The last time I saw my mother alive was at Baltimore Washington International Airport when she dropped me off for my flight back to California. It was a beautiful spring day in May. On the drive to the airport I told her I had a Mother’s Day card that I had forgotten to give her. The day before her six daughters had treated her to lunch. For her there was no greater luxury than easing into a comfortable chair at a restaurant with tables draped in white linen. We had taken her to the single nice restaurant on offer in our rural Pennsylvania county.
While waiting to be served the much anticipated cuisine, my mother had a habit of softly flipping her spoon over and over on the tabletop, rapt with attention, as if whatever nonsense one daughter might be regaling her with was the most fascinating story she’d ever heard. Sometimes one of us would take up the motion to see how long it might take her to notice. She’d laugh, and clamp her palm over the spoon. But it wasn’t long before she’d begin again. It was endearing, this habit. So endearing, in fact, that none of us have ever spoken of it, much less mimed it, since she left us.
As always happened when the six of us congregated, the lunch lasted well into the afternoon, and we were all a bit tipsy by the time we arrived back at her house, her dream house. She had designed it, and had it built three years earlier after she had extricated herself from her long marriage with our father. At long last she had gained her independence, and she was content, happy.
With all the frivolity of our lunch I had forgotten to give her the card. She smiled at me and said, “Save it for next year.” I said I would. Four months later she was gone, at 57 years old. A heart attack struck her one morning as she rose to get ready for work. One of my sisters discovered her in bed, lying on her back, arms bent, a hand on either side of her head, her fingers curled, presumably against the pain. It was fast. She didn’t stand a chance. The majority of heart attacks occur at that time of day, I was to learn. Irony is often cruel. My mother had worked as a registered nurse in the cardiac unit at the hospital. It was the hospital that had telephoned my sister to say she hadn’t shown up for work.
I have a friend who, with her mother, endured a long, drawn out battle for life that her mother recently lost. Over the course of the last year she detailed invasive hospital procedures, humiliating tests, pain, tears, and anguish.
Of course I wouldn’t have wanted my mother to suffer, to watch her life ebb slowly away. She had always said to us, “I don’t want to be a burden.” She didn’t say this to induce guilt. No mother-daughter complications marred our relationships. We all would have gone out of our way to assure her comfort. Nevertheless, in a sense she got her wish. But there is a burden to be borne. We never had the chance to say goodbye.
Would it have been easier for my friend and her mother, after all they experienced, if her mother had died suddenly, out of the blue? Or did she think to herself that last year that this is the way to eliminate regret? Tell her everything you ever wanted to say to her now, before it’s too late. I’m sure she did just that. Everyone knows regrets fester.
I’m highlighting today someone who witnesses the end of life by choice. Judee Curley is a registered nurse who works in a maternity ward during her working hours, and as a hospice volunteer with Hospice by the Bay on her own time. This is Judee in her own words:
“Love is the basis for all of it. There’s so much love in the birth of a baby, and so much love in the passing of a parent, or a child, anybody.”
She doesn’t find the work depressing. Having worked as a nurse for thirty years, she’s witnessed death. At the hospice, for those who are alone, Judee reminisces over scrapbooks, listens to music, reads poetry or is silent, and offers a comforting touch that says she’s there.
It seems fitting to focus on Judee, as my mother was a nurse for fifteen years. She returned to school and earned her degree when the six of us were safely in school. She studied at night while we quarreled upstairs in our rooms. Though her goal was financial independence, she loved her job. Had she lived I believe she would have had the capacity for hospice work. She would have sought it out. She would have known the exact, and right way to say goodbye.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.