Today is my mom's birthday. Last year on her 83rd birthday, at the end of the evening, she had trouble breathing and was admitted to the hospital. Within a week she had suffered a heart attack and was resuscitated by the hospital staff...sort of, but never quite came back to us.
The odyssey of ICU, breathing tubes, feeding tubes, kidney failure and dialysis, all followed by her being deemed unable to swallow and not tolerating the tube feedings, left us with a slow and quiet end at hospice.
Two months before her heart attack, I'd lost my job of 22 years. Since I felt compelled to not have her be alone at night during her final days, and didn't have to divide my time between hospice and work, I spent the nights with her.
The nurses thought she might live for three more days. She lived for ten.
I wrote my way through the pain, typing quietly away on my laptop while I sat beside her bed.
Tonight, almost a year later, while I quietly wish her a happy birthday, I hope that there is an afterlife for her that includes my father. Eighty-three years on this earth. As I blink back tears, I remind myself of what I have said so many times to others...others who struggled to find the words to alleviate my grief. "It' okay. She lived a good, long life. And though it is heartbreaking to lose her, when the universe is working just right, we bury elderly parents."
Here, for her birthday, I post something I wrote last year while sitting at her side... in her waning days on earth...
Mothers and Rainbows: A Remembrance
This afternoon, after I finished my "night's" sleep, I walked into my living room and saw that the sun, shining in an azure sky, had slipped far enough south to shine on the prisms hanging in the windows; the room was spangled with rainbows. I set about tasks that had to be done, cleaning, dishes, and catching up on things that the vigil I keep has allowed to fall behind.
The thoughts paraded through my mind, how peacefully mom slept last night, how gaunt her face has become, tears...then more tears, then thinking about what I had to do today-- I should bake cinnamon bread to take into the hospice unit.
I looked at the rainbows dotting walls, ceiling, and floor as I worked, and recalled how excited a rainbows sighting made us when we were young. We'd dash outside after a rainstorm to look toward the east at an arc of colors, with our mom beside us looking on in wonder at the beauty of simple things, and with gratitude for an end to all storms.
Mom, unlike my dad, had no deep-seated religious conviction. And that made our earliest association with rainbows-- and the lore surrounding them to be much more rife with tales of leprechauns and pots of gold than about promises from a god about major floods. So, oft I stood wondering where in that forest of trees on the yonder hillside was that pot of gold found at every rainbow's end.
Back to my tasks at hand, mixing the bread dough, water, shortening and flour in the bowl, more water, sugar and the yeast in a separate bowl. My mind drifts, I can hear her voice the day she taught me about yeast dough, "Dissolve the yeast in water, stir...like that, okay add some sugar because yeast needs something to eat so that it can grow." And the tears come...
I held her hand last night as I talked to her...she slept, I can only hope, dreaming dreams that my words influenced. Maybe morphine dreams do not exist... maybe her mind is held in silence and darkness as the waning days of her life slip by... but I hope... I tell her that I will get the book published, and will dedicate it to my biggest fan...her.
My thoughts wander to Christmases past and I tell her that I don't know how she did it, eight children and we had next to nothing, but Christmases were always good--. I can't recall one when I was disappointed. I then sat with a lump in my throat, I had to choose--silence or sobs...I chose silence... as I thought of Christmases forward. All Christmases forward...
I note, without giving much thought, that the rainbows have crawled across the living room wall...the sun is heading west. The first batch of bread is in pans to raise. As I mix a second, I don't know why but I keep thinking of going around the fence with mom.
The house was in the "hollow" and the entire 25 acres of it were fenced in for cattle, with electric coursing through the barbed wire. It was a big job that mom did while dad worked at the Catholic Seminary five miles away. I can picture her; she has a five gallon metal bucket full of the tools and supplies... lashing wire, extra barbed wire, insulators and nails. A claw hammer, wire cutters, and a pair of leather gloves complete the items.
And we started, up the lane by the gate, up over the hillside and into the big oak woods at the top of the hill across our small creek. We pause at the hollow tree while mom peeks inside and then tells my younger sister and me that the elf who makes shoes lives in there. I am five and my sister is four--everyone else is at school, and we are now both amazed and ill at ease at the thought of an "elf" living in a tree near the grazing cows.
Down over the hill, across the bottom of the fields below the house and barn, then a broad sweep along the fence bordering an old "mending walls" stone fence leading us back up over the hill. There, below the orchard, where there is a gate in the electric fence, mom says, "Look at that." My sister and I look at where she is pointing, and we have no idea what it is that is struggling--tangled in the wire. She tells us that it is an "owl", and we watch her put on her leather gloves and begin trying to disentangle the creature. We stare at the strange eyes that look startled wide open. It claws her leather gloves and then as the bird is freed from the wires, its curved beak bites down on the leather too. She wraps it in a flannel shirt and we take it to the house so that her other 6 children can see an owl up close when they get home from school. Then she checks it over for injury to be sure that it will be fine when she releases it later.
The memories come and go...so random in nature, and I grieve each one at the emotion of acknowledging--no more memories will be made. I know...I know that the challenge is to find the joy in the memories, but today I cannot...not yet.
The second batch of bread is in pans and raising, and the rainbows are now fading in the light of the late day. I picture my mom, standing on the east side of the house with a camera in her hand and she has photographed a rainbow. She pulls the backing paper off of the Polaroid print after carefully watching her wristwatch for the allotted time. She has her photo...
I have my picture too, in my mind...but my photo of the rainbow includes my mom, looking toward the eastern sky, watching a fading rainbow. The storm has ended, her family is all safe and sound, and maybe, just maybe, that really is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
So, tonight as I read to her and sing quietly to her, I need also remind her about the rainbows...about a lifetime of rainbows...and that every storm ends-- a lesson that she shared with us. And I will whisper quietly to her as I have been, while I struggle to keep my breath from coming in sobs, "It is okay mom, we are all okay...you can go... there is a rainbow waiting for you at the end of this storm..."
Happy birthday, mom...