No Chance to Say Goodbye




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.

68 thoughts on “No Chance to Say Goodbye

  1. I’m so sorry for your loss. I don’t believe that the loss of a parent is easy regardless of how it happens. I’m sure your mother felt love and that is the most important part. Thoughts and prayers, Jean

  2. good post. i just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that i have really enjoyed reading your blog posts.

  3. What a beautiful and truly touching post, Steph. I’m so sorry for you and your sisters. It sounds like the day you spent at the restaurant together was wonderful. What a lovely memory to treasure always.

    Your mom sounds like she was an admirable woman and it’s clear she was deeply loved. Though you weren’t able to say goodbye, I’m very sure she knew how much you loved her.

    My mom was 57 when she died too. It was cancer and it took a year. I don’t think it’s better or easier either way–having a loved one die suddenly, or linger. Both are terrible.
    Super Earthling recently posted..Super Earthling’s Startling Scientific Discovery: The Procrastination Gene!My Profile

  4. the most interesting blogs that i have ever seen. interesting article. keep it up!

  5. This one makes me ache all over, with sorrow for your loss and envy of the closeness you shared with your mother and sisters as indicated by the details of the meal you shared together to celebrate Mother’s Day and your sister’s discovery of your mom. I love the detail of the spoon flipping. I could picture myself sitting there with all of you. I especially like the thought you put into highlighting Judee Curley and the conundrum of wondering if a less than swift loss is better. In the end, it’s loss, and as Judee explained so eloquently, it’s also love. Well done, beautifully documented. I’m sincerely sorry for your loss.
    Kimberly S. (Sperk*) recently posted..I Don’t Know About Those ShortsMy Profile

    1. Hi Sperk. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. I agree, no matter how it happens, swift or slow, a loss is a loss. That person is gone forever. The emotions might recede, but the smallest trigger brings them up again. Like Mother’s Day. I appreciate your comment.

  6. Dear Steph,
    The words you used diffidently are so compassionate and caring. I knew your sisters were very close to your mom. What a beautiful thought of going out to dinner with mom. I never knew about her habit with the spoon. I know one thing I’m sure all of you miss her very much and Mother’s Day is difficult for all of you. I will always remember her always caring for her family and all the people she came in contact with in her life. Nursing was diffidently her vocation in life. My tears are flowing for her as she was my best Aunt. I loved her so much and I remember all the family reunions and the horses we rode
    Peace in Christ to you and your sisters as another Mother’s Day arrives on 5/13/12 Love, Pat

    1. Thank you, Pat. It’s nice to hear from you. I very much appreciate the comment. I’m glad you have fond memories of her. Yes, all those Luaus, and the horseback riding – a story came out of every one of them. Good times..

  7. My grandmother died at 57 and I never really knew how young that was until my mom (her daughter) hit 57 and I knew how unready I was for her to leave – she later said she felt a bit as if she were holding her breath the entire year, wondering if she’d make it through to 58. She did (she’s 71) and I’m STILL not ready for her to go – I can’t imagine the hole in your life right now. But what a gracious and loving tribute to your mom you’ve just written – beautiful.
    deborah l quinn recently posted..Listicle: I do well…My Profile

    1. Hi Deborah, I’m very glad your mother made it through to the other side of her mother’s age. I’ve thought about that. Getting past the age my mother was when she died. So I know how she felt. We’re never ready to let our parents go. I hope you don’t need to face it for another couple of decades! Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  8. Oh my goodness this made me tear up! I don’t really know what to say, because I have never experienced the loss of a close loved one, but you have to be an incredibly strong person to be able to write about it.
    Megan Lawing recently posted..Chicken in a BiscuitMy Profile

    1. Hi Megan. I don’t know how strong you need to be, really. When we lose a loved one we don’t have a choice, so we can only adapt. And writing about it, at least for me, helps to free the emotion. Sort of like a kick in the pants. We’ve got things to do, let’s do them.

  9. Stephanie, this is so warm, so beautiful. Thank you for the invitation, this sacred glimpse into your life and your mother’s.
    heidi recently posted..stuckMy Profile

    1. Hi Heidi, thanks for reading. And thanks for the lovely comment. See, you’re not ‘stuck’. When your words are ready they will flow.

  10. Stephanie, this was beautifully written and brought tears to my eyes. I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother…I can’t imagine how much you and your sisters must miss her. Hold onto these beautiful words you’ve written here as comfort.

    My aunt is a Hospice nurse, and I’ve always admired how she can work with death and not be totally depressed and wrecked by it….but your words have reminded me that not every moment, even when facing death, has to be a scary or bad one.

    Beautiful post.
    Katie @ Chicken Noodle Gravy recently posted..The CliqueMy Profile

    1. Hi Katie. High praise from you as your posts always bring forth an emotional response from me. I appreciate the nice comment. Thank you.

  11. First, I am sorry for your loss and your grief and think this a lovely tribute during this time of year that must remind you of her so deeply.

    Next, gahhh this hit me right in the gut. My mom is more like your friend’s mom – with all kinds of invasive, exhausting, humiliating tests. I feel for her as well. But mostly this all just makes me very sad and I feel some of your pain. Thank you for sharing.
    Pish Posh recently posted..Gettin’ Jiggy With It: Rebooting the Sex DriveMy Profile

    1. Hi Pish. I am so sorry to hear of the suffering your mother is enduring. I hope she beats it, and lives to tell the tale with laughter! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  12. We faced this with my dad. He has kidney disease and before he received his transplant he was literally on death’s door. We were called to say our good-bye’s at least 6 times in the months leading up to his transplant. It was the hardest time of my life, not just having to say good-bye but having to watch him suffer and knowing that he was in pain. I am so sorry for the loss of your mom.
    Delilah recently posted..He Said, She Said: True StoriesMy Profile

    1. Hi Delilah. Neither way works does it? Saying goodbye, not saying goodbye, it’s all ridiculously difficult. We muddle through the pain as best we can. You didn’t say how your dad managed the transplant. Needless to say I hope he got through it and the goodbye is postponed. Thanks for the lovely comment.

