How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 10

LEANE AND HER MOTHER, NAN

Leane speaking …

Kate was born five weeks before she got sick, so I’d been seeing an awful lot of her. She’d been with me almost every day. I was just feeling more mobile with Kate, so the week leading up to her getting sick we went to Farrington’s shopping. I shopped. She carried Kate. She insisted on holding her. She acted like there was nothing she wanted to buy. She just wanted to carry Kate.

Three days before she got sick, the farrier was coming to trim the donkeys’ hooves. Mum came to pick up Kate. She’d been a fussy baby. I’d been apprehensive as a mom. Mum was so reassuring: “Maybe it’s this; maybe it’s that. She’s all right.” My neighbor Karen asked her, “How do you like being a grandmother?” Mum told her, “The hardest part is being nonchalant.” She was wondering, is the baby getting enough to eat, etcetera, but she never let on.

After the farrier, two hours later, Mum encouraged me to take a nap. I went up to get Kate, and Mum said they had napped together. She said Kate had smiled at her. It had been her first smile at four weeks old.

On September 5, Mum was going to take Great Aunt Marion to meet a ride in Yarmouth. She encouraged me to come with them. She said it would be good for me to see people and stores. We stopped in a coffee shop. Mum carried a fussing Kate up and down the aisles of the coffee shop and beamed. We were in Portland for shopping and lunch and Kate was really good. All of a sudden the world had been re-opened to me. I didn’t have to stay home all the time.

Dad had gone off fishing. Mum, Debbie, Diane [sisters], and David [husband] and I were planning to go to camp for the weekend. We girls wanted to do all the preparation and cooking so Mum wouldn’t have to do anything. I went shopping and got some of her favorite foods: Moxie, and Crunch ‘n’ Munch.

David, Kate and I stopped at Mum’s Friday night on our way to camp, and she was going to join us when she got out of work at the post office the next day. Camp was her favorite place in the whole world. We always joked that if Dad had offered her a weekend in Hawaii or at the camp, she would take camp. Joan J. and Deb were there visiting with Mum when we came. She had mended David’s bathrobe and a suit for Kate. Kate was wearing a hat I had bought on our shopping trip to Portland. The last time I saw Mum, we were driving out the driveway. She was peeking out the window at Kate, laughing and waving. It was dusk.

I was getting out of my new motherhood panic and thinking about stopping by, and thinking, won’t she get a kick out of it if I dress up Kate for Halloween. I had no inkling. I was sure we were going to have her until she was a really old lady. With Dad’s heart condition, we had all tried to prepare ourselves for his possible death. Dave had talked about building her a little house on the property so she wouldn’t have to care for the big Coopers Mills house.

Saturday, September 7, Dave left early to work on his trucks. Kate and I were at the camp. Deb came down 9 to 9:30. Deb told me Mum had a headache. She’d talked to her at the post office. I didn’t think too much about it. At 10, Mum and Dad’s tenants drove up. I was in the shower. Deb called, “Lee, there’s something wrong with Mum. We gotta go.”

“What’s wrong with her?” “They don’t know.” She just collapsed at the post office and she was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

I took a brush with me and all the way in I was brushing my hair just to give my hands something to do. We stopped and picked up Diane. She said, “She probably didn’t have her breakfast” because often she didn’t. Deb said, “She had a headache adding to it.” Yeah, that was probably it. We did not broach the unthinkable: What if she had a heart attack? None of us allowed it to enter our minds that it could be fatal. Your heart is racing, pounding. You’re sick in your gut.

We pulled into the emergency room area and met someone from the Windsor ambulance. “Is Nan Morin all right?” She got a strange look on her face and said, “You’d better go see someone inside.”

Brent Harrell [physician’s assistant] came out. He was really agitated acting. “Was she taking any unusual medication?” We looked at each other. “Thyroid medication but nothing other than that.” Brent said, “You’d better prepare yourself for the worst.”

I burst into tears. We all said, “Brent, what are you talking about? This can’t be possible.” I remember the word “no” a lot. Brent said, “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s had a stroke and it’s serious.” Brent had big tears in his eyes. He was Mum’s friend.

