Roche Review, for a number of years, before getting a job at a medical advertising agency, Paul Klempner Agency, where she met my father. After they married in 1951, they were very active in the Nutley Little Theater, taking part in a number of plays. When I was born, my mother stopped working, because back then, that's what you did. I don't think she ever really minded, though. She once told me that raising a child is the most important thing she could have done.
In 1962 when we moved up to Penfield, New York, she and my dad were founding members of their little theater group, the Penfield Players. I grew up hanging out at rehearsals and helping my parents learn their lines. Both of them were in the old classic, Arsenic and Old Lace, once in Nutley, once in Penfield. My mother played Aunt Martha in Nutley and Aunt Abby in Penfield; my father Dr. Einstein in both productions. Lines from that play became family jokes for years thereafter..."I've completely lost track of Mr. Spenalzo," for instance, was a line we used whenever we had trouble finding something at home.
My mother also was active in the neighborhood up there, putting her journalism skills to work writing a neighborhood newsletter for the neighborhood association, as well as continuing to be a Girl Scout leader, which she had begun when I was in the Brownies back in Nutley.
We moved back to New Jersey in 1967 as my father got a job in New York at another medical advertising agency, and my parents didn't move again after that. After my father died, my mother moved into the senior citizens apartment down the street from me and enjoyed her time there for four years.
My mother enjoyed telling stories about her time in college, and always remembered the Hurricane of 1938, the unnamed hurricane that unexpectedly slammed into New England one fall. She was trying to make her way home from college in the middle of the storm and had to spend the night at a gas station because the roads were blocked by fallen trees.
She also reminisced about her days as an air raid warden during World War II, which was after she had moved down to New Jersey. She had to go around and knock on people's doors to tell them to turn off their lights during air raid warnings.
My mother's life was not without its tragedies. When I was about two years old, she had another baby, my sister Jessica. Sadly, Jessica was born with a heart defect and back then they couldn't operate on a tiny baby the way they can now. She only lived to be four months old. My mother didn't have another child after that, as by then she was 37, which in those days was considered "too old."
Also, in his later years, my father had bouts of intractable depression and twice had to be hospitalized after attempted suicides; then in his last years he had dementia and eventually had to be in a nursing home before he passed away in 2005. But my mother took it all in stride. She was the kind of person who did what she had to do, didn't complain and didn't bemoan her fate.
I think the best way to describe her personality is just plain nice. It sounds trite to say someone is “nice,” but niceness is woefully underrated in this world. With the exception of Republicans, my mother never said a bad word about anyone, and was unfailingly polite until the very end. Even in the hospital during her last stay, whenever a nurse or aide came in and did anything for her, she always said “thank you.” Her home aides loved her because she was patient and sweet and never complained.
But of course she was more than just nice; she had plenty of personality, and certainly wasn’t without a temper from time to time. And back when I was growing up, of course there were plenty of times we got into arguments, as is natural. But as we got older we got along better and better and truly were in synch.
My mother always loved to read, and it was sad when her macular degeneration got too bad and she was no longer able to read on her own. So during the last two months I took to reading to her; we went through a couple of her beloved Dorothy Sayers short stories about Lord Peter Wimsey, and I would read the comics in the paper to her every day. I hope it gave her back a little of the joy she got from reading.
Of course her love of reading was passed on to me – when I was a child she’d read me Winnie the Pooh and other stories, and I soon loved to read as much as she did. I read all her old favorites as well as many new books I discovered on my own, and still love to read to this day.
When I think back, many of the interests I have today were passed on to me by my mother.
It is from her that I get my love of nature – many a time we walked in the woods with our binoculars, bird watching together. She loved wildflowers, too, and was always pointing out the special ones, the Lady Slippers or the Jack-in-the-Pulpit or the Solomon’s Seal.
As my Girl Scout leader, she took me and the troops on many a campout, where we learned to build fires, tie knots, cook on our tin-can stoves with our Buddy Burners, and hike in the woods. I remember one night we kids were all in a tent telling ghost stories and she came around the outside of the tent and went “Woooooh!” and scared the bejeesus out of us. My mother later told me she never realized a bunch of 10 and 11 –year-olds could make such a loud screeching noise!
