This is part seven, and the final post, in a series about my mother. The previous post can be found here.
“Promise you won’t put me in a nursing home?”
“I do not want to die in Ball Hospital.”
“The deed to the graves, the life insurance policy, and the words to ‘Mr. Frisk’ are in that big Bible.”
These are some things she would say to me once we were back in Indiana.
I thought it would be difficult to write this series, and it has been. It may take me a little while to wrap my head around everything: things that I haven’t thought about in years; things I had completely forgotten about; stuff I had to look up; a couple of things I had to ask my brother; empathy and compassion for the people involved, including myself; a comprehension of how life comes full circle.
We all die. Not everyone lives. My mother lived, but oh she had so many setbacks. She kept on going though, literally making fresh starts whenever it was obviously time. That’s what this week has been about – a new year and a fresh start. My mother knew how to do fresh starts right.
I got back to Indiana first, in early June 1999, with our cats and one dog. My then-husband came the next day in our rented moving truck with our other dog. It was very hot that day. I remember that first night in the farmhouse we had rented. We had come from a town in Connecticut to a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. There were crickets and tree frogs and a very, very, very loud mockingbird that I am sure sang all night. Yep. The country was much noisier than the town had been, but it was a much better noisier.
I don’t remember all of the details of what or why or wherefore, but we moved my mother right around Thanksgiving. I think she arrived shortly before. This particular post may contain an excessive number of “If I had it to do over again” comments, and one of those is that if I had it to do over again, I would have tried to find her a house nearer to us. As it was, it was pretty much just what she was looking for, but it was about a half an hour away. It was in a town, though, and that was important.
We cleaned up her new house, got it all ready for her. Husband refinished the old hardwood floors. It was a 2-story farmhouse that had been out in the country at some point, but it had eventually become a part of the town of Winchester, Indiana. It was probably over 100 years old. She had always wanted “her big house.” Well, this was as big as she was gonna get, and when she saw the picture, she squealed and said, “Oh, it’s my big house!” I’ve not mentioned that she squealed a lot. I loved to hear her squeal. She was very easy to please.
She was easy to shop for and very easy to make happy.
I found a wallpaper that was perfect for her. It was a red and white toile pattern. When I sent her a sample, she squealed. Squeals = good.
You know how as an adult child, you think your parent is going to live forever? As a 5 year old, that’s understandable, but in your 30s you would think that you’d get it. You’re out on your own, doing your own thing, and figuring there will be time. More time. Always more time.
And then, time runs out. There is no more time. There never was enough time.
This is why losing a parent is so significant. I found that I was not ready. Then I found out that I never would have been ready.
You see, I’ve now realized that in Mom’s mind, she was going back home to finish. In my mind, she was going back home to start again. Now don’t misunderstand me. She didn’t go back to quit! Not at all. But she was in her late 60s, and I was in my 30s. She accepted the body ends – that her time on this earth would end – and she was at peace with that. I would not have been at peace with her body ending, even though I knew this was going to be her last move.
In those years, we would have so much fun! We’d go to the cemeteries, I’d share genealogy with her, I’d ask her questions again about her family (although not nearly enough). We’d go shop for flowers and go to rummage sales. We’d go to family reunions.
Sometimes, spur of the moment, one of us would say, “Let’s drive to Wilkinson!” And we would. I’d drive, and we’d take the road into Wilkinson that her mother and daddy took when she was little – State Highway 109 in Indiana. Heading southeast, we’d drive past McCray Cemetery where her mother and daddy are buried, past the church of Christ building, and then on the right, we’d start to see it. “There it is! There’s Grandma’s house!” She would exclaim, clapping her hands intentionally like she did when she was a little girl, and sometimes telling me yet again that this is how it was for her then. She’d get so excited to go to Grandma’s house when she was a child. It was fun to see her relive the memories.
Once or twice in the years before that it had been for sale. “Oh, if only I could buy it!” Her granddaddy built that house. If only I could buy it.
Then we’d drive up the road past the house. She’d tell me the same stories again: about roller skating, walking to the downtown store to get candy or ice cream, the oak tree, and others. Once or twice we’d stop at the post office to see my second cousin who was the postmaster down there. Then we’d go to McCray Cemetery to go to the graves. Often, we’d take photos – again – as if you can’t have enough photographs of the same gravestones. Once we were finished there, we would drive up to Harlan Cemetery where her grandparents and other Van Duyn and Coon/Kuhn relatives are buried. Every now and then, we’d go down to Simmons Cemetery, where some of the Johnson side is buried.
