DEBRA AND HER MOTHER, MARY
Debra speaking …
My mother and I were working part-time at the same place, which kind of interfered with the relationship because I started working at the place after she did, and I feel that in some way I kind of invaded her territory. So, until we got used to this, I felt that our relationship was on a roller coaster of sorts. My friends were suddenly her friends and vice versa. My mother and I had always enjoyed a very, very close relationship, which was more one of close friends than mother-daughter. I think that given time, we were able to let go of the feelings we had concerning some of the problems we had working together and my mother had become very proud of me and let me know that on a daily basis. I’d walk into work and she’d kiss me.
I guess it had been several months she hadn’t felt well. She went to several doctors, back and forth, and nobody seemed to come up with anything concrete. And I from time to time felt, then nothing must be wrong. If they can’t find anything wrong with you, then you must be all right. Don’t worry about it. Don’t complain about it.
One day she wasn’t feeling well at work, and she came to the department where I was working. She was flushed. She looked very tired and she appeared to be very weak. She said, “Debbie, I’m not feeling well. Could you please take me home?”
And I didn’t. I had an appointment with a physical therapist. I had just returned to work after being out for five weeks with a back problem. I can remember her saying to me, “That’s okay, honey. I’ll get Dad to take me home.” My father also worked there. I think the reason I told you this is that in my mind, this is the last thing my mother asked me to do and I didn’t do it. When I have those quiet times, this is the sort of thing that pops into my head. This is one of the last things she asked of me and I couldn’t give it to her.
I guess it was about a week after that that my father had come to work and he looked for me, and when he found me he told me that my mother had gone into the hospital. She’d had an x-ray. They told her the x-ray was okay, and upon my mother’s request, my father was allowed to look at the x-ray. He was a retired x-ray technician. He’d always worked in the medical field. He saw all kinds of shadows on her lungs that they had not picked up. In all fairness to them, they were taking an x-ray of something in the abdominal area, but part of the lungs was visible.
When my father found me that day, there was a look of just––I can’t even explain it––it was a blank look. It was beyond sad. It was beyond scared. He had such a knowledge of this he knew what the outcome was going to be before anybody told him. When he saw those shadows, he just knew. This is the kind of disbelieving: If he didn’t see those shadows, would she still be alive today? Y’ know, the what-you-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-you kind of thing?
I remember the date. I remember the hour he came to see me. That was a Friday. I spent a lot of that weekend with her––not talking about it, just being with her. On Monday I went back to work, knowing she had a doctor’s appointment that day. I stopped in on my way home and my parents weren’t there. When I was on my way home, I remember thinking, this is either very good or very bad. Either that she’d got some wonderful news, that she was okay and that they’d gone someplace … I couldn’t put the flip side into words.
When I finally got home, I remember it was a very warm evening. It was in July. John called to me from the kitchen, “Mike and Mary [mother and father] are here.” I immediately thought for some reason, everything’s okay. There’s been a terrible mistake––I guess just because they were visiting. After they’d been in the house a very short time, my father said, “We have some very bad news.” He said she had been to the doctor. They’d done a biopsy, and with all the other test results, it didn’t look good at all.
My mother looked up at me and said, “I won’t be here for Christmas.” Then she started to cry. Then I went over and buried my head in her lap, and she just kept holding me and saying, “My baby.” We didn’t talk a lot more that night. I just remember everything going downhill from there.
As soon as my parents left, I was in total disbelief. I had never even considered anything like this ever happening. I called my sister and went right over to her home. They had gone to my sister’s before they came to my house that night. We just tried to make some sense of everything they told her. Mostly it was just disbelief and very emotional, and it was that night I started feeling very childlike again.
When I went to work on Tuesday, I told my boss that I couldn’t make any commitments to the business until this was over for my mom. He was very supportive and said that my mother should come first. Right after I had that talk with him, I called my mom, and she told me she was trying to wash her hair. She had an appointment that afternoon for some kind of a scan, and she couldn’t get her stitches from where they’d taken the biopsy wet, and I said, “I’ll be right there.”
At that point we called her brother from Florida to come up, and we all celebrated her sixty-fifth birthday on Saturday.
There were more tests. After 23 years, her melanoma had returned. They had decided to try an experimental drug to slow down the growth of the cancer cells. She was taking interferon injections three times a week. Every time she walked into that hospital she cried. I remember her telling the doctor she wasn’t ready for this. Everything was happening too quickly, and she wanted to make all her own arrangements. Pretty much, from that day on, for the next several weeks, my sister, my father and I would just stay home with her and talk with her about all that was happening, and take notes on how she wanted her last days to be and the plans she had made for the funeral.
I got very selfish of my time with her. As people found out about it, they started to come over and visit. They wanted to see. I found myself becoming the parent. She was the child. I was the parent. I screened visitors and phone calls and found that I was extremely protective of her. I found that I really started drawing on my sister for support. She’s three years older than I. It was as if my sister and I had two goals: One was to make this as much of a positive experience for my mother as possible; and two, to somehow find a way to get my father through it.
