After ten years of loss, confusion, and pain, Mom was finally at rest. No more shuffling gait, face swollen from meds, suffering the indignities of an inconsistent ability to speak, of stolen physical beauty and lost artistic talent.
No more pleading looks and clenched lips, where once had been silliness and stridency.
I’d arrived at the last minute, the farthest flung daughter, to her hospital bedside just the day before. With Mom moved to hospice palliative care for an undetermined time, my brother and sisters dozed next door in the Family Room. Our father had gone home to his own bed. So, I crashed after my red eye flight in a recliner in her room, bone achingly tired. My sister Molly, a nurse, sat by Mom all night, praying, pleading, holding. Her murmuring blended with the oxygen machine’s rhythmic breathing. Silence woke me hours later.
What had happened while I slept? Had I slept so heavily I’d missed her passing, and no one had told me?
Morning light warmed the room. Molly was no longer in her chair. What had happened while I slept? Had I slept so heavily I’d missed her passing, and no one had told me? Finally, the gentle sound of her barely there breathing registered. Mom lay deep and calm in the bed, like a shadow. As I watched, she startled; her eyes opened wide and a clear OH! escaped with her final exhale. Molly’d left for a phone call; perhaps that was when Mom found the space she needed to leave. I kissed her cooling forehead and quickly woke my siblings. She’s gone, I told them, and we gathered around her emptying presence in the now dull room.
Molly and Mary chanted their Catholic blessings, holding rosaries, finding purpose in the certain rigor of tradition and faith, their familiar low prayers offering comfort to all. I stumbled outside seeking the golden sun that had filled the room, and found it again in sweet tiger lilies in the courtyard. I placed them around her head as if to pour back the light of life. My brother Pete, my sister Meg and I sang the Unitarian hymn spirit of Life, come unto me, sing in my heart…rise in the sea. Roots hold me close, wings set me free, spirit of life, come to me, come to me, Mom, Mom.
But she was gone, gone. My younger sister Anne took her turn, sitting on the bed, leaning in, softly singing childhood lullabies through a waterfall of tears. I saw then that each of us was honoring our relationship with our lovely Mother according to our needs and values in these last conversations, on her last day on earth, July 28, 2007.
Each of us was honoring our relationship with our lovely Mother according to our needs
We each wanted to find the most true, elemental, and time tested shred of meaning to breach the chasm that opened between ourselves and o ur suddenly vacant mother. To anchor ourselves for the forever ahead, we wove our sad goodbyes like the tweed of the Irish caps she wore, knitting together for strength. Perhaps our ‘clan stitch’ would identify her to the heavens like the sweater of a drowned fisherman washed ashore.
The sea ripples to the land’s edge, sets the soil on the rocks. We mourned her in the Catholic tradition. The sisters who had tended her final months selected her makeup, arranged her hair. We all consulted on her clothes, which mattered so much to her. For the service, we wrote of her faith and work in soup kitchens with women at risk, of her art career, her discipline and independence. Sister of five, wife of sixty years, mother of six, grandma to eighteen, aunt to fifty five.
Finally, we nestled talismans next to her stiff form, until her light pink suit was adorned with heather and lavender, rosaries, children’s books, drawings, photographs, letters, and Celtic crosses. My little daughter, Alice, played the Irish air, “The Last Rose of Summer” on her flute, followed by the Marine’s gun salute for her long ago service, a commemoration meaningful for our dad.
In death, our fabulous mother was restored; no longer raging and scared, returned as a container for our memories. She was no longer wrung out and stolen by her dementia and Parkinson’s. Instead, she again inhabited the whole span of her life, her impressive 82year journey as well as the more ephemeral legacies. These were rooted in each of us, established independently yet holistically, like in a garden.
Years later at a family reunion at Anne’s, I told Dad of the quiet golden beams filling the room, the oh! Mom had exclaimed. My father reached over to squeeze my hand, his eyes bright. He was glad to know, he said.
The knitting of our memories has held over the nine years following. I’m holding my string: how her sharp intellect, disciplined calisthenics and stinging vinegar opinions were softened by the sweetness of her doe brown eyes and big grin. The gentle sketching style she’d evolved even in her oil painting, which each of us have in our own houses now. How her meticulous housekeeping was part of the same intentional creativity. I am proud that her passionate Catholicism shaped our family. A child of the depression from rural Iowa, mom built a multiracial inclusive family, straight and gay, with six of the eighteen grandchildren adopted, including my Alice.
No longer confined to the frail body and tiny scared voice that had consumed her, her death freed us as well.
Now, she is gardening with Dad, bicycling with me, praying with Mary, singing to Ann, chatting with Pete, listening to her Molly, and counting on Meg. Now and forever and ever, amen.
Beth Rahe Balas is an artist in the tradition of many women, including her mother and grandmothers. Her non-linear creative path includes work in museum and architecture fields, teaching, and garden design. Beth is the Grief Dialogues program assistant and a member of the Advisory Board. “Writing this story has reflected back to me an objectivity and maturity I rarely feel when I replay these moments in my heart. Though the grief is still very present, the passage of 9 years since my mother’s death has shaped the ashes of this sad time into something solid, like a gazing ball: round and cool, and sparkling in the dark.”