    1. Thanks Ellen. I wrote it, and every time I read it I get emotional. Mother’s Day in general evokes those emotions. Thank you for your comment. I consider it high praise as I so admire your posts.

  13. What a wonderful tribute to your mom, and surely this post will be a treasure to your sisters. Love the image of turning the spoon. I cook so much that I can’t ever quite relax while waiting for my food in a restaurant; it just doesn’t feel right for my hands to be still. I try not to blatantly play with my silverware, but sometimes I do anyway.
    Louise Ducote recently posted..Wanna Get High?My Profile

    1. Thanks, Louise. My sisters do seem to like it, in a sorrowful way. I wrap my hands around a glass of wine. That keeps them still. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

    1. Thanks Christina, for reading and commenting. Though its been many years, the loss is like the moon, it wanes and waxes continually.

  14. I am very sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a parent, although I know what it is like to lose a loved one.

    A very dear friend of mine died from brain cancer. We watched, waited and witnessed a slow decline that took him from us. The last chunk of time I wasn’t really sure if he knew who we were any more.

    But the thing that sticks out is that one day he could carry on a conversation and the next he couldn’t. So even though he was around for around 7 more weeks the end was still sort of sudden- never got to say goodbye the way I wanted to.
    Jack@TheJackB recently posted..Inside the Blogger’s Studio- A Dream, Er NightmareMy Profile

    1. Thanks Jack for your thoughtful comment. The end is ridiculously difficult no matter what. We suffer, they suffer, there’s no peaceful solution it seems. Thanks for reading.

  15. I often wonder how we do it…
    Why do we the living get to have one more day while they suffer, or they leave quickly leaving us to suffer. It is the cruelest of things.

    This was a great post that really made me think.

    WilyGuy recently posted..Pinky, the Travel DivaMy Profile

    1. Thank you for reading and the thoughtful comment. If we think of the possibilities, and respond before they happen maybe some of the suffering is alleviated. Maybe… that’s a long shot, but worth a try.

  16. *tear.
    What a beautiful, emotional post.
    It’s tough to talk about death and see the love that transfers during that time, but it’s so important. Maybe even a little bit more important though is that we live in the here and now, enjoy and appreciate every moment.

    1. Hi Kerstin. I couldn’t agree more. No regrets, that’s the goal. Live our moments to the fullest surrounded by those we love. Thanks for the comment.

  17. I’m sorry for your lost Steph. What a beautiful heartwarming tribute to your mother. It reminds me to appreciate the people around us before we had to say our last goodbye.

    1. Hi Jamie. Thanks for your nice comment. Yes, I try to do that everyday, appreciate the people around me and make certain they know. Thanks for reading!

  18. You warned us.. I thought I was prepared to read this, but the tears were still there. I still miss her every day. She was quite a teacher. My favorite “Mom quote” is: “Don’t judge others by what you would do”. I think of that often… I can still hear her say it. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Much love…

    1. Hi Lisa, I know, all these years later it’s still with us. I doubt it will ever be easy to think of her. We’ll always be wishing we could pick up the phone and have her answer. Or drive over to her dream house and sit on the porch. Thanks for the comment, sister.

  19. This touched me on so many levels Stephanie. Not having anything resembling your relationship with your mother I wonder what it must be like. When I see other mother/daughter relationships that sing as this one does I celebrate through you and your memories. Thank you for sharing.
    Barbara recently posted..Don’t Be Like Joan Rivers… Just Say NO!My Profile

    1. Hi Barbara. Thank you for the comment. I think that’s the most difficult aspect – having the relationship we had. And to have it torn away like that with no warning whatsoever, was just tough, to say the least. Thanks for reading.

    1. Thanks Robbie. It’s that time of year and no matter how long she’s been gone the scene always returns. Thanks for the comment.

    1. Hi Pin. Well, I hope your kids recognize Mother’s Day in such a way to dispel your sorrow about her loss. I bet they do!

  20. This September will mark 20 years since Mom died. Sometimes it seems like yesterday and then again, she can seem so distant. I would like to say “I was Mom’s favorite!” But I know each of you (my 5 sisters) probably can say the same thing. She was a remarkable mother like that; she made each one of us feel so special. I remember one of her nurse friends telling me that Mom tried not to let any of her patients die alone. She would sit bed-side and server them in their final hours should no family be there. She was a giver and a teacher. Even in death she taught me. “Don’t sweat the small stuff and embrace life today.” Peace.

    1. Yep, that was how our mother excelled at motherhood. All of us felt equal in her eyes. She never showed favoritism. And with 6 daughters clamoring for affection that is some chore. In fact I don’t believe she had a “favorite.” She was the best. We were lucky that way.

    1. Hi Jennifer. Yes, my mother has been gone for many years but the loss never really quiets. It’s always there. Thanks for your comment.

  21. My mom works in hospice too, and I don’t know how she does it. I wish we had the relationship it sounds like you had with your mother. I need to make time and try harder. Thank you for reminding me of that.
    Anna recently posted..At least I can laugh nowMy Profile

    1. Hi Anna, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I can only imagine what hospice work is like. I’m not sure I’m cut out for it. But I’m glad some are. If you mom can do it, she’s got some fine qualities to admire.

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