How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 17


Cindy speaking …

We had a phone call in the early morning. I think it was Tuesday of that week. Monday or Tuesday, probably around school rising time. A little earlier. It was my sister Martha. She was crying. I knew that something was the matter.

She said, “It’s not who you think it is. It’s Mom.” She said that she had had a major heart attack and she was in Newton-Wellesley Hospital and they didn’t know what was going to happen. My reaction was, I’ve got to come down. “No, don’t come down yet. Wait a while.” I just started to cry.

She was in intensive care. Nobody was allowed to go in there. Travis [brother] had gone to the hospital with her in the ambulance. She didn’t want them to call an ambulance. She said things like, “I wish I were home.” “I don’t want this to happen here.” Martha did get to go to the hospital and she did get to see my mother. They used the word “agitated.” Her condition was “agitated.”

After the phone call I went back up to bed. I remember lying there crying with a sense of disbelief and devastation. I was supposed to go to work at Head Start. That was the day we were going to have the big Thanksgiving dinner with parents and kids. I called Polly [friend and co-worker] and told her I wouldn’t be in. I had this feeling, maybe this was going to go away. I was thinking, I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got to be there.

David went to school and my brother-in-law Steve called and said that her heart attack was very, very serious and I should make plans to come down there as soon as possible. I appreciated that phone call. Steve’s call put me into action. I called David at the high school. I was pretty useless. He really helped me by saying, “Look, this is what you gotta do. Call the airport and see if you can get a flight.’

I remember going up to Head Start. It was like being in a dream. Everybody was bustling around. I remember calling the central office. I was fearful they would say I couldn’t go because we were having a crisis and a big special meeting the next day. But the head of the office said, “Don’t worry about it. Just go.”

I made arrangements to fly to Boston late in the afternoon. I remember walking down from church where Head Start was. Dick Hall [rector] said something like, “Your mother’s such a special person to you.” He just held my hand and sat with me for a minute in that dinky old Head Start office.

I saw Pat C. [friend]. I remember getting in her car, and she drove me back down here and I told her. She remembered an incident where my mother got kind of frantic. We had gone for a walk and a hummingbird was stuck in a thistle. At first we stopped and watched, but we saw that its beak was stuck on the thistle and it was trying to get free. My mother ran up to Pat’s house to get a pair of scissors to cut the bird free. It did break loose and got free before we could do anything. Pat said, “I remember what a gentle person your mother was and how she wanted to save that bird.” That was my mother. I have a connection with my mother through birds.

I remember sitting with Pat. I remember coming into the house and pacing. I remember calling Martha’s. Nothing new except that she seemed to be holding. Every time Martha was at the hospital there was a new doctor or intern. They weren’t optimistic. There was not a sense of hopefulness that she would survive.

I remember sitting right here. [She tapped the arm of the chair.] I remember getting my prayer book and the bible to pack them and thinking they might be helpful. I packed those and I packed some clothes. Somehow the time passed. David took me to Portland.

I flew into Boston. Steve met me at the airport. He took me to their house. There was this thing we got laughing about. Nervous energy can produce the silliness. Martha had prepared a casserole we called Ruth Sears. We used to have huge pots of it. We had so much of it as kids that we didn’t cook it as adults. What are we having? That damn Ruth Sears casserole. There were gobs of it around to eat. I don’t remember eating anything then. And I usually remember food. I don’t remember anything that day.

We went to the hospital, Martha, Steve and I. Dick [brother] came by himself. Travis was at the hospital. I can’t remember who else was there. They had a family room and a chapel that was a real cavernous empty awful place in the hospital.We waited in the family room. We were able to be with my mother, but before we went in, the doctor and one of the nurses told us, “This is the condition of your mother. She’s had a myocardial infarction, and this condition is very serious.” It sounded like she had rallied in the morning, but then she was holding her own, but it wasn’t good.

