Yesterday was the first anniversary of my mom’s death, after a nine-year battle with cancer. She was a formidable woman, as strong and determined as they come—and a cancer that usually kills rather quickly almost met its match in a woman who, although she stood just under 5’2”, was always the tallest person in the room, by sheer force of personality. She did not give in to the destroyer easily. In reality, she never gave in to anything easily.
Mom was born in 1925, in Gallion Ohio. Her family came to Oregon in 1928 on the promise of a job, and a house with electricity and running water. They came west in a covered truck, a few years behind the rest of the pioneers, but just as bold in spirit. Her dad had a flatbed truck. He built a “house” with enough sleeping room for himself, his wife, and 5 kids, put it on top, and off they went. The trip took months. They hunted and fished along the way for food, and slowly pushed their way across the country. Mom said that when the truck reached the Rockies it would only go 2 miles an hour, and when it got really bogged down, her whole family had to get out to push. Her brothers said, “Even Ruthie?”—at 3 years old, my mom was a tiny little thing—but the response came back from Grandpa, “Even Ruthie.”
When the family arrived in the promised land of running water and electric lights, the reality was far different than the vision. There was no job. There was no modern house. There appeared to be no future. There was a cabin in the woods, and running water of a sort. It was running in the creek down the hill, and all anyone needed was a bucket to go and fetch it. There was a nest of snakes under the cabin. There was no food.
Mom used to tell the story of the third year they lived there. The garden had finally started to produce, and she remembered the day clearly, when she was 6, when her dad brought a pot of soup to the table and told his family that they could eat as much as they wanted. She said it was the first time she had ever gotten up from the table not still hungry. I always think of what that was like, to be six years old before you knew what it felt like not to be hungry.
Mom was always such a bright and curious person, even starting life under such challenges. She was practical, clever and strong-willed, and in other circumstances she would have grown up to be an engineer, a banker, or a politician—and I mean that in a good way. The family had one prized possession which came west with them. It was a radio. If you know anything about the thirties, you know that families would sit around the radio together for their evening’s entertainment. It wasn’t quite magic, but it was nothing to be taken lightly. You took care of your radio. Mom, being ever the curious child, took that radio apart to find the little people inside! I don’t even want to think about what the punishment must have been, but she actually seemed to remember that event fondly, proud of her own search for knowledge.
There’s so much more I could say about her: how she was taken from her family at the age of 8 (while the rest of them stayed together), about her 3 marriages (four, if you count the guy who was already married), about her dozens of varied occupations, from farmer to journalist, how her children died, and her husbands drank, how she was abused as a child and abused her kids, and her life took just about every wrong turn conceivable, in one way or the other. Suffice it to say, she was a brilliant woman, with a very hard life, who developed a will of iron. It served her well in some ways. Not so much in others.
The last two years of her life were enormously difficult for her and her family, as Mom struggled with every bit of will she could muster not to lose her independence. Gradually the limitations pushed back her boundaries: driving, taking the stairs into the basement to do her own laundry, going outside alone to her beloved garden. She set her focus on other things while her family helped her with mobility and the other tasks of daily life. She made it her driving force to set her affairs in order, to leave as much security, and as little financial mess as she could to her children. It was not in her nature to simply rest, and it was not in the abilities of her children to convince her that we wanted her company and whatever time we could spend with her before she left us more than we wanted her estate all wrapped up in a tidy bundle.
So, those last two years were full of doctor appointments and errands, filing papers and sorting pills, helping her dress, bringing her food, and trying to convince her that she had not left anything undone so she could take some time to play a game of cards or watch a movie with us. She seldom heard us on the last part.
The last six months were overwhelming and excruciating. I had a bad fall in the summer before Mom died, bad enough to leave me largely incapacitated for about 4 months. By the time I was recovered enough to be up and helpful again, the holidays were upon us, and my family learned how rapidly Mom was declining, although she would not yet yield the remainder of her independence. Her body was failing, but her mind stayed tenaciously intact until almost the end, and she held very firmly to the control of her own decisions. It was something we all wanted. Such a dynamic and dominant woman should not be stripped of her autonomy by force, if at all possible. By the autumn, however, we all started struggling more and more with her living alone, and she was not yet willing to change that situation.
The last time Mom was “allowed” outside alone—as much as we could control such things with a woman strong-willed enough to defy a death sentence for nearly a decade—she lost her footing and tumbled from a four-foot retaining wall onto her neighbor’s driveway. She was hospitalized, and by the next day half her face was swollen and black from the impact, and her body battered. That was when her children started plotting in earnest to keep someone with her as much as she would allow. One of my sisters came up from California as often as possible to stay with her, and another had already taken on all of the cleaning in Mom’s tiny house and all her shopping. The rest of us were the “on-call” crew, coming when summoned to do whatever was the task at hand. One of my jobs was being the listening ear when Mom or my sisters needed to talk things through, which was pretty much a daily occupation, and grew increasingly necessary as time went on. Some days (many by the end) were spent almost entirely on the phone.
As the holidays passed, Mom grew more unstable, but was beyond stubborn in her refusal to move someplace where she could be better looked after, to have someone reliable in to live with her, or even to have one of those Life Alert pendants so she could call for help if she fell while she was alone. The Life Alert system would have called the paramedics, you see, and that would cost money. In her mind, any money she had left by this stage in her life was to be left to her children, not frittered away on emergency care, or nursing care. If only we could have convinced her that her money was not any part of her value to us! We cared about her, not her bank account! Nonetheless, we could not sway her, so the challenge to keep her safe grew.
