This was written around this time four years ago about my mother’s death a couple of weeks earlier on May 11, 2001. It was sent to friends. I have edited it a bit for publication here but it’s basically intact.
Just thought I’d update you on how things are going now that it has been almost two weeks since my mom died. I am feeling both still in shock and dazed and at the same time quite “raw.” Yet, for reasons I can only attribute to the prayers of people who are close to God, I am at peace with having lost my mom. Even six months ago I could not have imagined that. It’s not that I haven’t cried and I’m sure I will for years to come. But there’s an overriding sense of joy for having had her as a mother and that she was blessed to not linger at the end. Thank goodness she did not need to teach any of her children how to let her go by holding on any longer.
This is the woman who taught me to make divinity candy – her specialty. Admittedly, the first time I tried it without her supervision it was a mess, but I’ve learned now. 🙂 This is the mother who when I’d make a mistake in the kitchen with ingredients that I know were scarce at times would just say, “Well, just learn from it and don’t do it again.” She was always calm and peaceful about such things, even though I know it must have been a hardship at times to even have me – much less be raising me and teaching me things.
This is the woman who calmly told me I could be anything I wanted to be, when such ideas were not popular for little girls. It’s the woman who told me to get an education and not ever have to be dependent on anyone for a living – to share my life with a man based on better reasons than that. This is the woman who sewed my senior prom dress so it would be *exactly* like I wanted it. It’s the mother who sat by my bed when I was crying and upset over changes in my life that I couldn’t even put into words when I was going through so much change at one point in college. It’s the woman who’s response when I wrecked a brand new, three week old car, was “well, thank God no one was hurt. The car can be fixed. If it can’t, it can be replaced. Just thank God no one was hurt.” It’s not like there was plenty of money for replacing the car, but she crystallized in a few words what was truly important.
I have spent decades praying for Mama to be healthy and with us and then I spent the last few days praying for God to take her and end her suffering – and mine and my family’s at watching her. It is just so odd to have that change in attitude. I’m at once fascinated by it, horrified by it and pleased by it. It’s compassionate and yet selfish. You find yourself questioning if you want her suffering to end or yours, which is of a completely different kind. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. And, of course, we have no control over how such things will end.
The morning we were going to the hospital, Greg asked if I wanted him to drive because he would drive faster and I said, “no, we’ll make it or we won’t.” I figured if God wanted me to be there I’d be there. I was frightened to be there, frankly. I didn’t want to see her gasping for breath. I know that’s not very flattering to me but it’s the truth. I was scared. Afraid I couldn’t handle it. Afraid I’d do something wrong. Afraid. Afraid of things I can’t even put words to.
I put myself in the car and headed to the hospital and figured if I was meant to be there I would be. We missed it by a few minutes. I was so glad my brother, Jim, was there with her. He said she had been gasping for about an hour before she died. At the end he told her to just let go and she opened her eyes, looked at him and took two short breaths and died. They were the only breaths she had taken in an hour that weren’t gasping rattles.
Obviously he did exactly what was needed. I’m not sure I would have been strong enough to do it. I’m very glad he was there at the end – not just for him and for Mama but for the rest of us too. He was very kind and very caring with her when he was with her at home and he certainly did the right thing as she died.
I come from an area that is old – meaning it is full of common sense wisdom and people accept things that are not scientifically proven. A few years ago, my great uncle died. The lady living in the apartment next to him – my sister in law Mattie’s mother – told my mom and me a couple of days later that when she saw him collapsed in the doorway that she knew his wife calling the ambulance was a waste of time because, “death was already upon him.”
I’ve thought about that phrase so many times – it’s poetic and yet horrific. But, Mrs. Scott had probably seen death enough times that she recognized it. I truly believe she knew what she was talking about – and obviously she did – he died before the ambulance got there – death was already upon him.
Older people – the ones we’re losing now – have a much more personal experience with death than we do. We now do it in hospitals and much more antiseptic surroundings as opposed to our homes. And most of us don’t lose children and most of us don’t tend our older relatives to the same degree as death approaches. We have a whole medical system to do that and I’m thankful for people who know better than I do what to do. But, people my age (39) don’t know about “the death rattle” and we wouldn’t recognize death if it were “upon” someone.
I’ve always heard people say you can smell death. I never believed it until I was with my mom near the end. But on Thursday afternoon, before she died early Friday, I could smell death. I left the hospital a little less than 12 hours before she died. All day that day, the smell had intensified. We kept looking at her legs and fingernails and their color had not changed, but there was a smell in the air. I can’t describe it other than to say it was like a decay of some sort. It was as if her body was surrendering itself to a force outside itself – death. It was all around her. I helped the nurse’s aide give her a bath and that smell lingered there, regardless of the lotions and potions the aide was using. That smell, above any other, permeated the room. The closer you got to my mom, the stronger it was. I could tell the aide could smell it and knew what it meant too. She came back to the room about every 45 minutes after that to see if we needed anything. I knew she could tell the end was near. When I went in to the room after my mom had died the smell was gone. The only smell near her then was a very, very, very faint scent of violets – the wild kind – like she planted under the shade tree in her front yard.
Well… I didn’t intend for this to get so lengthy. I wanted to thank you again for your concern and your prayers. We’re all doing OK – better than I expected. If Mama were here, she’d say “Life is for the Living” so I think that’s what we’re all trying to do – just go on with our lives. Of course, they’ll never be the same without her. But, I’ll always have a relationship with her – it will just be different. I’ll never sew on a button, or stir a cake or send a note that she won’t be part of the process. And she will always guide me – just as she did when she was alive.
I was blessed to have a wonderful mother. One who taught me to laugh and to be kind and to stand up for myself. She gave lessons every day simply by the life she led. We should all live our lives in a manner such that as our minister stands over our casket he reads the Proverbs passage about a virtuous woman…
“Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.”
Thanks again for all your help. There truly is solace in the comfort of friends.
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