I originally posted this on June 3, 2009, 2 years after my mother died. I wanted to write about her again, so I re-read this post. Didn't like how some of the sentences flowed, so I tweaked it a bit. Hope you enjoy it, and let me know what you think.
When Angels Live and Die
Two years ago today, on a morning when the scent of roses drifted sweetly through the air, my mother breathed her final breath, while being comforted by a young nurse‘s aide.
We were told that she was a little tired when the aide stopped by her room in the morning, but by breakfast she was her normal, cheerful self. As she sat down at the breakfast table, the three women she shared her meals with asked how she was. "Not so well," Mom said, then slumped over in her chair. They knew it had to be serious because Mom never complained.
I was the first to arrive after the paramedics declared Mom dead. They had placed her on her bed in her room so her family could say a private goodbye. As I entered her room, the sun was peeking through her yellow cotton curtains, casting a warm glow over her face. She looked angelic lying there, her body still warm, but stiff. I cried. Of course I cried. But amongst the tears, I felt a sense of calm, as if Mom was telling me "It's OK. Don’t be sad for me. I'm at peace now."
My mother did not have an easy life, yet she made it seem easy. Despite all of her struggles, she always seemed happy. She never said an unkind word about anyone. She was grateful for everything she had, no matter how insignificant it seemed to others. She was proud, independent, and honest. Yet she did not drive a car and only had a 9th grade education. At her memorial service, a friend said of her, “she looked like she could be swept away by the wind, but she was as strong as steel."
She was born on Thanksgiving day, 7 years before the Great Depression. Her mother died while giving birth to her youngest child when Mom was only 3. The grieving dad sent the baby to live with another family until she was 5. I imagine my mother spent her early years wondering if she too was going to be sent away.
Because of, or in spite of not having a maternal role model, my mother devoted her adult life to her 5 children. She was a stay-at-home mom before the days of play dates, car pools, and soccer moms. But she wasn’t June Cleaver by any means; I’d say she more closely resembled Edith Bunker. Then at the age of 45 she was thrust into the job market when my dad walked away from the family, choosing the bottle over responsibility. For 20 years she took the bus across town, transferring twice, for a job that paid a little over minimum wage. She never missed a day of work. When she reached retirement age they asked her if she wanted to stay. “No, I think I’d rather let someone younger have a job," she said. To her, work was an honor and she wanted to give that honor to someone else.
My mom lived her life by the Golden Rule, and watching her, we were inspired to do the same. In my brother’s eloquent tribute to her at her memorial service he said, “ She taught us some of the most valuable lessons in life simply by the way she embraced life and how she treated people. She never sat us down and told us these things. We just saw what she did and knew it was right.”
She even forgave my dad for leaving her and they eventually became friends. How could she not? She came out of the divorce the stronger one, the more confident one, the happier one. The one adored by their 5 children.
People have commented to my siblings and me that we were so good to our mother, as if they considered it unusual. But to us it was natural. At Mom’s memorial service my niece said “I had the coolest, hippest grandma ever!” After all, what other 80-year old grandma would sing karaoke with her granddaughter while on vacation with her in Florida? What other 84-year old great-grandma would play catch with her great-grandson, while holding onto a cane?
I guess we were lucky. My mother never complained that we didn’t visit or call enough. If a few days went by she would say “Oh, I guess so-and-so was busy." When we took her places she wanted to pay for our gas, or our meals. “Oh, you’re going out of your way," she would tell us, “I don’t want to be a bother.” But she wasn’t a bother.
When Mom retired, my sisters and I took her everywhere with us. When my niece got older she came along, often with her toddler son and daughter in tow. We went to Florida, Wisconsin, Central Oregon, the Oregon Coast. Our last trip was to Las Vegas, 3 months after she broke her hip and 9 months before she died.
As Mom aged, unseen demons that sometimes attack the elderly appeared in her room at night. She thought her apartment was bugged and started hearing music that wasn't there. Invisible people that only she could see tormented her, and sometimes befriended her. It pained us to see her like this, but she always said "Don't worry about me. I'm OK." She didn't want to worry us, so she stopped telling us about the incidents.
So the morning she died, when the roses were beginning to bloom, their sweet scent filled the room and comforted us. It was the way she would have wanted it to be. The look on her angelic face told me she was OK.