Sunday, January 22, 2012

Missing You, Mom

My mother died last March 31. It amazes me that I am only two months away from the anniversary of her passing. I personally have not moved beyond the last hours I spent holding her, stroking her, and telling her that she was beautiful and that I loved her. I don’t feel like we had any unfinished business to revisit; no anger issues; no regrets.

We were not “physically” close since 1992 when I moved to North Carolina and left Pennsylvania to find a teaching job. I had been married for eighteen years, had divorced, then decided to go back to college and finish a degree in Nursing, but earned a degree in Music Education instead. Upon graduation, with student loans to pay back, I took the first available teaching position which was in North Carolina, but that is another story.

Mom was always present in my adult life, though not at first, when I married Barry and we moved to Norfolk VA while he was in the Marines. She was not there for the birth of my first child in the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, but she and my mother-in-law came down for a visit as soon as I came home from the hospital. Upon discharge, we moved back to PA to be close to family.

Jill, our second child, was born in PA and all three families lived in the little home town where I and my husband grew up. My parents later moved to Altoona, about 80 miles away, yet we still managed to stay in touch. They were only two hours away.

After eighteen years of marriage, I left Barry and both John and Jill stayed with him in “the big house” while I lived in a tiny log cabin miles from anywhere in Sinnemahoning and commuted ninety miles one way to attend Mansfield University. I would think nothing of visiting my parents on a weekend. My father was helping me financially the first year until I figured out how to apply for college loans.

I remember my Mom being “sick” a lot. I often felt like she was a hypochondriac. None of her ailments seemed connected. Once I got a job and moved to North Carolina, I only saw my parents over Christmas break, Easter break and through the summer months. They would make trips to North Carolina too. As they got older, I worried about them making such a long trip, but Dad always cut the trip in half and they stayed over night in Virginia.  

I can’t really remember for sure when Mom quit driving all together.  I think it was sometime after she had an accident while Jill was visiting with one of her friends. Jill must have been a teenager. Mom went through a red light in an intersection close to her house. No one was hurt but it really shook her up and she didn’t drive much at all after that.

On top of her heart problems, Mom was diagnosed with Adult Onset Diabetes which progressed until she was taking regular injections of insulin.  Dad was her “care-taker.” Mom did little at all to help herself.  She was taking on average, twenty or more pills twice a day and Dad had to put them all out and make sure she took them. I used to get so upset with her.  She was told to exercise. They had a treadmill and other equipment set up in their basement. Dad would use the treadmill regularly, but Mom did nothing on a regular basis.  This went on for years. She had bypass surgery and almost died afterward due to some complication that made her body swell up and put her in a coma, but she survived.  The heart problems and the diabetes continued to get worse. This last year found her often out of breath and unable to keep her sugar at an acceptable level.

All this time, Dad was continuing to try and take care of her. It was beginning to take a toll on him.  He was NEVER a complainer, but often when we called or visited, he would go on and on about how Mom was not trying to do anything at all and he had to care for her, including bathing, dressing, cooking, cleaning, and medications. She was also making more trips to the hospital.  She would fall out of bed; she would be non-responsive and not wake up in the mornings. The final straw was the bugs.

She insisted that bugs were crawling on her and she would swat at them and ask if we could see them.  There was nothing there. There were no bites on her skin, yet she was digging into her flesh, making huge, raw open sores. She was admitted to the emergency room and then referred to a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation.

She was also “shrinking.” The mother that I used to have to look up to, since I am the shortest member of the family, was now shorter and more frail that I had ever seen her.

From the psychiatric hospital, she moved to a Nursing Home. I was not there, but my sister was when she cried and pleaded with my father to take her home. Kathy said it was heartbreaking. I am so glad I did not see that, but what I was to see would be just as bad.

I had not been home since December when I visited for Christmas and though Mom was weak, she was at home, able to get around and lucent. It was March when she went into the Nursing Home and so I made a trip to check things out. It is an eight-hour drive and I got in late, about 10PM.  Dad and I went to bed. It was about 5AM when the phone rang.  It was the Nursing Home.  Mom had fallen out of bed and had a huge cut on her head and was in the emergency room.  Dad got dressed and went to the hospital and I got up and dressed and followed about an hour later.

