How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 1

JANET AND HER MOTHER, ROSINA

Janet speaking…

She had a heart attack. A few days before she died she complained of having pain in her arms and across her chest. She didn’t do anything about it for a few days and then went to the doctor who determined she’d had a small heart attack and wanted to put her into intensive care for a few days and watch her. My mother was a very upbeat person to her own detriment because she denied what she was feeling all her life. She thought the hospital was a lark. When I went to see her, she was very accelerated. I think it was part of the heart condition.

It was a Sunday morning. It was raining. My father had been called out of town for his brother’s funeral. I was on my way to pick up some plants at the greenhouse and decided to stop to see her first and was so glad I did because it was the last time I saw her fully conscious. She was saying goodbye to me. I can remember I was sitting on the bed with her. She had crooked thumbs. She was holding my hand and stroking it with her thumb. This was very out of character for her. I mean she was a gregarious Italian. She’d give you a big hug and a swat but she wouldn’t dilly dally over anything that might appear too sentimental. We just sat that way for a few minutes. We didn’t say anything. We just sort of sat there and held hands. I said, “Well, I’m going to go. I’m going to stop and get the plants and I’ll be back later. Maybe Daddy will stop in.” He was on his way back by that time.

When I stopped to see her on the way back they wouldn’t let me in. “Mrs. B. is under oxygen and is not feeling well.” They wouldn’t elaborate. I said I was her daughter but that didn’t matter. I talked to my father and asked how he had found her. He had seen her and left before I got there. About an hour later, he called me and said, “Your mother has had a major heart attack.” I just screamed and threw the phone and said, “I’m on my way to the hospital,” to my father.

Things happened very fast from that point on. I called my daughter and she met my husband and me at the hospital with my father. When we got there, they were wheeling her out. “We’ve done all we can for her here.” They were sending her to Portland. My father was in shock. He wasn’t reacting at all. My daughter and I were crying. She came out. Her color was terrible and she was unconscious and in an oxygen tent and they said she was “in heart attack” right then.

There was this incredible feeling of disbelief, like I was in a dream state. This was not really happening. By then it was dark.

We got into our cars. My daughter got in to be with my father and I got in with my husband. I had this sense of careening into a black hole, saying, “Hang on Mama. Hang on,” as if my sheer energy could keep her, as if the pull of energy between us could keep her hanging on. When we got out at the hospital and she was being wheeled in, I spoke to her and said, “Fight, Ma. Fight.” She said, “I’m going to be all right. They’re going to try a new medication,” which was so poignant because my mother thought everything could be fixed with a pill.

They determined she had stabilized. The cardiac specialist said any number of things could happen. My father told him about a living will they had agreed on. No efforts would be made to keep her alive unless she could live a full life, a quality life. It was about eleven o’clock then and he said, “You might as well go home now. She’s stabilized. There’s nothing anyone can do now.” My father was very stoical, logical, matter-of-fact about it, not emotional about it, which was typical of his demeanor.

Next day, Memorial Day, was beautiful, sunny day. I was doing some gardening and I went to call the hospital or Daddy to see how things were. I decided to go over and see him. He came out into the driveway and he was crying. He said, “Things are not looking good at all. Your mother is not responding. The doctor said he wasn’t encouraged.” I sent word through a neighbor to get my husband and tell him to come to my father’s house. I called my son to take care of my daughter’s baby. He didn’t want to go the hospital. He was very close to her. He was scared. It was his first brush with death.

My father, husband, daughter and I went to Maine Medical Center. It might have been around noon. I spoke to the nurse and she said, “We can’t stabilize anything. We can’t stabilize her sugar.” She was a diabetic. “Can’t stabilize her kidneys.” The doctor said, “There’s one more thing we can try: to x-ray her arteries through her heart.” This procedure can take one to three hours. If they found blockage, they would try to unblock it. Then it was around two. Waiting and pacing began. There was a little room, a glorified closet. I went in for some quiet time, centered, did some affirmations and visualization. I hadn’t been there long when my husband came charging in and took me by the hand and I knew that was it. The x-ray had shown one of her arteries was completely blocked and there was nothing they could do to unblock it.

We were not in there with her for more than five minutes when her breathing was very erratic and it just stopped. There was nothing frightening. Very peaceful. My father looked at me and said, “She’s gone,” in utter amazement. My daughter screamed, threw herself on her Nanna and sobbed. I was rubbing her chest and saying things like, “It doesn’t hurt anymore, does it Mama? It’s all over.” And I was crying when I was saying this. I thought I was going to break in two. I had been crying so much my insides were sore. I still had the feeling it wasn’t really happening.

While she had only suffered for a couple of hours, she was in continual pain. She was complaining about her back. “Rub my back. Rub my back. It feels like it’s breaking.” She kept vomiting. I thought, how poignant. The thing she hated most and would try not to do was vomit and here’s the last thing she’s doing in her life. It struck me as ironic.

Did the doctor really try everything? Wasn’t there something else? I guess I was denying the reality. I can’t go home. I can’t leave her here. I felt like I was abandoning her. How can I walk out of here? My mother has just died. At that point my husband broke down. He loved my mother and he was her favorite. She would teach him little Italian phrases that would flatter her.

We went back to my father’s house to make phone calls. My sister was on the way, in the air at the time. I was going to have to meet her at the airport and tell her she hadn’t made it on time. My daughter, husband and I went to the airport. I met my sister and she knew immediately what had happened by looking at me. We both started crying. She said, “I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her.”

I had to call my other sister in Pennsylvania. We made numerous trips to the airport. It was such a shock. Nobody was prepared for it. People began pouring in; food began pouring in. The telephone was ringing constantly. I was exhausted. I felt turned inside out. I had cried so much it felt like there wasn’t any water left in my body. It felt as though every muscle was jumping. I was exhausted but agitated.

I stayed at my father’s house that night and slept for about four hours. My father was in terrible shape in the morning and I was glad I was there. It was like it really hit him in the morning. He talked about what they used to do at breakfast and he didn’t know how he could possibly go on without her. I encouraged him to talk about what he was feeling, to cry, whatever he had to do. They’d been married for 53 years.

The funeral arrangements were made jointly. My father is a retired Baptist minister and he had many funeral director friends. The only question was a closed or open casket. I argued we needed to honor her wishes. It would be closed, open only for the immediate family. One of the worst ordeals was choosing her clothes. My mother thought that lace was the greatest thing in the world. She had this lacy pink dress that she’d worn to my daughter’s wedding. She always said she wished she had other places to wear it, so I thought that would be appropriate for her to wear it forever. Before she died she asked for a picture of Jay, my daughter’s baby. It happened to be his first birthday when she was in the hospital, and she would miss his party. So we had the undertaker put the picture next to her heart. There was a little necklace which was not of much value, but she was partial to it. We had him take off her other jewelry and put that on her.

I felt wrenched from center to circumference.

The next thing we had to do was choose her casket. It had a baby blue lining. She loved baby blue. Then we picked out the flowers. Again, I was completely drained. It was so emotional to pick out the flowers. I wanted her to have a rose in her hand because we used to call her Rosie, and I said, “What am I doing this for? She’s not really dead.” We got the rose from baby Jared.

One of the most difficult things was going back to my house. It was the first time I’d been there since she was dead. I must have cried for two hours. I just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. What kept going through my mind repeatedly was that my mother and I had had a rather unhealthy, too-close, symbiotic relationship for years. As I individuated, I had to detach from her emotionally. She was like Saran Wrap. Through a wonderful woman therapist, I began to work on some of my issues, most of which had to do with my mother. I had gotten to the point where I could trust myself and my relationship with her enough that I could reconnect with her. I felt strong enough that I could stand on my own and not be wrapped up in the Saran Wrap again.