She was all hooked up to machinery. Tubes had been inserted through her nose. I took her hand. I said, “I’m here. This is Clare.” [Cindy’s given first name is Clare, and her mother had always called her by that name.] She reacted. She kicked. She was struggling. There was a reaction. She was comatose. There was a bleeper thing behind. The whole place seemed to be full of machinery. I remember holding her hand. Again there was agitation, but it didn’t last. Then she was still. We couldn’t stay for very long. We went back to the family room. We took turns going in to be with her. Martha thought she was having palpitations and feeling sick. They checked her at the hospital. She was crying and saying, “I know I’m being a baby.” The nurse said, “Don’t worry about this. It happens to people. You’re all right.”

Ben and Susannah [Cindy’s children] must have been with Peter [their father]. I remember I didn’t see them before I left. It was all done by telephone. I don’t remember if any of Travis’s kids were there. My brother Stephen came the next day, Thanksgiving. He stayed at Travis’s. We all went to Travis’s on Thanksgiving Day. I remember walking in and he was making stuffing and I remember Maureen [Travis’s wife] being in the kitchen. She was not into giving hugs. I always give hugs when I see my family. I remember going up and hugging her from behind and saying, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

I remember a bunch of us going to the hospital. We’d pack into the car and go in a pack. Nobody stayed there. We’d stay there for a while and then go back to one of the houses. I remember Maureen’s mother was there. She’d talk and talk and it was diverting just to listen to her.

On Thursday we just got through the day. I remember sitting down to this big Thanksgiving dinner and the food didn’t have any taste. Thursday went by. There were three different times we went to the hospital. Each time my mother’s condition was the same. She looked the same. But when we went back at night, she felt different, more removed.

It looked like there was less and less of her working and more and more of the stuff keeping her breathing. There wasn’t an alertness, an awareness that we were there. The machines were keeping her alive at this point. But there was a peacefulness. It was better in that way. I knew she was going. That was the day Travis had their Catholic priest from their church come to the hospital. I don’t know what he did when he went in with my mother because I wasn’t in there with her. I think maybe Travis was. He was a very Boston-accented priest, but I can’t remember his name.

One of Travis’s girls––one of the things that was happening––her confirmation was taking place. The night my mother had had the heart attack, they had been at the church with a gathering of the family at the house afterwards. Martha told me my mother had looked really great. The color was high in her face, but she complained about the heat. Martha had thought it was the excitement, but it all fit together afterwards. An interesting thing to me in retrospect is that Travis thought my mother looked really tired. They had taken pictures that night, and in one of the pictures with my father and Amy, she did look kind of tired.

I remember calling home and talking with David and the kids. We had ordered a huge turkey, 20-25 pounds that year. David cooked it and they had Thanksgiving dinner.

I have not wanted to mention my father. My father was there and was probably in a kind of a state of shock. I remember worrying about him, but he was kind of in the background. He didn’t say anything. He just kind of sat. He didn’t react, like Travis asked, “Would you like me to get the priest?”

“Well, I don’t know.” My father was staying at Travis and Maureen’s. Stephen stayed there when he came. I can remember Stephen with these big sighs and deep breaths, and my brother Dick, who cries, his eyes just being red all the time. I remember Travis crying in Plattsburg when we were there for the memorial service. And Martha and I would cry.

None of the family was at the hospital when my mother died. It was Friday, mid-morning. I was still in my nightgown and bathrobe having coffee when the telephone rang. It was Travis. Martha took the call. I think she got off and said, “She died at …,” and repeated the time. After we got the phone call, we got dressed, went outside, and went for a walk. In Steve and Martha’s backyard the trees were full of birds. The sky had been gray and bleak. That day the sun was warm and bright. The trees were filled with birds and they swooped off. My mother was there in those birds for me.

I remember the walk after that. We got to this place called Echo Bridge and there’s a park. I remember us all sitting down. I remember Martha getting up and shouting. The birds had really done something for me. I don’t think I felt as angry about it as Martha, and I know Travis was angry about it. I had anger and disbelief, but that moment with the birds did something for me.