After I got older, Mom continued to be a Girl Scout leader – the Junior age group was her favorite (the 5th and 6th graders) and those troops are the ones that she led for the remainder of the time she was active in Girl Scouts, right into her 70s.
I think they finally kind of “retired” her by telling her there were fewer troops that last year and there wasn’t one for her anymore. They gave her a plaque thanking her for all her contributions, but I think they had decided they needed some new blood. Mom still liked teaching the campfires and the knots, while the Girl Scouts had moved on to trying to instill “self-esteem” and other modernistic ideas. I felt bad for her, but as with everything else, she took it in stride and didn’t let it get her down.
A few years later she received a letter from a woman in Florida who had once been one of her Girl Scouts. She had decided to write to my mother and tell her how much she had appreciated the things she learned from her in Girl Scouts.
A friend of mine, another one of her former Girl Scouts, also wrote to her later on telling her that she was now a Girl Scout leader herself. I think my mother felt good to know that her efforts were appreciated. And I’m sure there were many others who felt that way but never wrote to tell her.
Undaunted by the end of her Girl Scout career, my mom went back to watercolor painting, a talent she had been developing back in the old days. For the rest of her life, she painted idyllic scenes in Scotland and other locations; she painted her own Christmas cards each year until the last year of her life.
The other thing I get from my mother is her love of politics. She and my father were both dyed-in-the-wool , liberal Democrats. They worshipped FDR and JFK, were pro-civil rights, and pro-gay rights even back then. My mother had two good friends who were lesbians and they were part of our inner family circle – I loved going on our frequent visits to Jay and Claire, who treated me as if I were their niece.
My mother woke me up about midnight on Election Night in 1960 to let me listen to the returns coming in on my dad’s transistor radio, since she knew it would be the first presidential election I’d remember. I still remember hearing the announcer saying Kennedy was winning by 100,000 votes. Later, in 1968, she and I went around distributing campaign literature for Hubert Humphrey (since Bobby Kennedy didn’t live to be the nominee). My parents hated Nixon and we were very disappointed when that cliffhanger election was finally won by Nixon by a fraction of the vote.
Politics has always been a big part of my mother’s life, and right until the end she had CNN and MSNBC on all day and was still up on things. I remember when she got out of rehab at the nursing home in March she said she was thrilled to find out that the healthcare bill had passed (her roommate in the nursing home didn’t watch CNN, she watched soap operas, so Mom hadn’t been able to keep up with current events).
My mother had a little trouble with dates toward the end; when asked what year it was, she kept saying 1992. But if asked who the President was, she was able to correctly answer “Barack Obama.” I asked her once why she kept thinking it was 1992. She said “I guess because that was the last time someone I liked was President.” I’m glad that she was able to live to see another Democrat in the White House.
My mother was always a Boston Red Sox fan, having grown up in Massachusetts. She was born in 1918, the year they had last won the World Series – shortly before she was born. I too was a Red Sox fan for much of my life, until I met my husband, a Yankees fan. But I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Red Sox. I was glad my mother lived to see the Sox win not just one more championship, but two, before she died. My mother never gave up hope, and in the end, her optimism paid off.
Of course, another trait I get from Mom is my love of animals. My father had never had a pet when he was young, so it was Mom who brought in our first one, a beautiful tortoiseshell/tiger cat named Boots. She quickly became “his” cat but of course I loved her too. I was only about 3 when we got her so I grew up with her. Later we got another cat named Silly (I named him Silver Gray for his color, not very original – but we called him Silly). Still later, when I was 9, came our Pekingese dog, Suki, and then Mittens, a kitten I got on a sleepover at someone’s farm with my Girl Scout troop. Since my childhood, I’ve never been able to think of a house being a home without a pet, thanks to my mother.
Until the end of her life my mother always had a cat – the last one is Zoe, a tiny little 15-year-old orange tiger cat who has outlived her and will be coming to stay with us now. I know when my mother was in the hospital and nursing home for her rehab she missed Zoe a lot, as she kept looking for her and wondering where she was. I was happy to be able to see her sitting in her chair with Zoe in her lap those last couple of months. At least she got home to see her again.