When I arrived at the hospital, they led me to a cubicle in the emergency room where Dad was sitting, drinking a cup of coffee.  Mom was on a gurney, totally out, a huge gash on her right forehead with about eight fresh stitches, a black eye, and the right side of her face starting to bruise up. I remember working in Nursing Homes and we had bed rails and safety jackets for patients who were restless.  Apparently it is against the law to use restraints on the elderly now, so Mom was able to attempt to get up, was so unsteady that she fell forward onto the oxygen equipment between the two beds in her room. They were getting ready to take her back to the Nursing Home in the ambulance, so Dad and I followed. I got lost…..arrived as they were having difficulties getting Mom back into bed.  She was in a hospital gown, her hair sticking out everywhere, with wild eyes searching my face, her face now half blackened with the bruise and the protruding stitches over her right eye. She was screaming and trying to get out of the wheelchair, her tiny arms, bruised from IV’s straining to lift her weight, her tiny legs, skin rough as leather from the diabetes, crossed in front, unable to support her weight, tangled in the leg rests.

I have worked in Nursing Homes with such patients and knew what to do, but could not wrap my mind around the truth that this confused, bruised, belligerent woman was my mother!  I knelt in front of her and spoke gently to her and she recognized my voice and settled down.  I combed her hair as best I could, wrapped her in her shawl and told her she looked beautiful and asked if we could take a ride around the hallways so she could show me the place while the nurse got her bed ready. She seemed agreeable, but as we started out, her right leg kept falling between the crack in the leg rests.  I finally grabbed a pillow and as I was trying to lift her legs to lie it against the leg rests so her feet would not fall through, she screamed at me, “Quit that, Wanda!”  I asked if I had been too rough and she said, “Yesh.”  Her teeth were not in her mouth. My Mother never went anywhere without her teeth. I looked around and found them on her bedside stand, rinsed them off and popped them into her mouth, got a little blanket for her lap, and we took off.  Dad was exhausted and said he was heading home.

Mom was leaning forward in the chair, her hands firmly pushing down on the arm rests, her feet pushing down into the foot rests, trying to stand.  I had to keep reassuring her and making conversation, much as you would to calm a frightened child. As we passed the Nurses’ Station, the nurse asked me if I thought I could get her to eat some yogurt. Apparently she’d had nothing to eat since the day before. I took the yogurt and we headed down the hall to the atrium, where there was a TV and other patients eating lunch.  I opened the yogurt and started feeding her and she ate it ravenously. I went to the desk and got another one and she managed to eat that one too. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the last food my Mom would eat.

We went back to her room and the nurses put her into bed. She began to be agitated and could not get comfortable with the bed up, the bed down, and she kept trying to crawl out, so they gave her something to calm her down. I stayed until I was sure she was resting comfortably, stroking her rough, dry, bruised skin, putting lotion on to soothe her arms, legs, and feet as well. Before I left, I laid my head next to her on her pillow and told her I loved her and I would be back in the morning and gently kissed her forehead, careful to avoid the swollen wound of stitches.

I got into my car and just sat there in the darkness. I felt such overwhelming sorrow, it is difficult to describe. I could not cry, though I wanted to curl into a ball and sob. I so needed someone to just hold me. I was frightened. My knowledge of nursing told me what was happening, but the “child” inside of me could not believe what was immanent.  I drove home. Dad and I hardly spoke. He just read his newspaper and watched the news. I said I was tired and went to bed. I was amazed at how soundly I slept.

The next day, I went to the Nursing Home early and Dad said he would come a little later. I think he was so glad to have some relief from hospital and Nursing Home duty! He had been handling this all on his own for so long. Mom was barely responsive when I got there. She was unable to eat any breakfast. I was afraid to feed her the solid food, but managed to get some juice and tea in through a straw by inserting the straw into the liquid and then placing my finger over the top like a siphon, and then putting the end of the straw into Mom’s mouth and gently taking my finger off to let the liquids dribble in, but I was still afraid she would aspirate.  

The Nursing Staff was diligent about changing Mom’s position to prevent bed sores. They gave her excellent care. Dad came in at about 10AM and we both stayed till after lunch and went home.  I planned to come back later in the afternoon and stay till dinner time. I was going to try and convince Dad to eat Chinese. There was a Chinese restaurant with a buffet right near the Nursing Home.  When I got back that afternoon, the Nurses said Mom had a really nice chat with the Lutheran Chaplain. It was hard for me to believe it.  She was nearly comatose, but the pastor came back in and told me everything they had talked about. I found it amazing! She had practically told him her whole life story. She never stirred the whole time I was there.  I stroked her arms and face, told her she was beautiful and that I loved her. I left around 6PM and got some Chinese food.  Dad actually tried it and liked some of it!

The next day, Dad went in early because I wanted to start supper in the crockpot and go and buy a CD player.  I had brought along a really nice, relaxing CD called “Heartland” and felt that it would be calming for Mom to listen to music rather than her roommate’s TV and the noise of a Nursing Home. I had spoken again with Bruce Burkness, my old friend and pastor from back home and he said that he thought Mom didn’t have much time left. She was not eating and they were not giving her IV’s.