Deb took Kate. Brent said, “Why don’t you come in and see her.” Ben, Mum’s brother, was there in the ER and Deb filled out papers. Diane and I went in.There were about five people in there working on her, including Carol Eckert. Carol looked up and saw me and gave me a hug. She had delivered Kate five weeks earlier.

Tubes were in her nose. IVs were in her. A sheet was up to her neck. It was a horrifying sight to see such familiar loving hands and hair with all those alien objects attached. I remember focusing on her gold necklaces and it was Mum and she was going to be all right. Carol explained that she had had a stroke and they were getting little reaction. They were running tests to determine the extent of the damage. “It looks extensive.” I was still thinking, well, we’ll do whatever we need to get her back. They’d given her a brain scan.

We were led to the family room and Deb and Ben were there. Marilyn, a neighbor, was holding the baby. Carol and Brent were telling them different medical things. Dr. J. came in. “You’re the Morin girls. Your mother has had a stroke and her brain is completely destroyed.”

Information has to be imparted, but however … He was destroying us with his words. His choice of words made the shock so much more of a shock. I remember literally feeling like someone had struck me in the face. The million thoughts that flood your mind and the biggest thing is the word “no.” I remember seeing Debbie and Diane starting to cry, but I was so wrapped up in my own grief that I could only say, “No!” I had to get up and move, thinking maybe he would say something different. I was sobbing hysterically. I remember hyperventilating, trying to get my breath and deal with the information. I remember getting scolded by someone in the room: “Stop it! Stop it! You were so lucky to have a mother as wonderful as your mother.”

We were supposed to be at camp at that moment saying, “Put your feet up. Have a Tylenol for your headache.” I remember wanting to see David. I needed David to be there because he knew what Mum meant to me, what she meant to us all.There was really nothing to do. What could ever matter but this moment. I was aware of Kate being there but I didn’t feel connected with her because I didn’t feel like a mother. I could only be a child. I just felt like a child.

Then I called you to tell David to come to the hospital before we’d gotten the final word on Mum’s condition. You asked, “Is your mother going to be all right?”

“No. She’s not going to make it.” Hearing those words come out of my mouth was horrifying. That word keeps coming up. David came with Carolyn and Janet [his mother and sister], who’d come to get the baby. The only time I’ve ever seen Carolyn cry was giving her Kate. I remember being sad to see Kate go with Carolyn because I knew our relationship wouldn’t be the same. It would change.

They put Mum in the ICU when other people came into the family room. Did we want to see her? Deb wasn’t ready. I felt like someone was pushing me from behind, like the lion in “The Wizard of Oz.” She was hooked up to a respirator. I remember looking at her face and thinking, oh, Mum, I’m so sorry this is happening to you, knowing how sad she would be to have lost her life. There was so much stuff around her face that I kept looking at her hands for that familiarity, her rings and that pearlized white polish that she wore. I kissed her and told her that I loved her. Diane too. We were sobbing.

“We’ve got to find Dad,” I remember saying. “He’ll never make this.” I didn’t think his heart could handle losing Mum. He was due back in a couple of days. He’d often called the previous week. The morning at the post office he’d called her and told her what he was doing. The last thing he said to her was that he loved her, and she to him. Growing up with their marriage, they really taught me how to have a good marriage and to be a good parent. Overall, I know I’m a good mom. I had a confidence.

Dave drove me home and we went to the drugstore to get Valium. Dr. B. thought we needed something to take the edge off. He had delivered me and been close to Mum and Dad. I was marveling at people walking around and living their lives and my world had just collapsed. David went into the drugstore, the first time I’d been alone. I felt plugged up, numb, dazed, and feeling sun on me and wanting to give up. Then a sharp pain of feeling what you had lost would wash over you and it was almost unbearable.

Diane and I kept looking at each other and saying, “This is unbearable. This situation is just impossible.” Back at the house there were lots of people there. Everyone had congregated and everyone was very sad. Each time you’d meet or see someone who had loved Mum, you’d release a little bit more on the way to healing. It was part of the healing process that had just begun. We had such a need to see and be with the people who loved Mum and whom she loved the most.

I found her coffee cup, which still had some coffee in it, and I found her washcloth. I wanted to cradle these things. I was making myself go through it all, like holding her coffee cup and imagining her drinking the last bit of coffee. I was grieving––even savoring it. I felt really protective of those objects and didn’t want anyone else touching them, especially her washcloth, except for Deb and Diane. I put it somewhere where other people couldn’t get at it.

