Saturday, August 27, 2011

Three years

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:


Lynilu said...

Mother-daughter relationships are so complex, often the most difficult imaginable. What a blessing that you had those last days last moments to fill your cup.

Peaceful thoughts to you.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

A wonderful post about a complex relationship and a milestone for all of you. Thanks also for the link to your sister's blog post. I think when we are no longer dealing with the complex people our parents were on a daily basis, we're free to see, accept and love them in a new way. What a blessing it was to reconcile your feelings for and with your mother while she was still living and to have been with her when she passed away. Sometime, if you're so inclined, it would be very interesting to hear how seeing death was transformative. I felt a lot of hope in her expression of childlike wonder.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Wow. I feel so lucky to have had a good relationship with my mother, especially after reading these posts by you and your sister. You both should be proud of what you've achieved on your own, both in spite and because of your mother.

Travels with Emma said...

What a powerful post you have made. I'll now read your sister's story.

Terra said...

Your post is very insightful, and now I will read your sister's post. You learned a lot about your mom, in her later years and days.

Dee said...

Your gratitude list is, I'm sure, not just written here but incised in your heart. What a blessing to have found your mother before she died. Peace

Teresa Evangeline said...

How good it is, that you found a place of peace with your mother, especially in being there in her final moments. I read your sister's account, as well, and always find it interesting to read other perspectives. Each of us have similar thought sand feelings and yet, dissimilar. The nature of Being.
I loved both of my parents very much and although i feel their presence at times, especially my dad, I also found freedom in their passing. Now I could write without wondering if I would hurt their feelings with anything I said, with who I am. Perhaps you, too?

DJan said...

How wonderful to see that picture of your mother and to hear about your gratitude list. I was also with my mother when she drew her last breath, and I cherish those moments as a timeless interlude. Thank you for this lovely post.

Beth said...

Very well written. Seeing someone die is a memory that stays with you always.

Georgia said...

My relationship with my mother was the most complicated I have ever experienced. I have so many feelings but find that in the end I am grateful that there are things she taught me that I want to remember.

Sandi said...

Hi Linda,

Thanks for linking us to your sister's perspective. It was interesting to read both.

It's hard to watch our mother's die. My first mom died unexpectedly when I was nine. I didn't get to say good-bye. My second mom was insane, but my dad just packed us up and we never said good-bye to her either! My third mom "raised" me, from age 14, for nearly 35 years. She's the mom I sat at her deathbed with, watching her body slowly shut down in late stages of dementia. It was a sad and difficult watch.

I love your gratitude list. It was a wonderful way to end your post.

#1Nana said...

Some day I'll have to write about my mother's death. She died four years ago and I still haven't fully processed the lessons or come to terms with our complex relationship. You are fortunate to have achieved some closure. I'm off to read your sister's post.

Rita said...

I've been resolving some issues with my mother this year...just internally...forgiveness. Always easier said than done, but so freeing when accomplished...even step by step. I am so glad you had that opportunity with your mother and were there with her to see that little girl face you'll always remember. What a touching post.

I read your sister's, too. I am the oldest in my family and have had a different relationship with my mother than my siblings did...for better and for worse. You are both honest and articulate about your feelings...a pleasure to read.

Life is such a twisted journey sometimes. I found that so much of my resentments and disappointments and unforgiven grudges had everything to do with my supposed needs & expectations and little to do with actual reality. I have been walking the path toward unconditional forgiveness for many years. Both your posts were inspirational to me. Thanks for sharing your hearts. :):)

Linda Reeder said...

I was just about to say that mother-daughters relationships are so complex when I glimpsed at the first comment, and there were my words. But it's so true. I see it in my relationship with my mother and with my adult daughter. Love passes downward more easily than upward. Why is it harder to love our mothers than our daughters?

Sally Wessely said...

Wow. I am visiting my mother as I read this. She is 95. Truer words were never spoken than to say mother\daughter relationships are complex.

I think you gratitude list is brilliant. It helped me to clarify my own conflicts that exist in my mind. I will come back to ponder this post when I am home and able to process it a bit more deeply.

Contrarian said...

Amen - you are blessed.

Anything Fits A Naked Man said...

This was just so thoughtful, so well written, Linda. I had a complicated relationship with my Dad, and went through some life lessons of my own when my family and I endured his illness and passing a year ago. Thank you for sharing your lessons and thoughts.

Out on the prairie said...

Very nice that you still realize she is in your heart forever. A nice share Linda.

Anonymous said...

Oh Sigh, I love strong women.

Deb Shucka said...

This is one of the loveliest tributes to a mother I've ever read. My own relationship with my mom was difficult, and when she died in June the depth of my grief surprised me. Reading your words here brings comfort in some way.

Anonymous said...

I guess I am in no way unique in that this brought back memories of both of my parents, whom I cared for throughout their illnesses. My parents were quite good to me, but that does not mean I think everyone else has those same memories to fall back on.

In the end, you reconciled. So many do not. ~Mary