I can remember a kind of nice thing that happened that day. A friend of Travis’s from college, an intellectual and sweet man bringing a holiday cake he had made. “I just wanted to being this for the family.” It was comforting.

Something I regret was that none of us were there, and then when her body was taken to the funeral home that was going to handle the arrangements, none of us went in and sat with the body. I have always, well, not always––when I realized I could have gone in and sat there, there might have been a greater ability to accept the death. I think the realization of my not having done this hit me when Ellen Hall’s mother died. I remember Dick saying in church how Ellen had been in the room after her mother died and that was an important thing for her. I thought, I could have done that and it might have been a good thing.

My parents had both made arrangements with the medical school at Syracuse University, their alma mater, for any usable part of their corpses to be sent to Syracuse for any medical purposes. I remember Martha saying, “I’ve heard what some of those medical students do.” At the funeral home they did what they were supposed to do, made arrangements for her body to go to Syracuse University. I remember starting to make plans for a memorial service, but it didn’t come together then.

I got a ride back from Massachusetts on Sunday with some people from our church. I can’t remember if I went back to work. I think maybe I didn’t work that next week. There were a lot of phone calls. I remember calling to Travis’s to talk with my father. We started to make arrangements by phone about the memorial service. My father didn’t seem to function as to wanting things a particular  way, so a lot of it fell to Travis to communicate with the minister at home and friends in Plattsburg.

It’s funny; I don’t remember anything about the kids. I can remember waking up. It was like being asleep, waking up and getting the phone call again. It was the fresh stab of the death, the fresh stab breaking in on the assumption that my mother was going to live forever. We hadn’t closely associated with death. My grandparents’ deaths were removed from us. There was a sheltering from it. I went to my mother’s mother’s funeral. I was probably 24. She was the last of my grandparents to die. The other three died pretty close together in time. It was the way my family did things: “Okay, this has happened. I’ll go. It was my mother or father who died.”

I remember David coming out to the car. My friend Tootie came up from Portland. I remember crying a lot then. I remember seeing some people and just crying. Mixed in with all this, I remember Polly coming over and telling me about Head Start.

Sometimes during that week, I could hear my mother’s voice. I’d hear her say my name. It startles me. It’s like she’s somewhere else in the house. I just hear her call my name. I feel within me times when I call out to both my parents.

On Friday of that week, we went to Plattsburg. Gosh, I can remember up in Vermont at some point, we passed Travis’s car with my father, Travis, Maureen and the girls. We got to Plattsburg. We had Ben and Susannah with us. We stayed in my home. Friday night all kinds of food arrived. People from the church brought in casseroles and salads. The minister came. We were all there. I remember hugging Dick’s wife Diane in the kitchen, and she was squeezing so hard I thought she would crumble. Her mother had Alzheimer’s. My mother had helped her a lot with Norma, and I remember Diane saying, “I don’t know what I’m going to do without her.” The minister said, “I don’t know how you’re doing, but we’re devastated by your mother’s death.”

My father was the treasurer of the church, and my mother had become more and more involved with church as we had grown up and left home. My mother had gone through a real political change in the sixties. When Kennedy ran, she changed from a  rock-ribbed Republican to a Democrat, and she and my father voted for Kennedy. She became a Vietnam protester. A famous thing––she had a rally for Eugene McCarthy at our house in Plattsburg. She’d become a voice in that church for things outside of that church, and I remember the minister saying, “We all depended on her to raise our consciousnesses.” We all sat there crying.

At the memorial service I was to read. I broke down and I could barely finish. I was reading from Isaiah because it had words from the Messiah, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. I was making myself do it because I thought my mother would want me to. That was a real struggle. I was hard on myself when I cried. I said, “Now, don’t cry.”