That was the day of being really blurry and painful. You’d feel numb and dry and you couldn’t cry anymore. Then you’d see someone you knew and it would start all over again. It’s either a blur or vivid. There’s nothing about that week that was ordinary. It was a big blur of faces and feelings or sharp as a razor. It was such a crazy, horrible week, but we laughed every day. I remember Diane saying, “Isn’t it wonderful that we can still be finding some humor through all this?”

Deb lived next door at the little house, so we could get away from all the people if we needed to. Every night a different friend would take care of Kate at Deb’s house. They would come and get me so I could nurse her. With the tragedy, I had completely dried up. But it was a long time before I gave up on it.

Drifting into the kitchen to determine Dad’s status. Decided to charter a private plane to meet him in Toronto. Brent talked to Dad on the phone. Nan had had a stroke. It was serious. “She’s very sick and you need to come right home.” Tons and tons of calls. Buzz is a good friend, a real rock for Dad. Dad was at Buzz’s fishing. Brent went and got a crash kit in case Dad had a heart attack on the way home. Bert and Brent went into Augusta––too foggy––landed in Bangor. Mike and Dave went to Bangor to pick him up.

Around 1 a.m., before they left, I went up to Mum and Dad’s room to lie down. I was panicked. There were millions of voices and lights in my head. I couldn’t be there alone, so I went and got David. I was close to hysterical, panicked and out of breath. I slept for one-and-a-half hours.

Dad arrived at four in the morning. I didn’t know what to expect. When he came through the door, we three looked at him. He was destroyed. We all embraced him. “Our kingpin is gone,” he said.”Where’s the dog?” Maggie was a puppy. “Get her out of here. I don’t want anything happy in this house ever again.” After a while we all went to bed. Dad wanted to be alone. He slept on the couch for weeks afterwards. He wanted to be alone.

Next morning, the eighth, we went to the hospital. Dad saw Dr. B. He was in a complete state of devastation. “How could this happen?”

“These things just happen. There’s nothing anyone could have done.”

We went into the ICU. He looked at her and started to sob, and he said, “Hi, darlin’.” He held her hand and kept stroking her hair back and saying, “How could this happen?” Warner [minister] was with us.

On the ninth we were in to visit but we didn’t stay all day. On the tenth we were in again. Diane and I asked to sit with her. Carol Eckert said she’d see what she could do. The head nurse got a couple of chairs and we sat with her. Diane held her hand and we told stories about her. It was the first time I’d felt any sense of peace. I felt we were doing everything we could do. I knew that if it was one of us in that bed, that’s exactly what Mum would be doing––sitting with us.

They were taking really good care of her. We were getting used to seeing her with the huge breathing tube and other apparatus. We said, “Isn’t it strange that we’re sitting here with Mum looking like this and we’re so calm?” There were people coming and going. On the night of the tenth Carol called and said we couldn’t sit with Mum the next day because a woman had noticed us and complained.

I remember feeling very protective toward Mum. Only the people who loved her the very most and only those whom she loved the very most should go in. She was so vulnerable. I felt protective about people not seeing her like that.

They had to wait for two flat-line EEGs in a row to take her off life-support systems legally. We were living from EEG to EEG. We just wanted to end this for Dad as soon as possible. As we were leaving the hospital, Dad said, “Let’s swing over and see Maggie [at a friend’s house].” Then I felt that Dad was going to be all right. It was the first day there was any hope. Sitting with Mum felt good, and Dad wanting to see Maggie indicated he would be all right.

On the eleventh we were getting ready to go to the hospital when Brent came in and spoke to Dad. Dad came in crying and said, “It’s all over.” Then we all just hugged and cried in the kitchen. My only regret was that none of us were with her when she died. We’d talked about having a vigil, but we knew Mum would rather have us be with Dad than her. She died naturally. Joan used the living room telephone to call people and tell them Mum had died. I wanted to hear every call and I wished I could hear the reaction of the people on the other end.

Dad needed to have an open casket. I felt we were betraying Mum by letting this happen. We went to the funeral home to see her dead. She didn’t even look like Mum. There were sores on her mouth from the tube. Her hair was done in a style she never wore. She had double chins. We had chosen her favorite outfit––a green Pendleton suit. But she looked terrible, and Dad was upset and decided not to have the open casket. We put a picture of Mum rocking Kate in a ceramic frame on top of the casket. Later we tucked the picture inside to be buried with Mum.

I had worked at Berry & Berry’s Florist and had seen people’s names at the top of order forms. It was such a shock to me, seeing Mum’s name at the top of the order form: Nan Morin for Gray’s Funeral Home. Ordering the flowers seemed like a very important thing to do. It’s like the last thing you can give that person, a last gift. We drove around in the afternoon and cut flowers every place. We kept talking about all the flowers Mum loved: Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans. We took them back to the florist who put them together beautifully.

Next day, Friday the thirteenth, was the funeral. I remember taking half a Valium because I wanted to be controlled and strong for Dad. There were periods of not being able to stop crying and then being dry. There were people everywhere out on the lawn. It was the biggest funeral they had ever had. I remember walking in chanting to myself, Stay calm; stay calm. I started to panic. I remember asking Mum, “Please help me get through this.” Within five seconds, I was dead calm. I remember feeling very grateful and thanking Mum.

We were hoping for a fast service. I remember Dad taking three or four nitroglycerin tablets. I leaned over and wanted to pass some of that calm to him. “Mum is here with me and with all of us.” By the end of the service, all of the people started coming through, people you needed to see. It’s a list you need to see and you experience that release. I started to get upset again, sitting there and having acquaintances and close friends come through. I felt like I was going to pass out, like I needed some water.

There was a State Police escort to the cemetery because there were so many people and cars. I remember looking up at the sky. It was such a bright blue with clouds, and Mum couldn’t see it. When we were on our way to bury her, I remember being surprised that life continues in other places. The store was open. It’s a funny sort of phenomenon that you think everyone else stops living when someone dies.

On the fourteenth Diane and I distributed about 15 of the 100 arrangements of flowers to those who had been helpful. That felt constructive. There’s so little feeling of anything mattering that when you hit on something constructive, that’s a great feeling.

When we hired Burt to fly up, it was very expensive. One evening a bunch of friends of Dad’s and the family came over and one of them had an envelope. They had pitched in to pay for the cost of the plane, about $1500. Burt had volunteered his services. Even though I had felt self-centered at the beginning, I remember now that as the week unfolded and people expressed their love and their loss, it dawned on me that she had given so much to everyone, not just to us. That kind of realization, that kind of sharing also really helped a lot, and it also made me realize the importance of being nice to people. So many people that Mum only had limited exposure to at the post office––you could tell they care. She always was kind and interested.

Because of her death, I have a new respect for the funereal process. The whole process of writing the obituary and making the funeral arrangements felt important and gave us something to do. There had been times when I’d questioned that sort of thing, but it was helpful because we wanted everything to be just right for Mum. Before Mum died, I never gave much thought to sending a card, attending a wake. I felt it really didn’t matter whether I did or not. I learned that individual expressions from people are truly important. I feel like I will always remember and feel special about different things that were done for my family by so many people.

Diane stayed with Dad for another week. She’d been living in a little house in Windsor. The first morning I was home neighbors came by to check on me. I remember going to get the Moxie and Crunch ‘n’ Munch at camp and this awful feeling that she would never be able to enjoy them again.

The greatest source of my pain then and now is Kate not knowing her and sharing all the wonderful things to come with Mum. Everything with Kate was bittersweet. Everything she did didn’t feel complete because Mum wasn’t there to share it. The joy in Kate was tempered by pain.

Diane, David and Kate, Debbie and Dad and I spent a lot of time together. We were like spokes in a wheel. The hub had been blown off and we were just kind of spinning. We knew we were a family and we loved each other, but no one knew where they fit anymore. Everyone’s roles had changed. As process progressed, I remember a sense of loss, of mourning for the family as I had known it. That came months later. Things had changed drastically and things would never fit together the same way again.