Every single time I go down there now, I do the exact same things.
“Make sure to bury me in the grave closest to Mother.”
“I want these songs played at my funeral.”
I learned that there is this thing called “anticipatory grief.” You’re feeling grief for the death that you know is inevitable but hasn’t happened yet, and you almost want to grieve more before it happens so that you can be done with the grief and walk away after the death. But it doesn’t work that way. As soon as it happens, the anticipatory grief is over, and the grief grief begins.
Either one or both of us would shop for flowers at different times, and usually I’d plant them for her. Once, I had a friend help. Squeals and more squeals.
No matter how old I was, or how many Christmases there had been, there was always room for one more with my mommy. There was not a reason to decorate at my house. This was the home for the Christmas tree now.
One of the things she would ask me to do would be to soak her feet in warm water and then get them all fresh from dead skin, finally cutting her toenails at the end of the process. I have to admit that I wasn’t always the most gentle doing it. That’s just the way I was – absent-minded about it, I guess. I knew she had pain, but I still couldn’t comprehend, after all of those years, just how much. Because she was diabetic, she needed someone to study her calves, feet, and toes regularly. I did that. She had a podiatrist, but daughters are very good at that kind of thing. And I would do it all over again. Now, I soak my own feet and think about her every time.
“Elizabeth, I have so many things I still want to DO!”
Somewhere along the line, when I wasn’t paying attention, she started to get thinner. She began to eat less. Once in a while, I’d probably comment. But it just didn’t register with me that this was the process of the physical body ending. I knew that quite often the aged eat less, lose weight, walk a little wobbly. But she wasn’t one of “the aged.” She was my Ma.
At one point, she said she wanted a cat. I would bring either a dog or a cat to visit, and she loved that. Our little dog Peanut, who had been abandoned on a corner of two county roads one time, would go crazy as soon as I’d ask, “Do you want to go to Grandma’s?” We’d drive out there, with him looking out the window, until I turned at a certain corner, and then Peanut knew he was almost there and he’d start to go nuts. He loved going to Grandma’s.
It had been since Connecticut that she had lived with a pet. I had plenty to share! So I brought her Midnight. I had gotten Midnight with my son when he was 12, in 1992, when we first moved to Connecticut. Midnight’s sister was Smokey, and she had died unexpectedly a few years before. Midnight was the perfect kitty for her. Gentle, sweet, always used the cat litter. He’d touch her with his paw. Sometimes I think all black cats are cut from the same cloth, too, just like kids. Perhaps not the same cloth for both, though.
Something went wrong. She was having abdominal pain. Turned out it was gallstones, and one was stuck in her pancreatic duct (that was a lot of pain). She was in the hospital for a while. Her gallbladder was removed, and the stone in her pancreatic duct was broken up. That was, I believe, in early 2003. It seems like that is, when I look back, about the time she started to have one medical issue after another. That was when I started taking her to the doctors.
She got a torn rotator cuff. When you are in pain all the time, another pain takes a while to register. But this one was different. She couldn’t lift her arm above her shoulder. It was more than pain – it was damage.
I don’t know what they do for a torn rotator cuff, but whatever it was, they did it. In June 2003, she was in a home for some weeks for physical therapy. They had her on morphine. It was making her crazy, and she wanted off of it. I stayed with her that whole night, through her hallucinations, until all was clear in the morning. She had stayed with me in my bedroom when I was ten and had chicken pox. I had a fever of 105F and had hallucinations. Life comes full circle.
The only thing she had to fight with anymore was her body. I can see how relaxing it can be to be in the last few years of your life, looking back on the good and analyzing and accepting the bad. She had done so much, touched so many lives, and she was still doing it. After she started getting physically “feeble,” as she would call it, she couldn’t get to church. I should have taken her. She didn’t ask me. I wish she had asked me.
One time, a relative who knew both of us said, “I think your mother tells you what to do all the time.” I hadn’t thought about that. I guess she did, and it never bothered me. It was an unspoken agreement between the two of us. At some point, she just needed my help. Those years after we got back to Indiana, the tables turned.
I would help her financially, sometimes physically, enjoying it or feeling gratefully obligated. I enjoyed spending time with her, yet I didn’t do it enough.
