Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Saying Goodbye

Ruby Lee Hayden Fifer 1922-2010
            The call had come about mid-afternoon.  “I think this is it.  Her breathing is really labored, and it just feels different this time.”  It was a call I had been dreading yet expecting for the past several days.  I cleared the rest of my afternoon appointments then hopped in the car for the long drive to the east side of Indianapolis.   On the drive over I contemplated how I would handle the coming hours.  I do not deal well with death in any circumstance and, with the exception of grandparents or aunts and uncles, had never lost anyone close to me.  And I certainly had never been with anyone as they passed.  Yet here I was heading off to spend what I knew would be the last moments I would ever have with my mother.
The family on Easter morning (minus my oldest sister)
            I thought back to those early years when it was just her and I alone together for much of the day.  I was the last of four children and lagged behind my closest sibling by five years.  While my brother likes to joke that I was an accident, my mother had explained to me that with my sister finally heading off to school, she knew she would be lonely.  So it was decided they would have just one more child so my mother could enjoy doing what she loved so much, being a mother, just a little bit longer.   And so Mom and I had spent my first five years keeping each other company during the day. 
Mom, me and my older brother who claimed I was an oops.
Helping Mom into the car
Snapshots of those early days flashed through my memory as I robotically drove the route to the nursing home that had become so familiar.  I could see myself as a small boy sitting on the floor building houses with dominoes on the cutting board from the kitchen while Mom cleaned house around me.  I recalled all the trips we took together, whether it was to the grocery store, the butcher in Zionsville, the doctor or the beauty parlor.  There was a period where she didn’t have to go to the beauty parlor since her beautician lived only a few houses down.  Esther would come over and wash and set Mom’s hair, and I would lie on the floor and sleep to the hum of the big hair dryer.  And I could feel the softness of her lap as my thoughts drifted back to being a young, bored boy at church, lying on the pew with her lap as my pillow, her hand quieting my tapping foot.  She was young again in these visions and all seemed right with the world for that brief moment, but then traffic jolted me back to reality.
The happy early days.  Mom and Dad with my older sister and brother.
            I made good time and hurried into the nursing home, my hand trembling as I signed the guest log one last time.  The atmosphere in her room was so different that evening.  The first thing I noticed, which I had not seen before, was the sticker by her door which indicated this was a hospice room.  The curtain separating Mom from Beatrice, her “roommate,” was drawn and the lights were off.  Bea was seldom in the room when I visited Mom, and it was usually well lit.  The family was gathered around her bed, and I could see what they had meant about her breathing being different.  The breaths were harsh and deep, and she seemed to fight for every one of them, even with the supplemental oxygen being delivered to her nasally.  As the hospice literature had warned us, the thick secretions in her chest vibrated with each breath creating the proverbial “death rattle.”   My sister explained that her breathing had been worse earlier, but they had given her medication which had calmed it considerably.    
            In the background, my siblings were playing country music, which my mother loved so much.    She also enjoyed big band music, but most of the time, it was a country music album she slipped onto the turntable.  On rare occasions while working around the house, Mom would sometimes sing along.  I thought she was a good singer, and something in her voice has always reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald, although no one has ever said they agree with me on that.  Even now I can listen to an old Ella song, and I hear Mom singing to me.   On this evening, Marty Robbins was singing from the CD player in the room, and I could remember the time we watched him perform at the WIRE picnic many years before.  WIRE was the local country music station, and each year it sponsored a free, all-day concert with both local musicians and big name stars.  Mom would prepare a big batch of fried chicken, we would load the cooler with drinks and head off for a hot but enjoyable day in the sun, listening to some really top quality country music.  However, tonight the music brought me no joy.
The new parents.  Mom and Dad showing off my sister, Dianna.

