My mother Peg Wilke died peacefully at home on Sept. 6, 2014. 

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 the church.


After the party,

I brought the balloons home

And they floated above my bowed head

until gravity got the better of them.

By morning, I had a balloon rug.


In an old photograph I love,

she looks as happy as I’ve ever seen her,

head thrown back, laughing with my dad.

She said that must have been taken

when she heard she was pregnant with me.


Which meant 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.


Can you take your purse to heaven?

“Where’s my purse?”

To avoid answering that question eight or ten times when Mom and I leave the house, I make sure we always take her purse with us. The fear of losing her purse got embedded in her mind so indelibly (by her mother?) that it survives vascular dementia. She passed the same fear on to me long ago. It’s a girl thing, purse radar.

Purses contain crucial items for a happy life: wallet, ID, money, cell phone, credit cards, rewards cards, pen, calendar, day planner, to-do list, make-up, Kleenex, keys, bottle of water, coffee mug, food journal. My purse is a big bag with stylish handles. It weighs a ton.
A few months ago, I managed to come home without it. Not to panic, but finding my purse trumped all other plans for the day. I had to figure out the last place I’d had it. Drove back there (with no driver’s license on my person). Through the locked glass door, could see it sitting on the floor near the coat closet. No cell phone on my person, so had to drive home again to make a phone call to get the code to unlock the door. Drove back and the code worked. I got in the building. My purse is gone.

An hour later, a good Samaritan brought my purse to me at home. A near-death experience was blessedly avoided. The weight of the world lifted and my pulse rate eventually returned to normal.

“Where’s my purse?”

Mom’s purse used to be large and bulging, too full to zip closed. It got smaller through the years, as her life got simpler. No need for car keys after she sold the car. No more driver’s license. Rarely uses cash, or needs a credit card. Since she’s never out alone anymore, I traded all her contact info for a note that says, “I love you.” Now her slim, navy blue purse with a shoulder strap contains: a wallet with a terrible old photo of me that she refuses to relinquish, Kleenex, sunglasses, regular glasses in a case, a tube of Tinted Rose lipstick. For emergencies, I added a small tube of denture adhesive.

“Where’s my purse?”

Of all the things I can worry about in my Mom’s care, I confess to adding a new one. I hope Mom will get to take her purse with her to heaven, or they’ll never hear the end of it.


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.

Ten-four. I feel that way too, especially on days when 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 will power. 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, so she never had any words for it.

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. Ten-four.

And communicating as best we can. One morning when I was cleaning the refrigerator, she supervised from her favorite seat by the sunny window. “Don’t forget to put the thing in the dealy-o,” she advised.

Ten-four. I knew what she meant, so I did it.

Martha’s poem

“I watch you and your mother,” my friend Martha said, “and I woke up one day and had to write you this poem. I hope that’s all right. I mean, I’m not a writer.”

Writers are meant to see and feel what’s going on and write it down so other people can see and feel what matters too. That’s what I sweat over when I write, anyway.

I’m in awe of Martha’s poem. Reading it left me in tears of surprise and gratitude to be so well understood. I’m doing no saintly chores. I’m getting lessons every day in grace and what matters in life, helping my mother through the last days of hers. I’m in awe of Martha’s compassion and insight. 


She was Mom’s friend first, but I horned in to get to know her. She’s dark-haired, bright-eyed, with a dry wit and an authentic laugh. Some of her jokes are over my head. She works with engineers so everybody’s doing it together in the best way possible. She wanted to have a house in the country with chickens and rabbits and now she does. She writes poetry, too.

I am my Mother’s Voice

Mom wanted to help me, so let me rent one of the four-plexes.
She is strong and independent and
I could lean on her optimism and enthusiasm.

Soon she wasn’t cleaning and upkeep became a chore.
We agreed it better to simplify, sell, and
move in together in condos nearby.
She was still independent and on familiar turf
where she knew her way around.

She struggled to find a word or remember a name
when I started to help.
The embarrassed look forced my quick response.
She is strong and independent and
I lean on her optimism and enthusiasm.

I showed her the bus routes and
persuaded her to quit driving and
Arranged for friends to take her to church
before I helped to find a buyer for her car.

She forgot the way home from one of her loved walks
And lost her footing in the store and became friends with EMT.
She did not ask for help but I did. I arranged more friends
to visit or take her to appointments and social events.

Mom is the outgoing one with a smile and kind word for everyone.
I learned to tap those friends with parties and meals to make her smile.
She pretends to remember names and I help to keep conversations going.

I am a writer and storyteller. I am my mother’s voice.
Helping her to remember, we watch old movies and
I record her fleeting thoughts.
Pictures of times past surrounded us
And provide subject topics for conversations with friends.
She is strong and independent and
I lean on her optimism and enthusiasm.

When she fell I thought the nursing home appropriate
Until I saw her in clothes that did not match
or resemble her style.
I spoke up and brought her home.

Now I am speaking with doctors and hospice
Allowing, no insisting, her to be heard.
She is strong and independent and
I lean on her optimism and enthusiasm.

She will be home and occupy the living room
with all the windows and light and
pictures and memories and be surrounded by friends.
She is optimistic and strong with a smile and kind word for everyone.
I lean on her optimism and enthusiasm.
I speak for her, I remember for her, I tell her story.
I am my mother’s voice.

~Martha, 4/12/14