It’s Mother’s Day weekend and I’m thinking about my mothers…I’ve had grands, and greats, and almost adopted, steps, and in-laws, and like a mom mothers, but I never had a Mommy, not even a Mama or a Ma.
Oh well, can’t waste my time longing for what never was, nor will ever be. Luckily I did have a Grammie and a Mimi to step up and in when my 17 year old “mom” dipped.
Mimi, who was 5’ nothing with big boobs and a tiny waist, was born in 1900 to German immigrants. She was one of a kind and she was Grammie’s mother. Grammie, who had her proper Englishman father’s height and clear blue eyes, but Mimi’s wild head of curls and stubborn streak, was my mother’s mother.
These are the two most influential women in my world. It’s because of them I know that even though sometimes mothers leave (and come back, and leave again, and so on), that sometimes people who say they love you, stay. It’s because of them I know that unconditional love is a real thing. They softened and smoothed the rough edges left by the carelessness of others.
It was the beginning of the summer of 1990, Mimi and I were having lunch in the backyard when I saw her hand begin to shake. I asked her what was wrong and she tried to say nothing. The shaking grew more violent and spread up her arm, her fingers uncontrollably twisted around the rosary beads she prayed on regularly, and almost always held.
She was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and remained in the hospital until summer’s end, passing away just weeks after I gave birth to my first child. So grateful for the just shy of twenty years I had her in my life.
Grammie remained my constant. She was there to celebrate every joy, and ease what burdens she could. She loved me at times, both in childhood and adulthood, when I was not very lovable. I thought she’d always be there. It seemed impossible there would come a time she wasn’t.
And then came the beginning of the end. The “end” spanned ten years. From diagnosis, down to the final days, I observed this woman of strength and dignity surrender the things she could no longer enjoy and accept the next phase with a graceful ease.
I was the lucky one. It was that last Friday evening I was alone with her that she experienced what hospice commonly refers to as the rally. For the last several weeks she had either been withdrawn, not speaking at all, or agitated and picking at the bed sheets nervously. Tonight was different as she sat up straight in her bed, pillows propped comfortably around her. Her pale blue eyes, that always so easily betrayed her emotion, whether it was with a flash of anger, or a deep sadness that could break your heart if you looked too long, now sparkled with life I hadn’t seen in months.
I had brought along a writing assignment to work on as I sat at her bedside, since typically her interaction was so minimal. This night she had surprised me when she turned to me and asked what I was doing. I explained the premise of the piece and then read it to her. It was personal and spoke of regrets and accountability and the gratitude to move forward and do better. She listened intently, and with a gentleness about her not frequently witnessed by many, she assured me of her love and pride in who I had become. Then much to my surprise she asked me to pray with her. As I held her hand in mine, I leaned over and laid my head on her chest. Together we said The Lord’s Prayer. With her free hand she smoothed the hair back off my forehead in a comforting gesture that took me back to childhood.
Afterwards we spoke of that childhood and many of the happy memories it held. From the exotic travels she took me on, to the simplicity of laying on our backs Christmas Eve watching the patterns dance across the ceiling from the twinkling tree lights. We laughed belly laughs about things that only we thought were funny, the inside jokes that stemmed from a life experienced together.
As it grew later and she was becoming tired, she occasionally glanced towards the corner, once asking me who the people over there were. I assured her it was only the light playing tricks with the shadows. I could see the energy draining from her and I was exhausted as well. I laid her bed back to the reclined position and readjusted her pillows. I tucked the blankets around her with care and pressed my lips to her forehead. I lingered there a second and appreciated the moment of connection, the sense of being grounded. As I pulled back I looked at her and realized she had always been what grounded me. I touched her face gently and I thanked her.
That was the last time she ever spoke. She slipped into a catatonic state and by Sunday I received the call telling me she had begun the active phase of dying. That’s how specifically hospice can break it down for you. They suggested the process could be anywhere from a few hours to a day or two.
I was in the garden with my youngest child when I took the call. “Do you have to go now?” She asked me as I hung up the phone. I gathered my thoughts as I looked around at the flats of pansies waiting to be planted, “no” I said “In a little bit, but not now”. Other family members were at my grandmother’s bedside now and I needed to be where I was, present in this moment out in the sun with Tia, our hands in the dirt. It was through participating in this springtime ritual of living I would gather the strength needed to be present for the dying.
The hospice nurse gave us instructions on how to proceed in caring for Grammie in these final hours. Once she had left, only myself, my Aunt Holly, cousin Haley, and my mother remained. Usual differences placed aside and each woman’s desire to be there for their own personal reasons respected by the others.
The hours stretched out and rolled into the next day. It seemed fitting that the sky was gray and subject to occasional downpours. I had put music on in her room from the big band era she loved, and my tears began to quietly fall as I sang along softly with ‘Till We Meet Again.
We had been taking turns sitting bedside, however as longer stretches elapsed between the breathes she struggled to take, we had all gathered around to say our final goodbyes. I sat to her right and held onto her hand. Eventually no more breathes came and within moments her skin grew cool to the touch. She was gone. Death had come quietly. She left this world with the same calm, dignified strength, by which she had lived. I glanced toward the corner and thought to myself that perhaps just as we had surrounded her to bid farewell, Mimi and the others were now welcoming her.
It is with so much love and gratitude that I wish a Happy Mother’s Day to my Grammie & Mimi, who I’m sure are together again, and never really too far from me.