My mother Peg Wilke died peacefully at home on Sept. 6, 2014. She was 93 years old.
She made me promise we’d have a goodbye party and nobody be sad. I promised. I brought the flowers and balloons, a cloud of balloons floating above our heads, above the coffee and cookies and punch in the Friendship Hall of St. James Presbyterian in Bellingham, Washington.
After the party, I brought the balloons home. They floated above my bowed head until gravity got the better of them, one by one. In the morning, I had a balloon rug.
In an old photograph of Mom and Dad that I love, she looks as happy as I’ve ever seen her, head thrown back, both of them laughing. She said that must have been taken when she heard she was pregnant with me. Which means she loved me for the 30 weeks before I was born, and every day, hour, and minute since.
Sometimes it was too much. Sometimes it wasn’t enough. I took her for granted. I moved far away. I had other things to do. Even so, she loved me for 24,000 days and never turned away. For 600,000 hours, she never said a mean thing behind my back. In 34 million minutes, she never walked off in someone else’s arms. The only trouble was, I was an only child. She set the bar so high, I expect everyone to love me that much.
She forgot many things, but never my name. She made me raise my right hand and promise that I wouldn’t be sad very long without her.
I promised, fingers crossed.
Mom speaks a unique language now. Sometimes I can translate.
At ten o’clock last night, I asked if she wanted to get ready for bed. This nightly routine requires her to stand up from her easy chair, use her walker to navigate her way to the bathroom, put on a nightgown, brush her teeth and wash her face, and walk to her bed. With company to make sure she doesn’t wobble and fall.
She didn’t move a muscle, so I asked again if she was ready for bed. Finally she said, “I feel so…moveless.”
She used the right verb to describe the action pending: move. She wanted to modify it to the negative, so picked one of many possibilities, the suffix “-less.”
Lacking the energy to move. Too tired to do anything. Unable to imagine herself doing anything but sitting in her chair. I feel that way sometimes, too. Some days the world has more gravity than usual.
As her vocabulary slowly erodes, she stays amazingly inventive in getting her meaning across. “I’m going to have a talk with my mind,” she told me the other day, as though her confusion could be cleared up by determination or willpower. When I gave her a compliment on some small success, she laughed and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll keep doing it.”
The relationship among things in her world seems to have gone missing. “It’s nice to meet you,” she’ll say to a visitor, someone she sees in church every week. I continue to suggest the all-purpose greeting with a smile, “How nice to see you.” A person doesn’t have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth all the time. But Mom’s world doesn’t include the concept of deception.
She likes to get tucked into bed. The other night she said, “I love having you for my mother.”
“I’m your daughter,” I said, wanting to be pleasantly accurate. “You’re the mom.”
A puzzled look crossed her face, quickly gone. The proper words to describe our relationship aren’t particularly relevant anymore. I’m gratified she feels safe and loved in my care. That’s the point.
We manage to communicate. One morning when I was cleaning the refrigerator, she supervised from her favorite seat by the sunny kitchen window. “Don’t forget to put the thing in the dealy-o,” she advised.
I knew what she meant, so I did it.
A month ago, Mom is doing great and going for walks in the sun. I’m juggling things pretty well: her stuff, caregivers, condo, writing, friends. We watch Dancing with the Stars on Monday nights and Doc Martin on Fridays. All is well.
Then it isn’t. A bad cough. No appetite. No strength. Doctors agree she has fluid around one lung. One treatment works for a while. Tests don’t reveal the cause. Everything else looks normal. The doctors don’t agree on what treatment next.
It’s a Saturday, offices & labs closed. Mom’s cough sounds worse, like she’s underwater and trying to surface, fighting for breath. The cough medicine makes her sick. I get her to the ER for relief. After more tests, they send us home. There’s nothing exactly to treat.
On Sunday, she sleeps, when she isn’t coughing. I sit and stare. At her, at a picture on the wall that’s crooked, the spots I meant to get off the rug, the gray sky outside. I’d move if I could. Everything feels very far away.
I finally blink. Being 93 is the terminal condition. There’s no permanent cure to find. That’s what the doctors mean, in all the different ways they say it. The indefinite future when she would pass away has become, almost overnight, the foreseeable future. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t Mom’s ability to be right as rain again. The light is the end approaching, the headlight of an oncoming train, the one that’s non-negotiable.
I’m frozen, realizing its full force will hit me, not her. She’ll be home free. I’ll be the one left with the abyss of loss. I’ll be the one gasping for breath. I can’t concentrate on anything else for days. It’s the opposite of adrenaline. The calmness I’ve gotten from taking care of her is changing to fear.
Our talks take on a scorching intimacy that nearly breaks my heart.
“I never in a million years thought I’d get this old,” Mom says.
“It’s remarkable,” I say.
“I’ve lived long enough,” she says. “I might as well conk out.”
“I don’t think it works that way,” I say. “You can’t just decide to go and then go.”
“I’m not any help to anyone.”
“You are,” I say. “You employ four people now, who all think you’re delightful.”
“They do?” She smiles a little. She knows it’s true, but it isn’t ladylike to boast. “I’m looking forward to Heaven. I want to tell Mother I forgive her.”
After years of trying to find out what she has to forgive her mother for, the explanation that makes most sense to me is that she didn’t have the mother she wanted. Her mother didn’t love her enough. I guess she didn’t know I thought that too, once upon a time. I hope I never told her that, or if I did, I hope she didn’t hear me.
Now we talk quietly every morning when she wakes up, and every night before she goes to sleep. The real world is less distracting then, our world the one that matters. In every conversation, she asserts that she wants to stay home with me, not go to a hospital or nursing home. She isn’t ever alone here.
“What’s making you cough might not have a cure,” I say, inching toward truths. I use the word “Hospice” often, which doesn’t seem to bother her. “Hospice helps people who need more care near the end of their lives,” I remind her. I’m her lifeline, and Hospice will be mine.
I’m inching my way toward acceptance. I think she is too, in quiet moments. The coping skills I’ve learned in the years of caring for her are the same ones I’ll count on to help me navigate the train wreck. Then navigate my life without her.
Staring at death, Mom didn’t like what she saw and chose defiance. She seems better, courtesy of Hospice oxygen and the rallying visits of friends. She’s still having too much fun to conk out.
It’s been a challenging foray into dying. The next fun thing I get to do in April is file our taxes.