I read once that when someone dies, you always have regrets. It’s almost like you make them up. Like you find regrets over just about anything – any little thing that you think you did wrong turns into this giant monster that haunts you. But I couldn’t have made it less likely that she would die just by not doing whatever the things were that I subsequently regretted. This goes back to the fallacy that there will always be more time to fix things, and if only we could do it all over again, then what? Our parents wouldn’t die?
In late May, 2003, I was scheduled to take a trip to India for 13 days. I was worried about her. I suggested that we make arrangements for someone to come in and help, but she didn’t want that. So I called her when I could from India. My son was there living with her, so she wasn’t alone. But I still worried.
She was weak. I couldn’t lift her. She started to have some falls. She wore one of those I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up things around her neck. When the service would call me, I’d get so scared. I would not know what I’d find when I’d get to her house. I hated that 30 minute drive, especially at those times.
Then there was the time I went over there and her bills were strewn all over her dining room table. I have mentioned before that she was sharp. This was the first I had ever seen something like this with her. She was having TIAs (transient ischemic attacks). Dammit. Dammit. Dammit!
I helped her with her bills.
And then I started thinking that maybe it was time to consider living together. That would mean that I’d have to find us a house in Muncie, so I did, and the four of us (Ma, my son, my husband, and me) moved in the fall of 2004. If I had it to do all over again, I would have stayed out there with her in her house in Winchester – slept in her bed with her – and taken care of her. But I don’t have it to do all over again. I don’t.
That January, there was a pretty significant ice storm. We were without power for 6 days. The house had a fireplace, and we cooked on it. It was actually quite fun. I couldn’t get her to some doctor appointments, so I kept having to postpone them.
On February 2, 2005, I finally got her in to an appointment for a heart catheterization that her doctor had scheduled. I was sitting in the waiting area with my husband. I don’t remember the doctor’s face. I don’t remember his name. But I remember these words:
Quarter inch opening
Should be the size of a quarter
Congestive heart failure
Kidneys too blocked for surgery
Would die during heart valve replacement
Less than six months to live
Wait. What? This didn’t happen overnight. I was in such shock that the questions didn’t occur to me. Things that I started realizing years later – like that she either knew her heart was failing and didn’t tell me, or that she told me and I didn’t comprehend it. It’s quite possible that I didn’t listen.
Maybe this is what she meant when she would say, “I’m never going ‘under the knife’ again.” Maybe she already knew.
The next few months were surreal for me. I don’t know what they were like for her. She was on Hospice. Her church Brothers and Sisters would come and visit. Her friends would visit. She had a lady who would come and give her a massage. A nurse would come periodically. I emptied her catheter bag. She was constipated, and the nurse told me how to help with that.
I had to work. I was the main source of income. Our rent was $1000 a month, and there were other bills. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was most important. If I had it to do all over again…. Of course, I would know what to do.
The time became a lot about me losing my mommy. What I had planned: that we would have years together living in the same house; that she would get stronger because I would be there to help her through the medical issues she was having; and, that we could do that fun stuff again – that was all over. It was a ridiculously short time to the end of her life.
She died on a Monday, June 27, 2005, at 3:50 p.m. If you were to look at her death certificate, it would say 2:50 p.m. That’s because the nurses couldn’t read a regular clock with a minute hand. I was right there. I just didn’t have the focus or guts or whatever to tell them they put down the wrong time.
At 2:50 p.m., I was still at work. The thought was crossing my mind that I would leave early, go run a couple of errands (I have no idea now what those possibly could have been), and then go spend time with Mom. But then this very loud voice came into my head: go see her first.
She was at Ball Hospital. Yes, she died at Ball Hospital. The one place in all the world in all the years that she did not want to die. I didn’t do that on purpose. It just happened. I could have taken her home, but I didn’t.
The nursing home had called the Friday before and said they had taken her to the hospital because she was sick. Yes, she was in a nursing home. Yes, I had promised her that I would never put her in a nursing home. And yes, she was there anyway. And yes, to this day, I think that if I had done things differently, she may have lived longer. And yes, I know that when it was her time, it was her time.
On Saturday, she was awake and her old self, all perky and such. I’ve learned now that they call this “the surge.”