One month before she died I talked with her about my changed attitudes and wanted to talk to her more about our relationship. I felt we were reconnecting as adult women, connecting on a whole new plane. I felt so cheated. So many people said, “Well, you had that much.” But it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted my mother to individuate. I wanted her to know that as an adult woman I needed something different from her. I didn’t want her to drag out the chicken soup anymore. Consequently, with her sudden and unexpected death, I was devastated. I thought, we’d just begun. It feels so incomplete.

We had the funeral in the church where she and my father had served for so many years. It was standing room only. She was very well-liked. It was a great tribute to her. I was cold and sweaty and shaking inside all the time. I was quite concerned about my father because he didn’t want that many people around him. He was feeling closed in.

We all went to the church. The casket was closed. I walked in and I couldn’t control myself. I was crying out of control, almost to the point of hysterical. I just couldn’t stop. Once the organist started playing, this incredible calm came over me. I had written something in honor of my mother, in honor of womanhood. It has to do with being the link between all women. Each of the grandchildren wrote something to her. My eldest nephew read them all. They all told about their memories of Nanna. The casket was carried out by her grandsons and step-grandsons. She would have thought that was just ducky, to be carried out by all those handsome young men.

After a trip to the cemetery, there was a luncheon at the church for all the guests. People came from far and wide. This isn’t family; it’s old-time friends. It was just incredible seeing these people and my aunts and uncles whom I hadn’t seen for a long time. It was a bittersweet experience. We were coming together for a traumatic, painful event, but we had come to be together for this time.

One of the things I needed to do for myself was to be alone. I walk on the beach. If it’s raining or foggy, so much the better. It was that kind of a time. The beach roses were in bloom. I like to perform personal rituals. I had picked up a rose on the way and petal by petal had strewn the petals over the ocean in honor of her life and let go. It was a real reflective time. I felt very close to her at the ocean. After the ritual and watching the waves carry the petals out, I was very calm. On my way out I picked a red rose for me and a white rose for her, unopened. I put them in a rose bowl. My intent was that as they unfolded, they would touch and it would be symbolic of how our lives had unfolded and touched. That act established an ongoing mystical symbolism of the white rose. A couple of days later I was at my father’s and was reading a book of poetry he had written for her. In the back was an inscription he had written 55 years before: “To my Rose. I’ve always heard the white rose is the purest of all. Therefore you are my white rose.” It still brings goosebumps when I think of it. That summer my pink rosebush produced a few white roses. That was a first.

I can’t tell you how many awe-inspiring mystical experiences I’ve had. I knew she was communicating with me. There was no way I could explain it, but it was happening nonetheless.

The dream about her that stands out to me, where she definitely communicated with me, was within a couple months of her death. The dream opened with me walking into my mother and father’s house. My father was puttering around in the kitchen. I looked in the living room and there was Ma. She had one tacky dress on top of another and she was dusting. “Ma, where have you been? We thought you were dead.” She walked over and nonchalantly sat in the chair opposite me and began, “You know sometimes you’re going to take a trip? You get glimpses of where you’re going? Well, that’s what I did and then I went.” Then she said, “It is absolutely wonderful. I feel so free,” and something like, “Don’t worry about me. I’m very happy.” And then she faded. In the first year I felt she was speaking to me almost daily. Mostly the message I was getting was, I am free. I don’t want you to feel badly. One of the things my Mom’s death did for me was that it made me comfortable about dying. She’s only changed in form.

I’ve been able to communicate with her in really unique ways. I had built a fire. I put pine cones in the fire. It was a complete cloud cover, but when I put in the pine cones, the clouds parted just for a moment and the full moon shone on me. I wanted to let her know that I had to let go of some of my things with her that were unhealthy. It was a good symbol.

The times that I felt the saddest didn’t have anything to do with her birthday or the anniversary of her death. They’d just come spontaneously. I was planting and I said, “Ma, what are you doing in the earth? I don’t want you there.” Or I’d see somebody from the back that looked like her. Most of my melancholy moods have come about triggered by nature. A fall day that she and I liked the most could bring up intense sadness for me. I remember the first snow after she died. There was something about the ground freezing and the snow covering her. It was so final. That first winter was very hard.

Janet was 43 when her mother died and 45 at the time of this interview.

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