My mom died on Christmas Eve six years ago. It’s clearly a horrible day when your parent dies, but I would recommend avoiding Christmas Eve if at all possible. It certainly casts a pall on Christmas.
I feel like my mom has gotten short shrift in my blog this year. Regular readers have heard all about my playing poker with my dad, his growing up in Shanghai, his WW2 adventures, and, sadly, his death a few days ago.
Mom was such a remarkable woman. Even though I feel like she’s by my side, I still miss her terribly. But I started missing her before she died. Mom developed both Parkinson’s Disease and cognitive impairment disorder (maybe Alzheimer’s, maybe not... the doctor didn’t give it a name) in her early 70s, a few years before she died. And as they took hold, the mom I knew and loved started to fade away.
Those last few years weren’t easy on mom. She was a woman with great intelligence and even greater heart. A few years before her official dementia diagnosis, mom went into a depression. We didn’t know it at the time, but that can be a marker of the start of the onset of dementia. I remember one Christmas Eve, she looked at me and my sister and told us she just hadn’t gotten around to buying us anything for Christmas. Sorry.... That should have been a major sign. From then on, even little things seemed to overwhelm her. But, man, even when she couldn’t remember how to get back to her room, she could still skunk me when we played word games. To help keep her mind sharp, I bought us both the same book of word puzzles and we’d pick a puzzle, pick up our pencils, and both go at it. Up until almost the very end, she could still beat me...
In early November 2007, Mom fell and broke her hip. She recovered from the surgery just fine, but she never walked again and she died seven weeks later. Studies show that people with dementia are way more likely to die from broken hips than people without-- somehow their wiring gets crossed and they can’t figure out how to heal. That was the case with mom. My sister and I traded off nights in the hospital with her. She had a horrible case of sundowners. For those not familiar, it happens with elderly people when they are out of their element. When the sun goes down, they start to act crazy. Mom’s sundowning started way before sundown- it was more like around noon every day. When she first woke up in the morning, she knew who we were and she was delighted to see us, but as the day wore on, she slipped into her own twilight fantasy world.
Sometimes it manifested itself in ways that were, frankly, hilarious. At one point, she thought she was giving birth to triplets-- all three of them were going to be quarterbacks for NCSU. We helped her deliver them and then put them under the hospital bed to keep them warm. Other times, it would just be tedious: she went through a stage where she was packing an army jeep for a move with my dad and she kept handing me and my sister imaginary bowls to pack, over and over for hours into the middle of the night. The worst was when she would think something horrible had happened. One night, she woke up at 3 a.m. convinced that my father had had a stroke and she screamed at me to get her purse and shoes because she had to go to him right them. There was nothing the nurse nor I could do to soothe her, there was no convincing her that dad was OK and her anguish was so real. I didn’t want to wake up my dad at 3 a.m. so that she could hear his voice and realize he was ok. Eventually, we had to sedate her.
After mom died, friends who had already traveled this path told me that as time passed, I’d start to remember the whole and healthy mom instead of the broken one of the last several years and they were right. I still think of the mom who was so frightened, confused and fretful for her last few years, but more often, I remember the mom who fiercely loved me and Jeannie with every drop of her being.
She loved being a mom. She loved being head of the PTA and a Brownie leader, but mom also loved being of service to others. She co-founded the church that I grew up in; for decades she donated blood and platelets every month. She loved fishing with my dad, playing bridge with dad and she loved traveling. She didn’t leave the country until she was 49, but then there was no stopping her.
My mom was one of the first two women accepted into Emory University’s Medical School in the ‘50s. She dropped out after one year to marry my dad, but that one year of med school stood her in good stead. Whenever Jeannie or I had an ailment as kids, she’d trot out that one year of med school to diagnose us. At times, we’d question her especially when it had been years since she attended med school and she’d remind us that basic anatomy had not changed. She was right.
In addition to being super smart and very funny, my mom was one of the kindest people I ever met. My sister and I have talked about this a lot since she died and it’s almost as if we didn’t recognize this trait in her until after she was gone: Neither one of us ever remembers her saying a mean thing about anyone. She was rarely a gossip or catty. She was far from pollyanna-ish, but I can’t recall her ever saying anything mean about someone’s appearance or making fun of anyone.
I inherited a lot of great things from her, happily, but I learned that one from her solely by example. I’ll hear other families cutting family members’ down or saying mean things about other people they see in person or on TV and I can honestly say that never happened in my house. We weren’t angels and, god bless them, our parents screwed us up in other ways, but they were both truly nice: to us, to each other, and to everyone they met.
My mom did not have a mean bone in her body and I wanted to honor that today. My sister and I were running an errand this afternoon in the endless parade known as closing out our father’s estate and we were dealing with a woman who had one of the worst, unflattering dye jobs I’ve ever seen. I almost said something to my sister when we left and then I stopped. Why say anything? This woman surely hadn’t picked that color because she thought it made her hair look bad. It wasn’t going to make me feel any better by saying anything about it, in fact it would make me feel worse-- I feel a little bad even bringing it up here as an example. But I thought of my mom and kept my mouth shut... until now.
Today, as we’ve done every year since her death, my sister and I went to visit the cemetery where mom’s urn is in a niche. We took Dad’s ashes with us and there was a big blue check on the niche beside mom’s where Dad’s ice bucket with his remains will go (and, for those who read yesterday’s blog, the cardboard boxes with his extra ashes).
My heart felt like it was breaking and it seems so unfair to have lost both parents so close to Christmas, but then I remembered that it’s not unfair, it’s just life. If I want to think it’s unfair, then I have to realize it is so much more than fair to have gotten to have them well into my adulthood. So instead, today I celebrate my mom, whom I love so, so much, and my dad and I cry a little that tomorrow will be my first Christmas without a parent who is alive, but rejoice that I got to spend so many Christmases with them. I’m a lucky, lucky girl.
Dec. 24: Cornerstone Presbyterian Church
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