            In the room with me were my siblings, my father and some of Mom’s granddaughters and great granddaughters.  Family was everything to Mom.  She had devoted her life to being a loving wife, mother, grandmother and eventually great grandmother.    By the time I had come along, Mom definitely had the routine down, but I look back on early photos of her as a new Mom, and I can see some of the exhaustion in her eyes.  A strict and immaculate house cleaner, she balanced caring for her home with caring for us, and she didn’t scrimp on either.  Up before the crack of dawn, Mom would indulge herself with a little time in her easy chair with a cup of coffee, but then it would be work, work, work from that moment on.  So many mornings I snuggled in next to Mom, joined by our three poodles.  The warmth of my mother, the smell of her coffee and the softness of the poodles was a great way to start the day.  Breakfast was not a meal to be taken lightly, and although I had many years of cereal, I also enjoyed many years of bacon, eggs, hash browns and toast.  There were also pancakes, French toast and oatmeal.  A very special treat for us was when she made cinnamon toast in the little toaster oven that otherwise remained hidden in the cabinet above the refrigerator.  She didn’t enjoy making it, I suspect it made a mess that was hard to clean, but I have never had any cinnamon toast rival what she produced. 
A tired young mother giving my brother, Jerry a bath.
            When we were little, I’m sure this time of day was bath time.  Mom would pull out the little yellow, plastic tub and fill it with warm water and set it on the table.  Then she would plop us in and give us a good scrubbing.  I don’t know how vigorous she was when we were babies, but years later, after a weekend of romping in the woods, Mom would lay us down on the kitchen cabinet, head resting over the sink and wash our hair.  Of course she wanted to get us clean, but her larger goal was to detect any hidden ticks, and in doing so her aggressive scrubbing took with it a part of our scalps. 
My morning bath.  Note the laundry already drying on the line outside.
            She was equally aggressive at cleaning the house.  Even though my mother was born to simple Kentucky farmers in the 1920’s, she was taught early the importance of a clean house.  In her memoirs, written as an assignment her freshman year in high school, Mom wrote about an incident when she was a small girl and her cousin had made the house dirty while they were playing.  My mother was so angry, she locked her cousin out of the house, and that attitude about a clean house stayed with her until the day her health forced her to leave her home and enter a nursing facility.  As toddlers, we were allowed to play while she cleaned, but as we got older, we were all assigned jobs to assist her.  I collected trash from all the rooms and would burn it in the barrel behind our house.  My sister and I took turns carrying all the rugs out onto the front porch to shake the dirt out of them.  Our beds were to be made, our floors swept and our furniture dusted.  One day a week, she would have us remove everything from the dressers and tables and polish the furniture.   Mom had built up some very strong arm muscles in her right arm from scrubbing and pushing a sweeper around so many years, and neither my brother nor I could ever beat her at arm wrestling.
Mom, always at home in the kitchen
            At noon, Mom always made sure we had a good lunch.  In the early years we walked to school in the morning, but Mom brought us home at noon for lunchtime, then it was back to school for the rest of the day.  This was the time in which Mom took her one work break.  You never caught my mother resting during the day, except for her hour of the soap opera “As the World Turns.”  Then it was back to work doing laundry and preparing dinner.  Mom was the best cook I’ve ever known, although my sister is now walking closely in her footsteps.   From her everyday meals to her cakes and cream pies to her Christmas fudge, no one could top her skill in the kitchen.  After dinner, she would wash the dishes then settle down to read the paper and enjoy some evening television.   It was now that time of day, and I would have given anything to go back 40 years and be snuggled between my parents with the big yellow bowl of popcorn between us, once again watching an old western or variety show.
Nighttime prayers with my sister, Dianna
The dementia showing in Mom's face at their 60th anniversary
            But tonight there was no television, no couch and no popcorn.  There were only the labored breaths of my mother and the tears of my family.   Mom had been in the nursing home a little over a year.  Dementia had robbed her of her ability to care for herself, and that combined with the fact that she was pretty much a physical invalid became more than my 87 year old father could handle alone.   Harder than letting her go that evening was the morning we took her to the nursing home.  Though mentally dazed and confused, she still knew enough to know what a nursing home was and that she wanted nothing to do with it.  Dad had tried to explain to her how he could not take care of her like he wanted, and that he needed surgery on his eyes and would unable to care for her at all for a while.  He was trying to soften the blow, but she was still unaware that she was heading to a nursing facility.  I arrived that morning to see Mom in her rocking chair with her morning cup of coffee.  She looked at me and gave me a big smile and told me hello.  I tried to keep up a happy front, but all I could think was how this was her last morning in the house in which she had spent half a century.  When we finally arrived at the nursing home, she understood what was happening and had to be pried from the car.  She was hurt and angry, and I felt like we all had betrayed her.  Her jaw was clenched, she refused to talk or make eye contact until about a half hour later when finally she let me take her hand and hold it.  I knew the storm had passed, but it scarcely made the moment any easier.  In these final months Mom had accepted her situation and would sometimes even ask to return when Dad would bring her home for her weekly hair appointment and overnight stay.
Being a Mom is an exhausting job.
