My Mother’s Words

My mother died 29 years ago today. 

Sometimes I have to think for a second to remember the date, but I can always remember the number of years that have passed. My daughter was born three months before, on July 9, 1993. 

They are forever linked, my mother’s passing and my daughter’s entry into the world. The life-changing milestone of new parenthood piled on by the milestone of grieving the loss of a parent.

My oldest brother, Steve, called to let me know. He had been at hospice with my mother.  My siblings — Steve, my sister, Deb, and I — had decided to take shifts at her bedside rather than all three of us staying there around the clock for an unknown stretch of time. It seemed fitting, in a way, for Steve to be the one who was there when mom passed. He is the most guarded, emotionally speaking, and I always felt that his being alone with my mother was somehow the right thing. No coincidences. He was her first born, and the privacy between them at that moment seemed right.  

I remember I cried when we got off the phone. I felt the loss. Of course, the timing of it all made me sad, too. My mother was only five weeks short of her 76th birthday. I hoped, maybe even anticipated, that she and Jessica would get to know each other. But the cancer was relentless. And cruel.

My mother was first diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 1993. The tumor was in her lungs, an effect of a lifelong habit of smoking. She had made many efforts to stop smoking over the years – acupuncture, sucking on hard candies, the gum. But, despite her 40-year career in nursing and knowing the harm, the habit had its claws deep in her. 

When she was in the hospital at the time of her diagnosis and before treatments began, I stopped by to visit her on a Friday night. I remember it was a Friday because I attended one of my favorite recovery meetings there. At 7:45, an announcement came over the speakers in the rooms and hallways, “Visiting hours end in 15 minutes.”

My mother said, “that doesn’t apply to me.”  She had a been a nurse at Penrose Hospital for her whole career, even went to nursing school there in the late 1930s. She could leverage her seniority; her youngest son could stay beyond visiting hours. And I didn’t feel the pressing need to head down to the 8:00 meeting. First things first. Be there. Be present.

My mom and me.

In those fleeting minutes, my mother said that she was proud of all of her children. That she loved us all dearly. In all honesty, my mother was a bit stoic, having faced the challenges of growing up in the Depression, of being a single mother since I was twelve. But she met “life on life’s terms” head on. She had a strength and perseverance at which I continue to marvel.

Her emotional openness right then, though, caught me a bit off-guard. I think she needed me to hear her words so directly, so heart-felt, with almost a sense of urgency. I had the sense that she had been reflecting on this conversation for awhile. She felt the time passing, after visiting hours had ended.

The initial chemo cleared the tumors from her lungs and by the time my daughter was born in July, my mother was feeling better. I think she still used the oxygen tank, but maybe she had shed that sometime in the early summer.

In 1993, we didn’t have 24/7 cameras we pulled from our pocket, no quick snaps that we have now. I do not have one photo of my mother and daughter together. And that hurts my heart. I kick myself for not being ready with a camera when my mother visited. I thought there would be time.

But by mid-September, my mother complained of pain in her upper back, across her shoulders, down her spine. The oncologists discovered that the cancer ate at her bones. My mother didn’t want any drastic measures. Didn’t want the aggressive chemo, not again, not to the degree that the treatment would take to rid her body of the cancer. No heroic measures for this woman who seemed heroic for so long, in so many ways.

At hospice on the night before she died, this image: the tenderness of the attending nurse. She came in to the room to check my mother’s pain level. The nurse leaned over the bed, talked to my mother so softly, gently moistened my mother’s drying lips.

As the nurse bent over her, my mother reached to touch the turquoise beads of the nurse’s necklace. My mother loved turquoise. When we went to Taos one fall weekend when I was a kid, the souvenirs she purchased were turquoise jewelry. What stays with me from that moment in hospice is the nurse’s compassion. She would lean over my mother’s bed for as long as my mother gently touched each stone. Funny what stays with us: the arc of the nurse’s body bending over my mother’s bed, my mother’s fingers caressing each stone.

When I was younger, my mother told me she believed in the afterlife. She wasn’t sure about all the details, but she believed there was more after our time on earth. Not particularly a religious woman (despite working in a Catholic hospital run by the Sisters of Charity), my mother felt there was something beyond. The memory of that conversation, coupled with our conversation after visiting hours, gave me a sense of ease as my mother lay in hospice.

At three months old, my daughter slept in a bassinet in our bedroom. She was not a particularly fussy baby and slept a good portion of the night even then. I heard her make a small coo, a tiny peep, and I checked the clock. 1:40.  She didn’t wake up, though, didn’t stir any more.

I answered Steve’s call pretty quickly, maybe the third ring. He didn’t talk long. “Hey, Vinnie. Just wanted to let you know that mom died at 1:40.” 

What hangs in the air, what lingers like a soft scent, the lilacs in the early spring, the hint of rain in the cool autumn night, what stays with us like our mother’s words?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: