How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 18

POLLY AND HER MOTHER, GERTRUDE

Polly speaking …

I made them go from a $1200 casket to an $800 casket because my mother wanted to be buried in a pine box. She would have been real pleased to have the $800 instead of the $1200 because that was her lifestyle. She said she felt real terrible that she didn’t have any insurance to pay for the burial expenses. She felt bad to have us kids pay for her funeral. What I said to her was, “We’re going to pay for your funeral with the rent for renting your house. So you’re going to end up paying for your own funeral.” She slapped her leg and said, “Good! That’s the way I want it.”

I hate to see white in a casket if you’re going to have it open. We picked out a suit that I happened to give her. It was cranberry and white check. The funeral director called some company somewhere that made a special cranberry lining and I didn’t mind paying an extra couple hundred for that.

We had her two favorite ministers do the funeral. One of them said, “She fought a good fight; she kept the faith; and she finished the race.” She had talked openly with the ministers and told them that she was ready. She wasn’t afraid. But it makes me realize––going through her death––how hard this culture makes it to accept death. I thought it was just my family because we’d been taught to stuff our feelings, but the more I talk to friends of mine who are losing their parents, it seems to be with the culture. They have a hard time accepting death.

She has six living sons. She had seven boys and five girls. The boys were the pallbearers. We weren’t sure how one of my brothers would be. He had been overseas when my father died. He wanted to stay in denial. But when my sister died, Roland had to go to her funeral. He collapsed on the ground and sobbed and sobbed. Now that he had dealt with my mother’s death, he had to face the fact that Dad was dead too. My mother left the cemetery plot upkeep to Roland.

My daughter Pammy takes care of the flowers. The cemetery boxes always had three geraniums and ivy in the front. That’s the way Mother always made up the boxes. Pammy made Christmas baskets with fir boughs and red berries just the way Gramma used to do. Pammy wants to put out a bird feeder because my mother loved the birds. She used to sit at the kitchen table, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and watch the birds. The minute a grandchild came, she would send them out to feed the birds. She had an island with a transformer in the back yard with a huge osprey nest. It still belongs to the State of Massachusetts from when Maine belonged to Massachusetts.

We had a tape of Elvis’s “I Had It My Way.” There were only two ways: the wrong way and Ma’s way. We called her sergeant. We played the tape at the graveside service. She had a sign on the kitchen wall, which I now have on my refrigerator: Be reasonable. Do it my way.

We were told on the Monday after Thanksgiving about Mom. She died December 13. Don’t tell me she had cancer for two weeks. It was exactly two weeks to the day. She said for four or five years that she had a tumor in her head because she had pain behind her eyes. Part of me is happy that she had those two weeks and she didn’t have longer than that to suffer. Her sense of humor did come through, even at the end. We asked her what she wanted done with her personal things. She laughed and said, “You kids have a good time fighting over it.”

For the previous six years, we kids had been trying to get her to make a list of all the things in the house and to designate who got what. There were ten living kids. We put the numbers 1-10 on little pieces of paper. One of the grandchildren picked out a number and that one got to pick out something. It went up through ten and then it was the reverse order. I got to pick third, but I was before Mary [sister] who had her heart set on a trunk. I picked the trunk for her. It was full of old clothes my mother had outgrown years ago and had never thrown away. I also got a foot locker full of her linens. You wouldn’t believe all the cars we turned away; they thought it was a yard sale.

My daughter Pam remembered a little Aunt Jemima bell. Her grandmother used to dig it out of the closet, let her ring it once, and then put it back in the closet. When we went over and began to wrap things in the china closet individually, there was the bell.

With the contributions we bought a TV on a cart and a VCR for Cove’s Edge. My daughters Trudy and Sherry used to work there as CNAs. I planned a party on the anniversary of her death. We would go and present the stuff to Cove’s Edge and then the family members would go and have a pot luck supper at Sherry’s restaurant. After supper I told them I was going to write a message to Mom and release it outside at 10 in a balloon. I had no idea how my brothers and sisters were going to react to this. I’m so glad I did it because I think it helped them with the grieving process. It helped them to celebrate the anniversary of my mother’s life instead of grieving over her death.

My friend Barbara wrote a message to my mother about her father who died in the spring about four months after Mother died. She had always been going to go over and have pig parts––feet or tongue or something––with Mother, and she never got to it. So she wrote to my mother to tell her that her father liked pig parts also.

Mom would have been real pleased about the party. She would have been especially pleased about the gift to Cove’s Edge. She would have been so proud to think that there’s something down there with her name on it.

I did see her that last day. We had worked out a schedule so one of us kids could be with her from six in the morning until she went to sleep at night. It was Pam’s turn in the morning, but her car broke down. I went. Roland came on at noon right after the doctor had been there, but she asked me to stay. I stayed til six when it was Trudy’s turn to come on.

When I got there at six, she was sitting up in bed with her glasses on and a newspaper across her knees. She liked the attention she got when she was sick. “You must be feeling better,” I said to her. “What do you mean?” “Well, you’re up and reading the paper.” She folded the paper and put it down beside her. “I’ll read that later,” she said.

I got her out of bed at 10:30 and put her on the pot. I asked the doctor if she could be catheterized because when she got up, it would stir everything up and she would be in a lot of pain. After she’d get off the pot, we’d have to rub her on the hip for about ten minutes, and then the pain would let up. She had a kind of glassy look sitting there on the commode with her hand on her knee.

“Dr. K., Mother said you said she doesn’t have to be in pain.”
“I did and she doesn’t.”
“Last week she was in a lot of pain and we couldn’t find a doctor.”

A half hour later she had some morphine on her last day. It made her real dopey. She wasn’t even alert. She was in a drugged state. She wouldn’t eat. Mary has since told me that Dr. K. didn’t want to put her on morphine because he thought it would take her. She had emphysema and that could slow down the breathing. We’d try to get her to lay back and go to sleep, but she wouldn’t until Gertrude came on at six. She said, “Oh, Trudy, I’m glad you’re here.” I took a picture of Trudy and Mother when I got ready to leave at six. All of the pictures on the film were as clear as a bell, except for that one, where there’s a haze around her.

Oh, I just remembered something. I spoon-fed some ice cream and water to her. I looked up two or three times. She would be laying there flat on her back, and her arms were up like she was reaching out and up, like she was trying to take hold of someone. After she died, I looked back and said to Roland I could see the significance of it afterwards. It is very definite that she was seeing something or someone and was reaching out––pulling it all together after her telling the minister the day before that she was ready to go.

Trudy left about nine and then we got the call about quarter of midnight that she was cheyne-stokes breathing and was going. Jake, Linda, Patty [brother and sisters] and I made it to the hospital, but she was gone when I got there. Linda and I went in with her for a while. She looked horrendous, pathetic. Her head was thrown back, her mouth was open, her hair was sticking out, her face was sunk in. We went out. I wish we had stayed out there longer. They were wheeling her out in a tannish plastic bag.

Ma had left in her will that she did not want a funeral. She did not want people looking at her dead. But after that last night, Linda, Winty [brother] and I went to the funeral parlor to make arrangements. I told them I wanted a casket open some time for me. I wanted more in my memory than a plastic bag being wheeled down a hallway. I didn’t feel she’d mind her children and her grandchildren having a viewing. Some of her grandchildren hadn’t made it home before she died. The agreement was that the casket would be open for the family for an hour the night before.

That memory does seem to be the one I have. I think about how nice she looked with that maroon lining that matched her suit. Some of her children had brought roses, which they put in the casket with her. Her children didn’t buy her flowers, but we did buy her a dozen roses. At the end of the service at the cemetery, we each laid a rose on the casket. I laid one on for my sister who had died, and my brother laid one on for my brother who had died. I remember I couldn’t stop shaking. The two daughters of my sister who had died were on either side of me. We were fortunate. We hadn’t had too much cold weather, and we were able to bury her and not wait until spring.

Two days after her death, but before the funeral, my friend Barbara insisted I stay at her house and study for my one final exam at USM [University of Southern Maine]. It was a theories of learning course. She said she would drive me down and stay in the library while I took the exam. She insisted. “Then it will be behind you at the funeral” she said. I had been taking college courses one and two at a time for 18 years. I started in 1970 and graduated in the spring of ’89. My mother had kept at me over the last couple of years––when was I going to graduate from college. She wanted to see me graduate from college. That’s part of the reason I went back. She went into the nursing home in April of ’88 and I went back in September so I could finish up before something did happen to her.

I wrote a note and gave it to the professor when I went in that morning. I told him that my mother had passed away and that I wanted to take the exam, but that if I didn’t do well, could I take it over again. And he was great. He kneeled down beside me. He said, “Polly, your grades are fine. You don’t need to take this exam if you don’t want to.” I took the exam, did well on it, and will be grateful forever to Barbara for supporting me and insisting I take the exam. It’s funny how things worked out. Four months later, her father died suddenly. I stayed with her and helped her make her father’s funeral arrangements.

For a long time after my mother’s death, I’d forget that she died. Something would happen and I’d think, I’ve got to call Mom and tell her about this. I dialed her phone number a number of times and then realized, what am I doing?

I’m reminded of her when I find myself being too much of a caregiver, telling other people how to solve their problems. We allowed our mother to rule us all. It was being done with our permission in the last few years. In my ACOA meetings I hear people that are angry and bitter at their parents. I’m not angry at my parents. I realize my mother did the best she could with the skills she had. But the one thing that has handicapped me is that I was told to stuff my feelings. Just seeing the way my mother was––her husband died in ’52, a daughter in ’70, one of her sons in ’77, and then in November of ’88 she was told she had cancer. Yet, til her dying day I never saw her shed a tear. On that last day she was on the verge of crying. She chewed on her lip. It makes me sad to think she went all her life thinking she couldn’t show her feelings. I’m sure there are many times she wanted to.

Polly was 50 when her mother died and 51 at the time of this interview.

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3 thoughts on “How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 18

  1. I have been moved by all these stories of women and their mothers. Thank you for honoring that complex, but lovely, mother-daughter relationship both in life and in death.

    Like

    1. And thank you for “getting it,” Mary. As mother and daughter and grandmother that you are, not to mention sister and friend to many, your support is a treasure not taken lightly.

      Like

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