On Sunday, she was hallucinating. She thought my son was Brad Pitt. She kept trying to give me her ring off of her finger (there was no ring on her finger), the one she had given to me in 1997: “Take it, Elizabeth. Take it!” She played with an invisible string. Then the process would start over again.
When I got to the hospital on Monday the 27th of June, probably about 3:25 p.m., she was asleep. Her IV of fluids was no longer hooked up. I didn’t try to wake her. She was in her last sleep – I have called it a coma.
She was terribly cold. I held her hand and just sat there with her. Held it for what seemed like a long time. Then I told her it was okay to go. It was okay. I told her that I would be okay. Within 30 seconds of my saying that, while I was holding her hand, she took her last breath, and she left her body. She died. I felt her go.
I continued to sit there, holding her hand. I don’t remember if I cried right away or not. I called a friend from her room to share that my mother was dead. Then I told the nurses at the desk, who came in and did their frantic “patient-just-died” things, checked her pulse, wrote down the wrong time, etc.
I asked if I could use a phone, and they took me to an office so I could have privacy. I called my brother who lived in Atlanta. I called my friend Lisa. Called my cousin. At some point, I cried.
I think I went home empty. Or I went back to work empty. Either way, I was empty.
The next day, my friend Lisa went with me to the funeral home to be there while I made the arrangements. I picked out the most beautiful ivory coffin that had flower ornamentation on it. I chose a spread of dusty rose roses for the top of the coffin, because she absolutely loved roses. We had to go home and find something for her to wear. I went to my closet and found a pale pink suit that in life would have fallen off of her, but on her body in the coffin, it looked perfect. Underneath it, there was an ivory lace stretchy blouse that I liked. I thought it would look good under the suit, and it did. She would have squealed at the coffin and at the suit.
I filed divorce papers on that same day.
The funeral was down in Wilkinson, and she was buried in the grave closest to her mother.
Midnight died a little over a year later.
It took me three years before I could face getting a stone on her grave, and possibly another year before I could go down there at all.
I still have most of her things in storage and have not yet faced going through them.
At the viewing, I remember some who came, and some I’m sure I have forgotten. It wasn’t a big crowd. Most people had paid their respects to her before she died, not after.
While she was on Hospice at home, I bought her some daffodils, one of her favorite flowers.
The next day at the funeral, Uncle Roy and two of my cousins came down from northern Indiana. I had completely forgotten that, and years later told them that I understood that they couldn’t make it down. This is what it was like for me. She was at rest. I was lost. I had known that I was not going to be okay, but I had to tell her that I would be so she could go.
Recently I found a bag of her old medications from 2002. I looked them up. They were all for heart issues or congestive heart failure. Yes, she knew.
“This is the only copy of the words to ‘Mr. Frisk,’ so make sure not to lose this.”
Shortly after my mother’s death, a wise man said to me this:
Over time, it doesn’t hurt less, but it does hurt less often.
He was right.
I think about her every day. I have some of her things out now, and have one of my favorite photos of her on my living room wall where I can see it always. Rather than feeling like an extension of my mother, I am becoming my own person. My regrets, while clearly there, are not overwhelming, and I accept them for what they are. I don’t mind having regrets because they don’t come with shame.
Get your mother and daddy on tape. Write down their stories. Get their DNA. Love them. Hug them. Visit them. None of this will completely eliminate the post-death regrets, but do them anyway.
Her love for and support of the three of us was wonderful. I miss sitting with her. I wish she could be in my life now, sitting in my sunroom with me and watching the birds. Watching it snow out my front bay window. Living with me, surrounded by a lot of her stuff, which is now my stuff, and just talking about nothing and everything.
But her body wouldn’t have made it this long. As it was, she died at 74. If she were still alive today, she’d be 83. I can’t even see that happening. Perhaps if she had gone “under the knife” back in Tennessee when I’ll bet she was first told of heart failure she would have lived longer, but then my life would have stayed the same, and everything just would have been prolonged.
Everything happens for a reason, in its own time and place in life. Everything in her life fell into place just as it should have been, from her birth to her death. And now, her life and death have fallen right into place for those she left behind.
She was a very special person. Nobody will ever be like my mother, not just because she was my mother, but because of who she was as Margaret.
So with that, I will close this story about this wonderful woman. I would not be who I am were it not for her, and I suppose I may be so bold as to say that were it not for me, she would not have been who she was. Because relationships are two way, and ours definitely was.
I am honored that you have read this story.