My mom died Friday night. She was 78.
The last six years were so incredibly wretched for her. So much pain, from bad joints and falls and broken bones, so much trouble breathing, organs failing or on the verge, that she could never really rest. She was so sick so many times, sick enough that I'd think "Surely this is it, now she'll have some peace," only to see her rebound, more frail and weak than before, but undeniably there and Mom.
She lost my dad, her best friend, the person most truly invested in her happiness. Finally, and this was the worst part, her mind turned on her, made her think the most awful things imaginable, that people were saying and doing terrible, impossible things to her and people she loved. It was heartbreaking and frustrating to argue with her, because it obviously felt so real to her.
Then on Friday she was just gone. It was a day I'd been planning to come with Maria for a visit anyway, and I'd been debating whether to take the morning or afternoon ferry. I'd settled on afternoon because I'd still be able to take Kurt to therapy and it would be easier to arrange childcare for him until Jeff could get home. It was on the way to the therapy center that I got a call from the admitting doctor at St. Joe's. The doctor was a bit frantic because my mom was in respiratory failure and she couldn't reach my brother Rusty (Mom's primary caregiver, who works on a loud factory floor, and wouldn't hear his phone anyway). It took the doctor a while to make her point: things were going badly, and she wanted our permission to not treat Mom aggressively.
Even after that, even hearing the doctor's tone, which made me phone my siblings in a panic, it may not have fully penetrated. Mom had been this bad before. She really, really had.
In the next couple of hours, two things happened. Jeff decided to come with me to Tacoma, and it was decided that Mom would be moved to Franciscan Hospice. While Jeff and the kids and I waited for the ferry, my brother Marty called and said Mom was awake and wanted to talk to me.
"How do you feel?" I asked her.
"Better, " she said in a terrible voice.
"Ok! Well, we're coming to see you. I love you!"
"I love you too."
The rain on the Olympic Peninsula was bad until Poulsbo, but in Tacoma it was a clear, lovely, cold night. We got over the bridge and to Franciscan Hospice about 8:45. I dashed to the door, which was locked, and looked in the little window to see my sister in law Stephanie walking toward me from the end of a long hall. She opened the door, smiled at me, started leading me down the hall, and then said, "She left us about 8:23."
When I finally saw Mom, even though I really thought I was ready, I still had that initial horrible feeling of loss. I don't think there's any practice for death. But she looked really peaceful, not all that different. I kept touching her hair, because I'm finding it's the little details of my dad I'm losing, and my mom's hair was really soft. (I find also Kurt's baby pictures are gradually supplanting my actual memories of his babyhood. I can't tell if this means I should take more or less pictures.)
My relationship with my mom was so different than with my dad, deeper and more complicated, probably typical of mother-daughter relationships. I keep trying to concentrate on the fact that she had a huge long life, most of which I don't know much about, since I was born so late. (She was nearly fifty by the time my real conscious memories start). We talked a lot, nearly every day up until this month. What we had was lovely, probably about as good as it gets, and now I don't have to worry about her ever again. What keeps me from fully embracing this positive viewpoint is that in the last few years, it was hard for her to not dwell on all she had lost over her life: husband, parents, friends, a baby, her beauty, unrealistic but tenacious hopes, various material possessions. I think that a feeling of loss might be a natural consequence of being lucky enough to have lived to be old, and that's a scary, sad thought. It was hard to listen to sometimes.
Saturday night I was looking at a picture of my parents. I took it maybe six months before my dad died, before we even knew he had cancer, and in it, they're hugging. I felt a sudden rush of happiness at the sight of this picture, which is momentous, because for the last three years, looking at pictures of my parents together has made me sort of sad, mostly for Mom, because I know how much she missed him, but a little bit for me, too, because it was so much nicer to think of them as having each other. I'm not giving away a big secret by telling you I'm a non-believer. I can't honestly say that I feel certain my parents are together in a real, concrete place somewhere. But they're together in my memories now, and I don't know why that's comforting, but it really is.