My mother passed away a couple of weeks ago and the situation couldn’t have been kinder. I don’t mean her death. That was sad, remains so, and shall for months and perhaps years to come. But at 94 years old she’d lived a long and gracious life.
What I’m talking about is the circumstances and the affection surrounding her passing among her children, grandchildren and caregivers in the final days of her life.
People say you can’t imagine what the death of a parent feels like, especially your mother’s, until it happens to you. I suppose that’s true. You’ve known her longer than you’ve known anybody else; you’ve never known a world without her. And now that she’s gone all sorts of metaphors compete to describe her absence, none of them quite sufficient, precise or profound enough.
It’s the physical sensation that she’s gone, the realization that a protective membrane that stood between you and the world has dissolved, even if you long ago learned how to fend for yourself.
Fortunately, there are many things to take solace in – her memory, for starters. My mother, who was born in Europe and moved to the United States just before World War II, left behind quite a legacy. She could be maddening, stubborn and autocratic. But also absurdly generous and loving; her eccentricities were too many and varied to enumerate here.
But some of them were also so lovely and vivid – for example throwing a birthday party for her Boston Terrier in Italy every summer – that her grandchildren, who sat by her bedside in her final days, will be able to share her legend with their own children and grandchildren.
Her decline started several years ago when her sister and a cousin who called from Paris every day, often several times a day, passed away. It was disorienting for her, even if my mother denied it. She told me she didn’t feel sad because she refused to believe it.
That decision may start to provide a sense of the way she was able to inhabit a world of her own creation, as few could.
People felt sorry for her because she was bedridden. I was required to explain that my mother preferred bed, or prior to that her chaise longue, to any sort of exercise for most of her life.
She often told me she’d never been happier than in the last few years – kept company by her cat Cookie and Skippy, Boston Terrier #5 – and her devoted caregivers. Since she couldn’t get out of bed she no longer felt any social pressure to do so.
I’m not going to make light of the last days of her life. She went to the hospital with pneumonia and soon lapsed into semi-consciousness, if she was conscious at all.
But she died much the way she lived. When my daughters would visit her at home, they’d make themselves a drink, then join her in her bedroom where she’d interrogate them about their love lives.
There was no communications gap to bridge between her and her grandchildren. She often said she felt sixteen. And in her mind, if not her body, she still was.
She was above all a great romantic. My younger daughter Gracie got one of the last reactions out her a few weeks ago when Gracie told my mother, who often consulted astrologers and fortune tellers when she was younger, that she’d visited a astrologer herself. The astrologer told Gracie that she’d meet her husband this year.
“Go on!” my mother exclaimed, surfacing from the haze that surrounded her final months.
As we kept vigil by her bedside at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, we were joined by nurses and doctors who came and went monitoring her condition and offering words of comfort, even though there wasn’t much they could do for her at that point except to make sure she suffered as little as possible.
The American health care system probably deserves the criticism it receives. But my mother’s care couldn’t have been more diligent or compassionate.
When the hospital realized she was too weak to go home, and even moving her to hospice was no longer possible, they provided her a private room so that we could all be together – my brothers, our wives and our children – even rolling in a tray of snacks and soft drinks.
As at least one of her grandchildren wryly noted that the setting wasn’t all that dissimilar from the one at home – my mother in bed surrounded by refreshments, conversation and love. The only thing missing were her pets.
Her funeral was as gentle and lovely as her life, framed by bouquets of yellow roses. I mentioned her eccentricities. One of them was the color yellow.
There’s nothing wrong with yellow. It’s a fine color. But my mother went overboard, painting entire rooms – not just the walls, but also the furniture and floors yellow. She said it was cheerful.
I gave one of the eulogies, my older daughter Lucy another, and Lucy’s cousin Emma a third. There was no dearth of anecdotes to draw from.
Gracie read a poem by Mary Oliver that ended the service on the perfect note. “When it’s over,” the poet wrote, “I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement.”
My mother was married to amazement almost to the very end. How many of us can say that?
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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