My mother’s appetite completely no longer existed, but when she said, “A slice of pizza might be good,” we tried to find the best pizza. No matter what she wanted, we’d get it for her, and she’d always try it, and she could never eat it. She drank water and fruit juice. By the beginning of August, they discontinued her treatments. She had become too weak, and the three trips into Augusta per week proved too exhausting for her.
That was a difficult time because she still had hope, and when they discontinued those treatments, I think she thought the doctors were giving up on her. She went downhill very quickly from that time. Because of not eating, she’d lost a lot of weight, looked very frail, and had started using a bedside commode. She was in pain. She was on something that she pretty much wanted every four hours. That part of it was scary because she wasn’t alert, and I felt like she was slipping away. It was the medication. But I wanted her to have the medication. I didn’t want her ever to experience any discomfort.
She met a hospice volunteer. I had done hospice volunteer work and had had terminal patients. I found it was much different with my own mother, but I had also become an advocate for the patient. Whatever she wanted, she got. I can remember when the hospice coordinator came in. I’d come in late from work, and he said that when I walked into the room, the atmosphere changed because I wasn’t afraid to talk about the death that was going to occur.
When we weren’t talking about the funeral arrangements or the grandchildren, she slept. My father, my sister and I would talk a lot. We would talk about how we were going to make this the best possible way for her. It happened so fast. I remember every day, but so many of the days were exactly alike. Mostly we would make sure that she was taken care of––bathed, comfortable––and she was never left alone.
My mother’s mother had committed suicide when she was four, so when she found out she was terminal, usually after she had been medicated, she’d sometimes cry for her mother and ask for her. I can remember her telling me one day when I was lying with her, she said, “I know how hard it was to grow up without a mother, and I know how hard this is going to be for you and your sister.”
The she said, “You and Diane [sister] must stay very, very close.” She was adamant about that. She was so afraid something might happen and we’d grow apart. She was very concerned about how my father was going to do. She’d always taken care of him. She’d done a lot of things for him, so I know a lot of the days were spent telling her things were taken care of and we’d be there for Dad. I think for the most part she felt at peace with that part of it, that he wouldn’t be alone.
By the middle of August my sister and I had moved out of our homes and into our parents’ house. Our husbands were very supportive and took care of our children. I think I went to work maybe seven days from the middle of August until she died on September 6. It was a very hard decision for me to make. My father had stopped going to work from the time he found out she was terminal. My sister was a teacher, so she was on vacation, and it was a hard decision because we didn’t know how long she had for sure. We just didn’t want my father to have to be alone, and we wanted to be part of it. Actually it was a very strong feeling between my sister and I––that we not leave. We just spent so much time with her in her room that even if we went on an errand, we couldn’t wait to get back to her because we were afraid she might die while we were gone.
By the end of August, we’d moved her to a downstairs bedroom and gotten a hospital bed, and from that time on, she drifted in and out of what I thought was a semi-conscious sleep. My father and I started giving her morphine suppositories at that time. It was really hard because I knew that by giving her that medication, she was going to be so heavily sedated that I didn’t know if she would be able to understand or talk to us anymore.
There were a few more days of restlessness, even with the morphine, but she soon was comatose. But we always talked to her. Whenever we were in her room, we always included her in our conversations. Sometimes she’d open her eyes or squeeze our hands, and we really felt that she was there with us and could hear everything that was going on.
She had started choking when we tried to give her water and hadn’t eaten for a week. I talked to my father and my sister about helping her die. I think I got a lot of this from my hospice training and my own beliefs: that I didn’t want to prolong her life any longer, and I think that if she’d been able to tell us, she would have said, “Don’t make me take water. Don’t feed me this food.” My father and sister agreed, and from that time on, we decided we would stay with her non-stop and just do whatever we could to maker her comfortable.
We had made an appointment with the funeral home to make her arrangements just the way she wanted it, and we told her we were doing this. My mother had said that she wanted to visit with a priest, and we called the priest and he came and visited with her. Although she appeared to be in a coma, when he addressed her, she opened her eyes and squeezed his hand. My father, my sister and I were all with her when she was given last rites.
I can remember the home health nurses coming in every day. They were amazed each day at their visit. It was only her strong heart that kept her alive. Everything else was stopping but the heart was strong. So we thought maybe there was a reason she was hanging on. So the three of us spent an afternoon with her telling her everything was okay. We’d taken care of all of her business and she didn’t have to fight anymore. All of the family was there and it was time for her to let go. She was fighting it so hard and continued fighting for about a week.
On Tuesday night my sister and I had gone to bed around 11. I woke up at 1:30 and could hear my mother breathing on the intercom. I got up and went in to sit with her. I talked with her and went back to bed. At 2:15 I woke up very quickly. I didn’t listen for her breathing on the intercom. I went right into her room and without turning on the light, I went right over and put my hands on her face. The rest of her body was still very, very warm. That was the night my father had wanted to sleep with her. I look back now and know that he knew that was her last night. He had wanted to sleep with her and I kept saying it had been so long she’d been fighting it so strongly that he’d be too uncomfortable and that he’d need his strength in the morning to take care of her. I remember feeling glad that we were able to talk him into going into his own room. I think that would have been too hard for him.