I got there at about lunch time and set up the CD player and got the music to play.  It seemed to calm Mom.  Her breathing had become labored. Dad left. I settled in for the afternoon.  I had brought some knitting and a book to read, but mostly I felt compelled to sit next to Mom and put my head next to hers and rub her arms, legs, back, whatever, just to be near her.  I am no longer a Christian, but Mom and Dad had lately become more “religious” so I found a tiny New Testament in the bedside drawer and decided to read to Mom. I said, “Mom, I know you like to hear the Bible, so I am just going to open this one and read a little to comfort you.” I opened it to a page and started reading. It was the place in Matthew where they are talking about divorce. Now, I am divorced, my Mom was divorced, and my Mom is possibly dying….before I knew I had said anything at all, I had commented rather loudly, “Holy crap! How depressing!” and I swear I saw a smile cross my Mom’s lips. It was at this point my sister called from Cleveland to ask about Mom’s condition. She and JD were planning to come Friday after work.  I told her Mom was still the same and I thought she would still be here by Friday.

I stayed until 4:30 and then went home to get some supper for Dad.  We had Crockpot Beef Stew and home made biscuits. Dad said he would clean up the dishes and I said I wanted to go back over to see Mom, so I went on and left the mess to him. When I got there, Mom’s breathing had radically changed. Each inspiration was labored and each expiration made her lips make “raspberries” and there was some thick mucus draining out of the sides of her mouth. I put her bed up a little higher and got her to lie without drooping to one side and washed off her mouth and applied some Vaseline to her lips.  I decided to feel her legs and feet.  I remember that death comes on from the extremities and if her systems were shutting down, her extremities would be cold, but she was all warm and toasty, even her toes, although they were all crooked and stiff, I assumed from the diabetes. I decided to call Kathy and couldn’t get her, but left a message for her to call me.

At this point, I don’t know why I did it, but I crawled into bed beside Mom and we “spooned” with me on the outside of the covers. I just held her gently and told her what a wonderful Mom she had been and that I loved her so much and wanted her to stay with me forever, but I knew she had to move on.  I knew she was afraid of death and I told her that I thought it was going to be scary for just a second until you left this plane and reached out for the next one, but I told her she would not be alone.  I was here on this side and there would be others to reach out to her from the other side and I mentioned who I thought she might see….Gram Billotte, Fluffy, our old cat, her brother, her friends Lil and Grant.  I told her I would be okay, but I wasn’t sure about Kathy, my sister. She is really close to Mom. I don’t think she could have watched Mom go like this. I think it was my previous experience in Home Health and Hospice that got me through it.

I got up from the bed and resumed my spot on the chair and was rubbing Mom’s arms again. All of a sudden, Mom sat upright in bed, looked right at me and then fell back onto her pillow and there was no more labored breathing. As I was about to check her brachial pulse, I saw a huge “thump” in her chest where I assumed her heart was. Then she was totally still. I stifled a huge sob and reached for the Nurses call button and saw Dad just coming in the door to the room.  “She’s gone,” I managed between sobs.  He came and put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it.  Then he leaned over Mom and gave her a kiss and said “Bye Mom.” with tears streaming down his face. 

The Nurses came and took Dad away to sign some papers and meet with the Funeral Director.  I stayed with Mom as the Nurses gently bathed her and put on a clean nightgown and diaper.  Then they got the body bag. I had to stay. I could not leave my Mom, so I watched as they put her tiny body into the bag and zipped it up and then transferred her to the Funeral Director’s cart. My sister called and I had to tell her Mom was gone.  She was shocked because I had just told her earlier that I thought Mom would still be here on Friday.

The loss of a parent is a significant event. I never “pictured” what would happen if I lost my Mom. I never even considered the possibility, even as I sat at her beside.

I have not moved on. I am still in that room. Am I still in denial?  I am more “spiritual” than “religious” and I thought I would see Mom somewhere….in a beautiful butterfly or hummingbird… a dream…somewhere…I really thought she would manifest.  I have had several “readings” and so has my daughter Jill and we have been told she is around us, one of our guardians, but I do not “feel” it. I cannot find her.  I miss her so much sometimes.  I have not had a heart-wrenching cry. I do cry at the strangest times; just a little bit; but my heart feels like it is crying. You know how there is a little warm spot in your heart just before the tears fall?

In the midst of all of this sorrow, I met a wonderful person who was able to hold and comfort me. I wish I could have “bottled” that comfort. I am hoping that by writing and sharing this I can heal and move on.


  1. Well done Mom. Well done. I'm bawling over here.

  2. Wow, what a story Wanda. I could feel your raw grief as I read this. We have so much in common: Bruce Burkness, living in Emporium, our spiritual path and Hospice and Home Health Care. So sorry for the loss of your dear mother. She was blessed to have you by her side as she left this world.