My mother died on Friday, October 24, 2014.
Just three weeks prior, I had spoken with her on the phone. I thanked her for being a loving mother, and for the sense of humor she had given me, a quality I especially valued after the stroke she suffered in 1998 had robbed most of her speech. I also thanked her for her faithfulness in praying for my family over the years. When I hung up, I realized that I had just said goodbye.
When I saw her last, it was April, and she would be turning 82 years old. Every year I traveled back to Iowa to celebrate her birthday and party, big-time (or our version of it, anyway). I noticed that she moved more slowly and with more care, as if she were afraid she might break. She had a hard time swallowing, and she would stare off into space during meal times with a bite of food halfway to her mouth, spoon hovering in the air uncertainly. I also noticed that she was losing weight.
She had dementia. She was as clear as a bell on some subjects, and completely confused on others. I caught her staring at me blankly, but then her face lit up in recognition, as she exclaimed brightly, “You look like me!“.
Her younger sister, Rita, couldn’t make it up to visit this last time. Her daughters, my cousins, had brought her the 150 miles north to celebrate with Mom and I for the two birthdays previous, but this year, my Aunt Rita was in an Alzheimer’s unit, with pieces of her personality dropping away, leaving a stranger in her place. She could no longer travel.
I could see the disappointment in Mom’s eyes when I told her that her sister couldn’t make it for her birthday, but we would still have fun, I told her.
I took her out to eat a couple of times. We went shopping so that she could buy a pretty new outfit for her birthday. We took long drives in the country, and sat in my rental car, savoring chocolate sundaes at Stan’s Drive-In, as we had done many times before.
The last night of my visit to her there in the nursing home, I sat on the bed next to her, and we reminisced as I shared my favorite childhood memories of her.
I loved our shopping trips together, I told her, but my favorite memories were of sitting together on our front porch in Des Moines, Iowa, wrapped in blankets as thunder shook the house, singing our hearts out.
The week my mother died, I called the nursing home, hoping to talk with her.
“Arlene is unable to come to the phone”, they said. I left a message for her that I had called, feeling uneasy.
The next couple of days were filled with telephone conversations as her nurses and the social worker tried to tell me, but at the same time, tried NOT to tell me, that she was dying. Finally, I said, “I think we’re at the point where we all know she’s not going to get better. Please just keep her comfortable. It’s okay to let her go.” I could hear a sigh of relief on the other end, as the nurse said, “Okay, we needed to hear that from you.”
I contacted family members and friends, telling them that it was time to say good-bye.
And this is where, for me, the story of her passing becomes beautiful and extraordinary.
Her pastor’s wife and dear friend, Dixie, came to see her with some of her church friends,spending hours with her, talking with her, singing to her (she tried to sing along–she knew every verse to every hymn), and praying for her. One of our sons, who lives two hours away, came to sit with her and tell her goodbye, her hand holding his.
On Thursday, surrounded by her hymn-singing friends, she told them she could see Jesus in the room. They asked what He was doing, and she replied that He was just standing there, arms at His sides.
Our oldest son, Ben, was on a plane at that moment, trying desperately to get there in time to see her one last time to tell her his goodbyes, and I prayed frantically, hoping she would hold on just a little bit longer.
Dixie told me that as they were sitting with her, she would look past them, her eyes focusing Beyond. She would periodically smile, as if in recognition of someone she knew. They asked her if she was seeing her mother, (this was told to me as we were planning her funeral), and she replied softly, “No. Grandchild.”
When she told me this, I began to weep. We had lost an infant daughter, Christina, in 1984, and we knew she was with Jesus, but to hear that it was she who greeted my mother overwhelmed me with the bitter-sweetness of our loss, and her gain.
At 11:00 PM, Dixie texted me that her breathing had changed, and the end was near. In the midst of her labored breathing, she managed to gasp, “How long?”, knowing Ben was en route. She was trying to hang on for him, her first grandchild, with whom she shared a special bond.
Ben had just landed in Des Moines, having experienced a couple of flight delays. When I heard this, I sobbed in desperation, “Please don’t let her leave till he gets there!” He still had the 2 1/2 hour drive north through dense ground fog, and it was dark.
To my great relief, he did make it in time. She was conscious, but could only communicate by blinking. Her eyes, which had been blue, were now a muddy brown as her body systems failed. He played her the video his children had made for her on his phone, each one saying, “I love you”, and “Good-bye”. Simeon, our 6-year-old-grandson cheerily exclaimed, “Have fun in Heaven!”, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
About an hour before she passed, Ben face-timed us with her, so that I could see her one more time.
I told her I loved her, and she purposefully blinked her eyes at me. I said goodbye, and the call ended. She would live one more hour.
Ben was reading to her from the Psalms, holding her hand. At one point, he looked down at her manicured, polished fingernails, and said, “You have the nicest nails!”, and THAT is when she took her last breath.
I chose for her an outfit that was dark pink. She loved pink, and I had been with her when she bought it on one of our birthday outings. She was wearing the jewelry Aunt Rita had given her on her birthday the year before-a necklace with pink beads, and a matching bracelet. Her makeup and hair were perfect. She would have been so pleased, as she always took great care with her looks.
Her funeral was beautiful, and honoring. I had the privilege of giving her eulogy, while her friend, Dixie, shared additional memories and tribute.
My mother was wildly generous. One of the stories Dixie told of her was how she would always buy groceries for people who were in need, leaving them on their doorstep. This gesture was always accompanied by a French Silk Pie for some reason. As Dixie shared this, soft laughter rippled through the crowd in fond recognition. This was her calling card–her trademark. “Arlene was here”, a French Silk Pie said.
As the congregation sang, “I Will Meet You in the Morning”, I hoped she could see how her life was being celebrated here on earth.
Her church ladies hosted a lavish potluck lunch afterward, featuring French Silk pies for dessert, in her honor.
I often think that if she could have scripted her own death and funeral, it would have been along these lines. If I could have chosen her death for her, I would have wanted for her to go in her sleep, without the deep, gasping breaths, but in the end I thought, “How perfect!” She died with her first grandchild holding her hand.
She was there when he took his first breath, and he was there when she took her last.
There is something about the symmetry in this that I find achingly beautiful.
In the book of Genesis, a phrase is used whenever a patriarch died: “and ___was gathered to his people”. She was the matriarch of my family, and like Abraham, had great faith in what she could not see. Therefore, it is a fitting epitaph.
“And Arlene was gathered to her people.”