            It was fortuitous that Dad had placed Mom when he did, because a few months later he was stricken with Guillain-Barre Syndrome which left him paralyzed and weak for several months.  He could not even sit up on his own, let alone care for my mother.  Yet a strange and wonderful thing happened during my father’s illness and convalescence.  At first we withheld the news from Mom until we knew for sure what was happening with Dad, saying instead that he wasn’t feeling good and was at home resting.  When we knew he was not going to be on his feet any time soon, we finally had to come clean.   When she learned the real situation, she wanted to see him.  My wonderful sister got her dressed, loaded her into the car and took her to the hospital.  We wheeled her up Dad’s bed, and they took each other’s hands and without words they sat and comforted each other for the better part of an hour.  Mom became so focused on Dad, that for a while the cloud lifted, and she showed clarity of mind she had not shown for many months.  For that brief period, we had our mother back as she worried who would pay the bills, clean the house and care for our father.  However, all good things must come to an end, and so it was with Mom as she gradually slipped back into the fog of dementia.
Mom enjoying one of her first grandbabies.
            Mom had one more moment of clarity that we all will cherish forever.  It was her final birthday, and Dad had brought her home for a couple days.  Mom usually didn’t know what day it was, and we didn’t believe she would even comprehend that it was her birthday.  Yet she was “with it” that day and knew exactly what it was and that she was turning 85.  She enjoyed opening her gifts and eating birthday cake.  Earlier that day I had called my father to ask him to wish Mom a happy birthday since I was unable to make it over.  As the line rang on the other end, I was totally shocked to hear my mother answer the phone. She could scarcely reach it, and we had not had a meaningful conversation over the phone for almost a year.  Yet here she was understanding every word I said and answering me with clear, meaningful sentences.  It was the greatest gift my mother ever gave me, and the last good conversation we ever had.
Playing around in happier times.  Mom, Sheila and me.
            We were blessed in that until the last week of her life, Mom knew us all and could still call us by name.  My brother had the unfortunate luck of being the one that my mother would sometimes confuse with her late cousin, Dewey.  Although Mom and Dewey had grown up together and had once been very close, they must have had a tumultuous relationship because whenever my brother became “Dewey,” he was the victim of her wrath.  Her demeanor was totally different when she thought he was her cousin, and she would boss him about and quickly become agitated with him.  However, as soon as she again recognized him as her son, the love was back. 
Mom never lost the thrill of seeing a new grandchild.
            A few weeks after Mom’s birthday, she developed a cough.  The doctor immediately started treating her for a respiratory infection, but several days later Mom just seemed to shut down.  She no longer interacted; she only stared ahead or looked through you.  She quit eating and no longer got out of bed to sit in her chair.  We knew as a family that she was leaving us, and so the wait began.  Hospice was contacted and we were educated on what to expect over the following days. 
            And that is how my family came to be gathered in that crowded, dark room one year ago today.  We were there to say goodbye and to stand by the person who had always stood with us through every pain, travail or success we had ever experienced.  We took turns holding Mom’s hands, wiping her mouth, kissing her head, rubbing her feet and assuring her that she could finally quit fighting.  She couldn’t communicate, but we could still see her struggling as she had done for so long.  She never let her physical and mental frailties defeat her, and her stern countenance told me she still did not want to give up.  Then suddenly her breathing again changed, periodically halting as she became agonal, so my sister flagged down the nurse.  The attendant gave my mother another dose of medication intended to ease her breathing, but instead of the desired effect it choked her and she started coughing and gagging.  She opened her eyes, looked at me with a frightened and pleading look, and then it was over.  The breathing stopped and the stare became vacant.  That look has haunted me ever since.  She looked so scared, but I think she just didn’t want to give up a fight she realized she was losing.  Mom never wanted to stop being a mother and wife, and in that instant she knew it was over.   
The entire family including grandchildren and great grandchildren.
            It was such a surreal moment.  I knew I had just said goodbye forever to my mother, and the pain of that cut me to the core.  Yet at the same time, I was so happy that Mom’s battle was finally over.  For the first time in so many years, she was at peace.  There was no more pain and no more fighting just to have a complete thought or answer a simple question.  That is what has gotten me through this past year.  People try to comfort you by reminding you that your loved one “is in a better place,” and I now understand the power of that statement.  Even now the tears still flow, but my heart is content because I know my mother is finally getting the much deserved rest she earned through a lifetime of hard work and self-sacrifice.    We were so blessed to have her in our lives, and her presence and love is still felt every single day.
                                     We love you, Mom!


  1. A sad day for you, thinking of you.
    Your mum was the epitome, it seems to me, of what a mum should be... I love the photo of her bathing you where you are snuggled into her. The one where you say the dementia shows in her eyes reminded me so much of my own mother who died when she had just reached her 50th, of a brain tumour which meant she didn't recognise me and just had that distant, faraway, daydreamy look in her eyes, which hurt me so much. You and your mum were especially close it seems, as I was with mine due to it being the two of us most of the time. It was a wonderful, fun relationship as I guess yours was too, and the memories come flooding back to you so that I hope you remember with a smile and not too many tears. It takes time to get to that stage!
    Maggie -

  2. Yes, Maggie. My mother was everything you expect a Mom to be. We were blessed with two wonderful parents, and I am so thankful to still have my father as part of my life. And the smiles do outnumber the tears, but both still come.

  3. Okay... the tears have streamed, but not so much as sadness but gladness that such an incredible woman graced your life. You have always talked with love when mentioning your Mother, but this was truly a grand tribute.
    I LOVE the photos! Favoring the first, forth, tenth (my favorite & I would so frame...even if it was my Sis & not me), and of course the beautiful Christmas shot number 17. Scott~ how Blessed you, your siblings and father were. She seems to have truly been AMAZING♥ Love to you~