Wednesday, December 29, 2010

One Year

Family Portrait, 1971

My text chime rang this morning just after I woke up. It was my younger sister.

"I'm thinking about Mom."

My mom was the wisest, funniest, smartest, most loving, most talented person I've ever known. She was, as my best friend from high school described her, the icon mom. She cooked and cleaned and sewed for her five children and she drove the tractor for haying and earned her master's degree while working full-time as a dietician.

She was the mom who made everything right just by walking into the room. 

She was losing her mind.

A year ago today she was going up some steps from the garage into the house when she somehow lost her balance and fell over backwards, hitting her head on the concrete floor. Excellent and immediate medical care prolonged her life for 26 hours, time for her grown children to gather and whisper final messages and for her husband of 57 years to sit by her bedside for one last time.

I wrote in her eulogy about the moments after the medical team made its final assessment, and we agreed that she would not want her life prolonged artificially:

We kissed her one last time, and each of us whispered a message to her, then we left the room to give the team room to work. It was only a few minutes later that they called us back. Every trace of medical equipment had been removed, and Mom looked absolutely beautiful. (She always did have lovely skin.) She was breathing rapidly. We stood around her, each of us touching this woman without whom we can’t imagine our lives. Dad led in prayer, then several of us told her good-bye in our own ways, then we began to sing. “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” her favorite hymn. And “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” even though had to “watermelon, watermelon” our way through the end of it because we didn’t remember the words. “Amazing Grace,” then “Shine on Harvest Moon,” which was one of her favorite songs for singing in the car. (I can only imagine what the families of the other intensive care patients thought as they heard us belting out “I ain’t had no lovin’ since January, February, June or July.”) Mom gave a gasp and was quiet. “How about Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?” my aunt suggested. We sang the verse, and the chorus, and during the verse, there was one final gasp. Before we finished, we knew we had witnessed a miracle.

It was a miracle because my mom had been the wisest, funniest, smartest, most compassionate, most talented of mothers, but she was losing her mind, and she hated that beyond measure.

Mom didn't fear much. Again, from her eulogy:

From the time she was young Mom talked of the reality that women, as they age, become either little old ladies or characters. "I," she declared, "plan to be a character." She was practically fearless. Of course, when the kids were little she paid my older sister a quarter  per head to dispose of the dead mice trapped in the annual fall in-migration into Shady Oaks’ 100-year-old limestone farmhouse, but that was because they were disgusting, not because they were something to be feared.  But the one thing she feared was, as she put it, losing her dignity. She had seen her own mother, a smart, sassy, stylish 70-year-old, spiral through Alzheimer’s into a broken 80-year-old. She desperately wanted to avoid this, and hated that she was slipping. Just last week she had to double her dose of Aricept."

I have no doubt that Mom had been praying she would be spared the indignity of Alzheimer's, and I know she would be delighted that her final moments in life were a lesson in the faithfulness of God. He whisked her away before she could embarrass herself or become a burden. 

This doesn't mean we haven't grieved this year. Every milestone has been hard, and I still haven't erased the phone message from last Christmas, the final time I heard her voice. But this grief has been different from the grief I felt after a dear young friend died. That grief was violent, raw, cruel, the kind that tossed me a hundred feet in the air and let me fall. The grief for Mom was subtle and unexpected and mixed with joy. It’s the difference between a life barely started and a life well spent. 

I replied to my sister's text almost immediately.

"I'm thinking of Mom, too," I said. "She was our first, and perhaps our best, example of how to love."

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