I got my sister up and had her come into the room. She wanted me to be sure. She said, “Debbie, are you sure Mom’s gone?” I’d had enough experience that I knew. There was a definite sense that my mother was still in the room, but looking down on me and that she was very, very rested now, very, very peaceful. It was as if she was saying, “It’s okay now, honey.” She was the mother again and I was the child. That part was very comforting to me because I was the caregiver and the protector and the nurturer for six weeks, and suddenly she was my mother again and she was saying, “Everything’s going to be okay, honey.”
My sister went upstairs and got my father. He came downstairs and we all sat with her.Until my mother left that house, I felt her presence there. I felt that she was a little angel with wings looking down saying, “I’m here with you and everything’s going to be okay,” that she was back to protecting us again.
My sister and I got my uncle from a little cottage he was staying at while he was visiting us. We’d also called my father’s good friend A., and he came up. I called the doctor and the funeral home. I told the funeral director not to hurry because we wanted her to stay in the house with us for a while. So after we were all in her room to kiss her goodbye and talk to her, I went out into the kitchen and made coffee.
We were in the kitchen for about 45 minutes. I told my father I was going to go into her room to powder her and to put her in a clean nightie to get her ready to go. When I went into that room and looked at my mother, she was smiling. The nurses and doctor and I felt she had had a stroke because her eye wouldn’t close. When I went in, her eyes were closed and there was a smile on her face. When she died, her mouth had been slightly open and I couldn’t close it. And I couldn’t close that eye. It had been open for about a week. When we came back in, her eyes were closed and she had that smile. It was unbelievable.
The funeral director came and that’s when they took her. That was harder. I had never given any thought to when she would actually leave the house. They put her in a burgundy bag with a zipper right up the middle of it and wheeled her out. I remember thinking, she must feel so alone. She’s leaving this house for the last time. Someone has said to me, “You lose one person, and she loses everyone.”
We had visiting hours one night at the funeral home. She requested none of her family from New York come up. Her brother from Florida was there. It was a closed casket at her request. There was a picture of her on top of the casket with the Teddy bear my father had bought for her. We did have an open casket for my sister and me and the grandchildren. Initially it didn’t bother me to see her. It’s when I knew they were going to close the casket and I was going to have to remember her that way.
We had a Catholic Mass, and it was very touching because the priest’s brother had died the day after my mother, and he made a lot of correlations between his brother and my mother in the service.
Those two days seem like a blur. There were old friends I hadn’t seen for years there. People were very surprised by her death because it had happened so fast. It was a very emotional time and I thought probably I had the best husband and son in the world because they just let me go. They were there when I needed them and just let me express myself in whatever way I needed to.
They cremated her and it was about four or five days before we went to the cemetery––my father, my sister and I, and the priest. That was difficult. There was this little box. She wanted to be cremated and we wanted whatever she wanted. But it’s hard to grasp that your mother is in this …[She gestured with her hands to indicate the shape of the box.]
I can picture her face, but it’s usually two or three times that I visited with her before she got ill that I remember. I remember what she looked like just before she died, but I put that aside because she wouldn’t want me to remember her that way. I had almost two months to prepare for my mother’s death, but I was so completely unprepared for it. There was just nothing that would prepare me for the devastation that I felt, for the void. And I continue to feel it.
Sometimes when I cry, I say, why am I crying? I’m crying for myself. I miss my mother and I want my mother back. The spells seem to get further apart but greater in intensity. It’s when I’m having that overall feeling of just missing my mother… How did this happen? I want you back. For instance, about a week-and-a-half ago, John woke me up and said I was having a bad dream. He said that I cried out, “Mom!” But I don’t remember the dream at all and for two days off and on I cried.
One of the strongest feelings I have right now is that it’s been so long since I’ve seen my mother that it’s getting more and more real to me that she’s not coming back. The worst time of day for me is in the morning on my way to work. I cry myself all the way to work almost every day. My mother had two songs she wanted at her funeral, “The Rose,” and “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” I flip through the channels on the radio just to hear one of those songs so I can feel sad.
There were so many emotions right after my mother died. I didn’t want to eat. I had no appetite. I no longer fear death at all. I just said to John last week, “If someone told me I was gong to die in a month, I think I could handle it, just seeing how my mother went.”
What makes me think of her is Italian music. Both of her parents were from Italy. Generally when I hear someone who speaks with an Italian accent, someone on TV, or something cooking will remind me of my mother. The smell of the lotion we used on her when she was ill causes an instant burst of emotion in me. It brings back those weeks of her being bedridden.
At some level I believe my mother is in this place called heaven––that she has sprouted wings. Why wings? I was brought up Catholic, and I don’t know if anyone ever told me, but I always thought that when you die you become this little angel with wings. It somehow comforts me to think of my mother as this perfect angel. I’ve been fascinated with angels since my mother died. They’re all over my house. John bought me a very large bust of a terra cotta angel. It’s over my fireplace and her name is Mommy Angel, and she watches over us.
Debra was 38 when her mother died and 38 at the time of this interview.