We’re lucky because we’ve managed to reorganize, to re-tool, re-shape the unit, how we all fit together. We’re fortunate. The biggest thing all three of us feel is how lucky we were to have her. How rare it is to have the deep friendship all three ol us had with our Mum individually. The death allowed us to have a more positive relationship with Dad. We always had felt close to Dad, but the relationship has deepened. We’ve spent a lot of time with him and know him really well. It made me realize how strong Dad was. He wasn’t as fragile in his health as I thought he was. I was proud of him for grieving so openly because we all needed to go through it together, and if one of us had been holding out, it would have been really hard.

We were trying hard to keep things the way they’d always been––Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas. At times we were proud of ourselves for carrying on and doing those things, being able to continue and carry on, but also at the same time, we were trying to do things as they’d always been done, and it contrasted. It made it worse and more painful. Trying to do it the way it was only echoed the loss. It made us realize it was time to define certain things. How did we want to face certain situations in the future and do things differently? We’re still in the process of figuring out how to shape holidays and birthdays.

Sue [close friend] or Diane or Debbie would stop by during the first few months and we would check on each other.There was constant pulse-taking. It’s scary. Life goes on and the pain is far away, and sometimes that’s frightening to see how well we’re getting along without her now. Part of why we’re able to do it, we’ve all kind of acknowledged the concept that she wouldn’t want us not to. We all think of her every day. Whenever Sam [a son born since Nan’s death] or Kate does anything, it still hurts that she’s not here to see it. The cycles get longer. At the beginning you’d go for days of feeling okay, then a period of feeling washed with grieving and pain. Now the cycle is longer. What’s left behind is feeling fortunate, appreciation of what she gave us, and the wonderful times we had together.

On the anniversary of her death for the first couple of years, there was grieving, but it wasn’t as hard as we expected it to be. For us it was like a countdown. Even though we knew it was coming, we didn’t necessarily feel we should celebrate it, just observe it. For Diane and me, the actual day has never been as bad as we thought. You brace yourself and then it passes. Debbie tends to feel it more deeply on the day itself. This year it was different. We had a champagne dinner together. We went over the details of the week and how it made us feel. We are lucky because we parted with no regrets. What we’re left with now that the pain is gone is an appreciation of all the gifts we’ve been given. We’ve decided we’ll do it every year.

I’m starting to discover what it means to let her go. I don’t feel she’s any further away from me than she was then. The question I just had to know then is, Where is she? I remember saying so many time, Mum, where are you? Where did you go? Are you still you and do you still love me? Will I ever see you again? I feel like on some level I knew, but I needed to have it clarified within myself, to have it confirmed that yes, she still existed.

I’ve always been frightened, maybe intimidated by religion. I’ve never wanted to identify myself as a religious person. The connotations I make with religious people are generally not positive ones. So although I was longing for some answers about God and my mother, there was a big part of me that didn’t want to get into it at all. So I put off exploring these feelings and questions until one day your were walking on the road, and we just started chatting, and then we started talking about your mother, and she had had a brain hemorrhage as well. Then I just started to cry. This was just before Easter.

You asked me if I would like to come talk and every part of me answered yes. The afternoon I spent at your house talking about Mum, asking my questions and just crying and crying, that was just a real turning point in my life. I started to face the spiritual part of myself, and although I was very frightened at what you were saying to me, I was also hungry for just exactly what you were saying. And what you were saying was that you promised me that my mother was still my mother and that she still loved me and all my family and that I would be with her again.

It was like you made me look right in your eyes, and you promised me that what you were saying was true, that you knew it to be true, and it was exactly what I wanted and needed to hear. And for the first time in my life there was a sense of truth in what you were saying and a sense of trust in you that I had never felt before. When I came home that afternoon, for me that was a turning point. It was when I first started feeling that sense of hope that it would all become clear at some point in my life, this whole mystery of death. That’s when I started to realize that I was not only going to be okay but better than I had been before she died.

When you’re in the midst of a major loss, it’s hard to see past your grief and feel like you’re going to be happy or whole again. I remember feeling like there was a piece missing. I think it’s so valuable to know that you can get to the other side. It really feels like a hill or a mountain that needs to be climbed and you start out at the bottom. That’s for sure.

I realize that part of losing Mum meant that I had to face who I was on my own and that I had to define exactly who I was without Mum right behind me telling me I was great.

Leane was 26 when her mother died, and 31 at the time of this interview.

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