She started mixing up her prescription medicines, and that was when the battle for sanity finally began in earnest. We thought she had had a stroke on Christmas Day, when she started slurring her speech and hallucinating, but when the paramedics came (against her will) she pulled it together enough to refuse treatment. When we discovered that her medicine was to blame, my sister bore the wrath to follow and took her meds away, coordinating with Mom’s doctor and nurses to dispense her pills out a bit at a time, rather than letting her keep the bottles on hand herself. Oh my, did that cause trauma!!
I think that was when Mom determined she would not yield another inch to loss of self-determination. She became implacable about the notion that she would not part with any more of her precious resources to secure her own safety. Then the middle-of-the-night phone calls began. Her physical instability grew, and she was falling almost daily now. She could no longer raise her arms to catch herself, so these tumbles were often quite hard. Frequently, she would fall in the night, and the only number she could remember in the fog of sleep was mine, so my husband and I would get a 2 or 3 a.m. phone call to come pick her up off the ground. This happened 3 or 4 times a week—sometimes twice in one night!! I don’t know who was more exhausted, Mom, or my husband, who often never made it back to sleep before having to head off to do his day job on just a few hours of rest.
Her body was shutting down. She had very few red blood cells at this point, and her brain wasn’t always getting enough oxygen. She started calling her children only to fade into incoherence. She would be talking plainly, then start randomly mixing words into complete gibberish, then be clear again. It was so scary.
Eventually, the stress grew too great for her children to continue on the way we were. We pushed to the point where she was so angry with us she was almost ready to disown us all, but finally carried our point that she needed round-the-clock nursing care. We found a lovely place for her to live, where we could visit and play games, and spend the time together "just being" that we had always wanted. The sad thing was how rapidly she declined at this point. Her 85th birthday came, and all of her children and grand-children arrived from where they were scattered to celebrate. She made such an effort to keep it together. She really was a trouper. I think she poured the last of herself into staying alive for that event, so that we would all have the memory.
After that she went downhill so fast it was unbelievable. I think she just had nothing more to push for, so she gave up and let death take her. Her system grew so weak that pneumonia soon set it, and that was what carried her away. Even as she succumbed at the end, she fought so hard to breathe. We sat for days with her, holding her fevered hand, praying over her, singing familiar songs to comfort her, and encouraging her to talk to Jesus. Every once in awhile she would wake, not always completely aware of her surroundings, always wanting out of bed so that she could take care of one last thing she was sure she had left undone. We couldn’t let her.
I will never forget my mother’s last words to me. She wanted out of bed. My sister on one side, and I on the other, she balled up her little fists, mustered all her strength and demanded, “Just do what I’m telling you!” I think it was the first time ever that my sister and I both looked at her and calmly said, “No.” I admit, these are not the last words a child dreams of from their parent, but given who she was, they were actually rather perfect. She died as she had lived, full of fire, and in her own way, full of love.
The morning she died was surreal for me. I sat for almost an hour holding her hand after she passed. She had such a high fever that her body stayed warm for a long time, and I could not believe emotionally that she was dead. I truly expected her to start breathing again, to wake up and start ordering us all about. Only the fact that I could no longer hear the rattle in her chest began to convince me that her life force had passed, and as her tiny hand grew cold and white in mine, I finally let her go.
It still seems surreal at times. I’ll find myself thinking that I need to call her, or that I need to cook her some food, or that there is something hanging over my head undone, but there really isn’t much left to do. We finally finished with her house a couple months ago, a project largely spear-headed by one of my sisters. Mom gathered a lot of stuff in 85 years. Her irises are growing, but she is no longer here to tend them. The raspberries are leafing out, but she will not harvest their fruit. It is odd. Life changes.
As for my life, it has changed a lot, too. No longer tied to the city by our need to be near Mom, my husband and I moved to a rural home, which we love, and that has made how much our life has altered even more obvious to us. They say that times of trial show you who your friends are. I’d say in our case, times of trial have shown us who our friends are not, and it turns out we have far fewer than we thought. We have lost a lot of the people we once considered friends over the last few years. Some have walked away because we could not give them what they wanted when our own lives required near-absolute focus elsewhere, and we let them because we knew it was best for everybody. Some we lost because we could not deal with the drama of their lives while dealing with the drama of our own. Some we lost for no reason that I can understand. It simply became clear that they wanted no part of our friendship. I feel the sorrow of the loss, but I have accepted that the best gift I could give them was to stop trying to reach out to them and simply leave them alone. Someday I will quietly disappear from their Facebook friend lists and that will be that. They may notice; they may not, but I suspect that if they do, their main reaction will be to feel relief.
I’m at peace. I’m writing this all down and sending it out into the void because it felt appropriate to remember Mom in this way. She would have loved it, even the hard parts. I think of Mom, the good and the bad, and I think of who she would have been had she not been damaged by the pain of her life, and I look forward to seeing her in eternity. When I see her next, she will be healed and perfect, untwisted and whole. So will I. She and I both will have left our baggage at the gate, and I will see her as she was truly created to be—and she will see me the same way. I’m looking forward to that day so much. Perhaps then, too, I will see those friends I have lost throughout my life and we will embrace and love one another again. Eternity beckons. God is good, and I am grateful.