We were able to choose some music that we liked. We asked the choir director, who was also a neighbor, to sing. My mother’s friend, Virginia, a rock-ribbed Republican, had a prayer that she read, and she also was crying. My nephew Ward played a guitar piece he had composed. That was very moving.

Poor Ben. The thing I remember most from the memorial service––I was not sitting with Ben. He just totally broke down and was sobbing. Diane put her arm around him. It was when Travis was talking. He gave a eulogy of my mother. He’s a good speaker. It was images of her that she brought to his mind: about the way my mother was at Christmas, how she liked light and glass, light on water, about Lake Ariel, her summer home in Pennsylvania, how she could wrap up the tiniest present in the most exquisite way.

Her excitement at Christmas was very large and contagious. But also, she would just wear herself out with it. She was very vital. She hadn’t been sick. There were so many things she wanted to do. We weren’t aware of her body slowing down and wearing out. I think he talked about how she was about the grandchildren. Each one, I think, felt a special connection with her. She worked at that. She was a very good grandmother.

There was a very brief and stark reception in the basement of the church. People could greet the family. Here we were with our coats on. It was very formal, like a receiving line.

That night at the church they happened to be doing Amahl and the Night Visitors, and a bunch of us went.  We got really silly. The image of C. coming down the aisle––we were laughing so hard we shook. We felt people were saying, “Look at them laughing and their mother just died.”

One image that stays with me at the time was Travis breaking down crying and his daughter Lisa just reaching out and holding him.

I don’t remember my mother on the anniversary as such. I think at this time of year when I’m walking I think about her. My brothers Stephen and Travis were born during that Thanksgiving week. I think about what it must have been like when my mother was pregnant. She had a number of miscarriages. I think about her a lot on my birthday. Christmas is just full of memories of her.

I did go up to Plattsburg in January to see my father and I did quite a bit of cleaning out of her stuff. I sorted through pictures, letters, some of her clothing, but it was weird. I would spend the whole day in her bedroom. She was a packrat. She had letters from all nine grandchildren, stacks and stacks of pictures and magazines. I made boxes of stuff for Travis, Dick, Stephen and Martha.

A thing I remember about the next Christmas, there was an ornament Ben had given my mother on her birthday. I remember Ben hanging that on the tree and crying, “I remember when I gave this to Granma.” That Christmas David gave me this wonderful Teddy bear. “I thought this would be a good time for you to have something like this after your mother died.”

A beautiful image I have is my mother telling about her and her sister Mary in her grandmother’s garden and roses and fireflies. [Cindy indicated a print of a John Singer Sargent painting that hung on the wall and depicted two girls in such a garden] The birds … there are always heron in the cove down here. They seem to be staying longer each year. I have a special thing with their coming and going. It comes from that moment [in Martha and Steve’s backyard the morning of the death, when the birds flew up]. It was also then a feeling of sunlight and grace. When we drove to Plattsburg for my father’s memorial service, we saw a snowy egret and a heron near each other in the New Meadows River.

There was once a photograph on Thanksgiving with my mother and the chopping bowl. She was standing at the kitchen door with a chopping bowl in a plaid blouse and skirt. It’s the connection of her with Thanksgiving. I thought Thanksgiving would be horrible ever after and Christmas would be horrible ever after, but it’s not.

On All Saints Day, they read the names of the people you want remembered in church. I always put my mother’s and father’s names in. My mother was very active in the local association for the mentally retarded. You know I have a brother who is retarded. Part of a building is The Merritt Center, a shelter workshop for the adult mentally retarded. We pledged money to that, which was paid over a period of two years.

There was a thing we needed to overcome but didn’t: her physical death. With my father it was kind of a repeat––no wake, no funeral, no calling hours, no sitting with him. In our family tradition it wasn’t part of it. I like to imagine what it would have been like to have done that. It’s just a part of life, an understanding that comes upon you going through it. It would have been meaningful to have had that to go back to.

Cindy  was 39 when her mother died and 49 at the time of this interview.

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