Three years ago yesterday my mother died in a nursing home in San Bernardino, California. I was with her when she took her last breath.
Though she had been mostly raised by a strict Southern Baptist grandmother, my mother was not a woman of faith. She didn't have the spiritual certainty that can provide peace of mind during life or confidence there's anything afterwards. Though her wishes were that no extraordinary measures be used to prolong her life, when the time actually came she changed her mind. At her request, she was treated for six bouts of pneumonia in the last seven months of her life and was oxygen dependent. Somehow, when the time was coming, she was resistant. I think she might have been very afraid.
My sister and my son and I kept watch in shifts for the last few days of her life, when she'd stopped eating and her eyes were mostly closed. It was on my shift, at 5:20 in the afternoon, that her blood oxygen levels started slipping. And rapidly. When they were at 57 percent, my eyes left the monitor and looked at her. For a couple of seconds, she looked like a little girl, eyes opened in wonder and surprise. And then she was gone.
Three years later I still see that little girl's face.
My mother was orphaned by the time she was 18. Her father died when she was nine of a ruptured appendix. Her mother died in bed of a "broken heart" nine years later. My mother had been valedictorian of a class of 400 and had just started junior college. After her mother's death she went to work, then joined the Marine Corps; she told me once she knew if she married someone in the service she would be taken care of. After her military service she continued to work as a buyer for the Post Exchange. In the officers club one night, she met my father, also a Marine. They were married six months later, and were married for 32 years until he died at age 57 of emphysema and cirrhosis of the liver - lifestyle diseases.
My father had taken good care of my mother. After his death, she lived comfortably in southern California in a condo with an ocean view. She traveled and entertained, played bridge and tutored English. She met a new man and they lived together in the condo for another 20 years.
In my younger years I didn't realize my mother was insecure and afraid. I just thought she was difficult, demanding, and critical. One of those mothers you could never please, no matter how hard you tried. It was only in the last few years, when she developed moderate dementia, that her opinion of me changed. She was always glad to see me on my quarterly trips from Seattle to San Bernardino. Dementia was a blessing that way, it seems. She'd forgotten, and I got to see an easier mother.
Here's my gratitude list:
1. The day before she died, I got to make amends to my mother for my lack of understanding and acceptance of her circumstances. I did this by lying next to her, breathing with her as she approached her own death.
2. I got to be with her when she took her last breath. It was the first time I'd ever seen anyone die, and it was a life-changing experience for me.
3. She raised me to be strong and independent and motivated.
4. As a beneficiary of her estate, I had the freedom to quit my job at 61, to travel, and to have the chance to discover what I want to do next.
5. I'm learning about the forces that shaped my mother's life and I'm developing compassion for her.
I am my mother's daughter in ways both advantageous and limiting. I'm trying to use the advantages and to grow beyond the other ones. I want to be a good steward of my mother's legacy.
So far, so good.
For my sister's perspective, see her blog post: