Those were the last words I said to my mother as she died. “I cleaned out the fridge, mom.”
I can’t begin to tell you now perfectly fitting those parting words were – “I cleaned out the fridge, mom.” You see my mother was obsessive about having everything in her world organized, stacked, containerized and labeled.
This tendency toward orderly structure was especially true when it came to food. For example, she maintained a detailed inventory of every single shelf of her pantry and freezer. I honestly can’t think of a single time I cooked at her house when she didn’t have (and know exactly where to locate) an ingredient I needed, no matter how obscure.
She also liked to stuff the fridge to the gills. It was like a game of Jenga to try to pull something out of the fridge without knocking down all of the other items that were carefully stacked alongside. She would regularly clean out the fridge before packing it full again with new groceries. This process of shopping for, sorting and organizing food was extremely satisfying for her.
I was trying to relax on the couch when my mother’s voice popped in my head and said, “Clean out the fridge. There is food in there that is going bad.” I’ve always heard my mother’s voice in my head. I think it is a secret talent that many mothers have – to embed themselves into the subconscious of their children. My mother’s voice is usually there whispering equal parts encouragements and admonishments (usually about how I’m an adult and should be balancing my checkbook).
My mother hadn’t eaten any food in weeks and had lost her ability to communicate days earlier. Yet, I knew that the situation in the fridge – which was no doubt dire by my mother’s standards – was weighing heavily on her mind. Needless to say, I immediately got up and began throwing out questionable leftovers, half-rotten vegetables and odd foods that no one but my mother would ever deem edible (e.g., jars of pickled herring in sour cream sauce).
The hospice nurses talked about what to expect at the end of life and what the process of dying is like. Most people turn inward as they are getting closer to death – presumably sorting through memories and dealing with unresolved issues. My mother did this as well. She would rest peacefully for hours on end in somewhat of a meditative state. Her consciousness would come to the surface for a bit when the hospice nurses would come visit and then she would turn inward again.
It made me happy to think of her doing one last, grand sorting and organizing job as she took inventory of her life.
When she was in the mood to talk she would tell me how amazed she was to be remembering things that happened 45+ years ago that she had all but forgotten about. I enjoyed this process as well because I got to hear new stories I had never heard before. One day she regaled me and one of the hospice nurses with one such memory. It was from when she was a young poor waitress at a fancy mountain restaurant and a man had sent a full lobster back to the kitchen because it wasn’t to his liking. She apparently snuck the lobster tail out back of the restaurant and ate it – dripping with butter – with her bare hands. Her eyes sparkled with mischief as she recalled how amazing it tasted.
The hospice literature also talked about how people will often rally when close to death. Sometimes it is obvious when it happens, and other times the spurt of energy is subtle enough that loved ones will only realize it happened when looking back. This happened with my mother as well. A few days before she died she perked up, enjoyed conversations with loved ones and even spent most of the day sitting up in bed (which hadn’t happened in weeks) so she could watch her beloved NASCAR races on television with my dad.
Of all of the things we experienced at the end of my mother’s life, her inability to eat or drink was the most distressing. She was hungry, yet the idea of swallowing any food or liquids absolutely repulsed her. Constantly being asked if she wanted something to eat or drink stressed her out and made her feel guilty about the anxiety it caused the rest of us, most especially my father.
She was literally wasting away in front of our eyes.
While resting in a dreamy state in her bed she would often lift one of her legs up and feel the new contours of her bony knees and thighs, or her sharp hips and protruding ribs. It was as if she was exploring this foreign body she now inhabited. It was very challenging for all of us, including my mother, to come to terms with the fact that her body was shutting down and no longer required food or liquids. But we eventually made peace with the situation. We no longer asked her if she thought she could try to eat or drink something, and she no longer felt guilty about saying she couldn’t.
The hospice literature also talked about how people become restless as death approaches, often pulling at their clothes and sheets, etc. My mother did this as well, although for her it mainly manifested as wanting to sit up in bed. She got to the point where she could only say four words…yes, no, up and down.
I’d be sitting beside her bed and her skinny little arm would slowly lift up into the air above her head and she would whisper “up.” My dad and I would hoist her limp body up into a sitting position and hold her there for as long as we could before laying her back down again. Up, down, up, down, up, down – for two days. I spent much of one night helping her sit up several times an hour, my legs and back shaking from the strain of holding her limp body like a child.
Eventually my mother reached a point where she could no longer communicate or move her body on her own. I found myself having to make decisions for her, as she was no longer able to tell me what she wanted. Did she want more anxiety medication? Did she want to be lying on her left or right side? Did she want the music on or off? This phase was very distressing and I second-guessed everything I did.
For example, I found myself endlessly fussing over her pillows.
She had approximately 7 pillows on her bed, all with varying degrees of length and firmness. Each pillow had a specific order and purpose. Some were for lying on her stomach, some were for lying on her back and some were for sitting up against the headboard of her bed. I was just sure my mother was lying there, unable to communicate, frustrated with my pillow management! I think the hospice nurses understood, as they would emphasize over and over again during their visits that I was taking very good care of her. Such simple words, but they meant the world to me.
I went through a myriad of emotions in the days I spent waiting for my mother to die. In the end…or more accurately, at the end…that is all you can do. Wait. At first it was anxious waiting, fearing what was to come next. Then it became frustrated waiting, just wanting it to be over with already. Eventually I settled into peaceful waiting, taking solace in just being present in the moment and enjoying the opportunity to spend her final days in the chair at her side.
Slowly, but surely, she finished her journey here on earth. I was worried that being in the room with her dead body would freak me out after she passed. I had only seen dead bodies a few other times at the funerals of grandparents and it always made me incredibly uncomfortable. I often watched in disbelief when movies would show people holding, caressing and even kissing their dead loved ones. Yet, in the end, it felt completely natural to be there with her body.
I marveled at how warm parts of her body stayed, especially her cheeks and neck, and how all of the wrinkles just seemed to wash right out of her face. I found myself joking with her about how death seemed to have taken years of aging off her appearance. I gladly helped the hospice nurse change her clothes and prepare her body to go to the funeral home. I found great humor in how confused the nurse was to find that my mom wanted to be dressed in her favorite outfit — a big pink sweatshirt, grey sweatpants and her flowered cap. My mom was never one to dress up for a special occasion. I found a nice pair of pink socks that I lovingly put on her feet to complete the ensemble.
I stuffed her sweatpants pockets with some of her favorite mementoes, including her Tibetan prayer flags that were gifted to her by Kim and Brian, some leaves off the basil plant my dad had kept alive for her over the past year, and a trusty tube of chapstick – something she was never without.
I had expected myself to break down after she passed.
My entire focus for the past year had been on holding it together on an emotional level so that I could be there as a solid foundation of support for my mom. I figured that once she died my world would just come crumbling down around me. That I would be inconsolable and that Glenn would have to swoop in to put me back together again.
That hasn’t happened. In all honesty, although I have gotten a little teary-eyed from time to time, I haven’t broken down and cried. The week after she passed I rented a cabin in the woods on Mt. Hood near Portland. I thought maybe I just needed to get away and be by myself in order to feel the emotions one is supposed to feel upon the death of their mom.
Maybe I had spent so much time in “caretaker mode” that I was having a hard time shifting gears into “grieving daughter mode.” I found myself sitting motionless on the couch in the cabin with a fire roaring in front of me and my dogs curled at my feet. I sat there anxiously waiting for the wave of emotions that was sure to hit me at any moment. Those emotions never came. I eventually got up, made some hot chocolate and started putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
I’ve spent the last couple of months beating myself up about what I was and wasn’t feeling. The death of my mother is without a doubt the saddest experience I have ever had; yet I have not responded to that loss in the way I expected…or that others expected of me. Many co-workers came up to me after I returned to work to ask me how I was doing. I’d say “I’m doing fine,” and they would give me a knowing look as if to say “you aren’t fine, but you are sure putting on such a brave face.”
In the end, I have finally had to just give myself permission to feel how I feel.
Maybe I spent the past year processing the emotions around my mother’s death so that when the time came I was ready for it. Maybe my emotional state surrounding the loss of my mother is in keeping with my emotional state generally. People who know me in person would probably describe me as even-keeled, calm under pressure, steady. I don’t experience big highs (not much gets me elated), and I don’t experience big lows (I’m rarely stressed, grumpy or sad). Or, maybe that wave of emotion will hit me in 6-months, or a year.