Both of my parents gave me my love of writing and all things medical. Since both of them were medical writers, medical subjects were always discussed in our house, and medical books were around constantly.
My mother may have stopped working when I was born, but her love of writing continued to influence her life and was passed on to me. It is because of her I know the difference between “lay” and “lie,” “might” and “may,” and many other grammatical rules. One of her pet peeves was the use of “of” when it wasn’t needed – as in, “it’s not that big of a deal.” To the last, she corrected me on that. Another usage she deplored was the use of “anymore” without a negative. For instance, “He’s really tired anymore.” Correctly it should be used only with a negative, such as “He doesn’t have any energy anymore.” A few years ago I even encouraged her to write some blog posts which I posted on a blog I opened for her – it is still on Blogspot, here: Marge's Words to the Wise.
I can also credit my mother with my choice of a college – her own Simmons College. Originally I hadn’t intended to go to the same school my mother did; but once she took me up to Boston I fell in love with the area and I liked the campus and the people I met there. It is also a women’s college, and I am very grateful for having gone there, since I think the supportive atmosphere of a woman’s college is what I needed to come out of my shell and give me the confidence I sorely lacked during high school. Although originally a Biology major, I soon fell back to a more natural talent – writing – and majored in Journalism. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, even though my career was in market research. Good writing is important in any job.
My love of travel I can also trace to my mother. I think if my father had been on his own he probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere outside the metro area. My mother first introduced him, and then me, to her beloved Cape Cod, where she’d been vacationing since she was a child. But then she branched out and we made two trips to England and Scotland, as she had always loved all things Scottish, which she traced to the small amount of Wallace blood she had in her ancestry. Then when I was older, she and my dad went on to travel to various places in Europe, including a trip to Paris and Amsterdam that she always remembered fondly. I think her favorite trip was to Israel in 1990. She was proud that she swam in the Dead Sea and saw all the historic sites in Jerusalem.
Once I met DH and we started traveling together, we took my parents to Scotland twice for visits to my mother’s favorite country. She loved seeing all the old places she remembered and her beautiful “green velvet mountains,” as she called them.
Last, I’d have to say that any optimistic attitudes I have about life come from my mother. She always saw the bright side of every dark cloud, and truly seemed to believe that bad things would never happen. Even to the end I don’t think she really believed her smoking had anything to do with her lung problems. You can call it denial or you can call it optimism – I’ll choose to call it optimism.
My mother was always disappointed I never had children. Although she has grandchildren through my half-sister Joy, they are of course only related to our father and not by blood to her. She sometimes bemoaned the fact that I will have no one to pass on our few family heirlooms to, and that her family line would die out with me. She said that my having children would have been her “immortality.”
I disagree. Whether or not there is an afterlife – and let’s face it, no one knows for sure – anyone’s immortality is probably best expressed by how their lives affected others who came in contact with them when they were here on earth. Each of us is like a pebble thrown in a pond – the concentric ripples that come out from the center reach far beyond the one pebble, and roll toward distant shores.
I like to think of all the girls my mother came in contact with during her years as a Girl Scout leader, and how they are now passing her love of nature down to their own children – or their own Girl Scout troops – and beyond. I like to think that even my humble efforts at blogging, which would have never happened without the interest in writing that was passed on to me, may influence someone somewhere about some subject that I’ve written about. We never know what we do that will affect someone else, and that is the beauty of the kind of immortality I’m talking about.
I remember once a long time ago I asked my mother if she was afraid of dying, or did she ever think about death, and she said no, she didn’t worry about that; she felt there would “always be a little more time.” I think she thought that to the very end too, which is why I told her I’d take her to the Cape later in the summer just as she was breathing her last. I wanted her to go out thinking she still had that little bit more time.
I hope somewhere, she is having a lot more time. But I won’t know until my own time comes.
Below is the sunset over the pond at Cape Cod, which my husband took the night my mother died. She would be happy to know there was a beautiful sunset in her honor, as she always loved a good sunset.