I have gained great perspective from talking to my dear friend John. His wife Melissa died of cancer the day after my mother died. To be certain, the death of a long-lived parent is absolutely no comparison to the loss of a beloved spouse who was far too young to go. However, I believe that both John and I have found some measure of solace in one another.
Not long after my mom and Melissa passed, John and I went hiking. We decided to visit a place called Memaloose State Park in the Columbia River Gorge outside of Portland in hopes of seeing the amazing wildflower display. It was a place neither of us had been before.
It ended up being a fitting destination as “memaloose” is jargon used by the Chinook Native Americans that have long inhabited the area for “land of the dead.” We arrived a bit late in the season and so most of the wildflowers were wilted and dying as we picked our way along the trail discussing death, disease and loss.
I’ve always felt like I could talk to John about anything and in this case, because we found ourselves traveling similar paths at the same time, I felt like I could talk to him about the awkward and uncomfortable things that feel somewhat out of place to talk to others about. Including about how I worry that I am somehow “broken” or “abnormal” because I have not been beside myself with grief.
I carry several of my mother’s talismans with me.
These include a bracelet of amethyst beads that she wore during her illness. It was a trinket she found at what became her favorite shop during her illness, the “Cosmic Depot.” Her primary hospice nurse wore a bracelet that was almost identical. My mother was absolutely tickled by that and felt an immediate kinship with her.
I also carry my mother’s “worry stone” – a smooth stone with a slight indentation on one side that is perfect for rubbing your thumb over. My mother always had this stone, plus a tube of chapstick and a tiny silver knife, in her pocket. Always. Whenever I find myself thinking about her I inevitably look down to discover that I have subconsciously pulled out her well-worn stone and am rubbing it meditatively. I find great comfort in it.
My mother also gave me her Volkswagen bus.
A vehicle she got for Mother’s Day in 1975. Nearly all of my childhood memories involve my mother and her beloved bus. In fact, what I believe to be my earliest childhood memory is of when I was probably four years old. My mother had wrapping me in a crocheted blanket and set my half-sleeping form in the front passenger seat of the bus at about 3:00 in the morning. I remember looking up and seeing the stars above and the mist of her breath in the cold night air. I remember the rumble of the bus’s engine as she drove my brother and I down the road to the babysitter’s house so she could commute the 2 hours it took to get to the next town where she was going to college.
I have other vivid memories of her and the bus as well, like the time the engine caught on fire and a man from the donut shop ran out with a fire extinguisher to save us. Or the time it broke down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere Colorado and she had to hitchhike for help – leaving my brother and I camped out in the bus with a big tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken and strict instructions to stay put.
Later, she gave me her bus to drive when I was in high school. Every night before I went out on the town to cruise Main Street she would jokingly say “no drinking beer in the bus and no backing up over rocks.” Both being things I had recently done in the bus, which she found great humor in. Her bus is precious and I feel so honored that she entrusted it in my care.
As my mother was nearing the end of her life I had a couple of people tell me that being with their parents at the time of their passing was one of their most cherished memories. One friend said it was even more of a cherished memory than the birth of her children. I couldn’t fathom that.
In the end, both my dad and I were at my mom’s bedside when she died. My brother had come home from work early in the day to spend time with her and say his goodbyes. That night he and Glenn were down in the living room chatting, the tenor of their voices drifting up to my mom’s bedroom. Minutes before my father had also said his goodbyes and played for her a recording of their dog MacKenzie (who had recently passed away) howling in excitement – a common refrain when Mac was excited to see you. My dad encouraged my mother to join Mac on the other side.
I hadn’t yet had such a conversation with my mother. I think part of me wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her out loud.
My mother’s breathing had changed, a sign that death was close (know as Cheyne-Stokes respirations). I found myself trying to Google information about how long it takes for someone to pass away once their breathing changes – frantic for any information that might tell me what to do. Everything said that this breathing means death is near, which was defined as “within hours, possibly days, sometimes a week or more.” Not helpful at all!
That line of online research inevitably took me to various hospice related websites with content about what to expect to see at the end of life. One website was talking about how some people wait to pass until their loved ones leave the room. My mother had told my brother that when the time came she didn’t want anyone fussing over her – meaning she didn’t want family members standing vigil around her bed. Knowing my mother, she was likely one of those people that would prefer to be left alone to die. The website said it was important to give your dying loved one the opportunity to do that. It said to occasionally tell them you love them and that you are leaving the room for a short while.
This resonated with me, along with my brother’s admonishment of “she said no fussing,” so I decided to go back downstairs. I went to my mother’s bedside, held her hand and kissed her cheek. I told her that I was going to go downstairs for a while. I told her that I loved her and that it was okay for her to go. Then I said, “Don’t worry. I cleaned out the fridge, mom.” In response…she drew a deep breath, gently let it out and simply drifted away.
It was beautiful.
It was peaceful. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I literally felt the energy in the room shift, almost like I was on a boat that had shed it’s mooring and was just beginning to drift peacefully away from the dock. I’m not even sure how to truly describe what it was like to be there when she left this earth. She was there for my first breath and I was there for her last. There is certain magic in that. A most cherished memory indeed.
This past weekend we spread her ashes at the base of Bessie Butte – a lone butte on the outskirts of Bend, Oregon, where she lived. This butte has been a favored hiking spot for countless of my mom’s grand-puppies and the ashes of several of these beloved pups have been spread on the top of butte’s summit.
“I want to be at Bessie Butte with the dogs,” she said, “but, put me and ‘Fosters’ (a regal Australian Sheperd that felt most dog activities, including exercise, were beneath him) at the bottom because neither one of us would want to climb up that damn hill.”
My mother loved Tibetan prayer flags.
She had them adorning the front porch of her house, hanging above her bedroom window and wanted to be cremated with a set. I decided to get some prayer flags to put out at Bessie Butte with my mom’s ashes. The flags came rolled up like a little tube in the mail. I unfurled them out at the butte and began hanging them around the base of a nearby tree. Unfortunately, because of how they’d been shipped, each little flag immediately curled up into a tight ball. “You need to iron the flags so they flap correctly!” said my mother’s voice in my head. I immediately began to laugh.
For as long as I can remember, ironing has been a point of contention (early in life) and humor (later in life) in my relationship with my mother. She has always been a compulsive ironer. She’d iron anything she could get her hands on, including pillowcases and t-shirts (who does that?!?). I, on the other hand, am a firm believer that if wrinkles don’t come out after a few spins in the clothes dryer then they are just meant to be. She would often look at my wrinkled shirts, roll her eyes and say “you should go put that shirt in the iron” (meaning clothes dryer).
“Yes, mother dear” I said aloud as I unwound the flags from the tree to take them back to the house and iron them.
My dad and I returned a few hours later to rehang the flags that now properly fluttered in the wind. As I stood there watching the flags and listening to the birds chirp joyfully in the trees I knew down deep in my soul that she was happy. She was where she wanted to be, surrounded by her grand-puppies and other things she loved, including crisply ironed strings of prayer flags.
At times I’ve found myself thinking that my life has been on hold for the past year during my mother’s illness.
She was diagnosed soon after Glenn and I returned from our extended world travels and I haven’t gone on any big trips or adventures since. But the more I think on it, my life hasn’t been on hold at all. It’s been anything but that. Traveling the final journey with a loved one that has been given terminal diagnosis is just as much of an adventure as walking with wild polar bears or hiking the Inca Trail. It’s a journey filled with highs and lows, laughter and tears. It’s an adventure where there is something unexpected around every corner. It makes you feel alive. It forges deep and profound connections, and drives you to make every moment count.
I’m working on getting back to living my life again. I have several adventures planned in the coming months (hiking around Mount Hood, going to see the solar eclipse, backpacking in The Enchantments). Part of me has felt guilty about planning those things. After all, I’m in mourning so I shouldn’t be out having fun adventures. But I know that this is exactly what my mother would have wanted me to do. She’d be disappointed if I didn’t.
I’ve always carried my mother with me.
Not just her voice in my head, but somehow her very essence has always been nestled up inside of me. I feel her presence stronger now than I ever have before. As such, I feel like she is now getting to go on these grand adventures with me – hovering just over my right shoulder. I feel her encouraging me to make the most of the time I have here on earth and guiding me to do the things that make me happy. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll even start ironing my t-shirts and keeping an inventory of what’s in my freezer.
A mother can only hope.