Years ago in conversation with my mother, she admitted to me that she’d hardly shed a tear after her mother’s death. Why, I’d asked her perplexed. Don’t people cry when a parent dies? Mom reasoned that grandma had been comfortable with dying, and that she was convinced her mother and God would be waiting for her at the time of death.
My mom’s explanation comforted her, and I have pondered it for the past 28 years. And then, my mother who suffered dementia, died last year on December 18th. When I heard the news, I cried; but truthfully not long. During the year since, I’ve waited for more tears, but none have come. Perhaps it’s because our relationship was complicated, or because I harbor unresolved anger towards her? Perhaps. Instead I reason that even with mom’s dementia, she and I managed to say goodbye—a goodbye that requires no more tears.
Last year, I wrote The Goodbye for a submission to an anthology. It wasn’t accepted. From time to time, I’ve double clicked on the word.doc containing my story and wondered what I’d do with it. Last month, I decided to post the piece on my blog to acknowledge the anniversary of my mother’s death on December 18, 2012.
The Christmas presents I needed to mail at the Post Office teetered precariously on my left arm as I waited to cross Avy Avenue in Menlo Park. This wasn’t how I’d planned Christmas 2012. Dad was supposed to fly to San Francisco on Thursday. Instead, I was flying to Chicago. It was Tuesday, December 18th. Cell phone pressed to my ear I was concentrating on my sister-in-law’s staccato voice.
“I asked your dad to meet with the hospice nurses last week so they could explain the dying process to him,” my sister-in-law said.
“I know. He mentioned Mom’s feet started turning blue over the weekend. Couldn’t someone have called me,” I said.
“It’s hard to know if your mother will live another day or a week. She’ll either wait for you to get here or she won’t. I told her the family’s here since I think she confuses me for you. And since she’s agitated, I told her it’s okay to die.”
“What? Hold on while I cross the street.”
A nurse, my sister-in-law had advised my parents for several years about my mom’s “forgetfulness,” and helped my dad to admit my mother into an Alzheimer care unit in April. On November 18th Mom broke her hip and now, a month to the day later, death was imminent.
“Uh, what you told my mom doesn’t work for me. Tell her I’m flying home tonight. Ask her to wait.”
As my American flight circled O’Hare at 11:30 pm that evening, I tried to reconcile myself with what my sister-in-law had told my mother. The rational side of me imagined it was her way of soothing my mom’s agitated state. Dying I knew from my hospice work was a scary thing—for the person dying and for family members waiting for death. Comforting my mom, I told myself, must have been my sister-in-law’s way of calming everyone in the room. But the sad part of me that was losing her mother wanted to say goodbye, and I hoped my sister-in-law had gone back to my mother and asked her to wait. I stared out my window. The darkness reflected my anxious face in the glass. Silently I pleaded with my mother, Mom please wait.
As the plane landed, I turned on my iPhone. A missed message and voice mail alert flashed on the screen. My brother. He seldom called. I braced myself as I held the phone to my ear. “Ana. Mom died at 11:39 pm. We were with her.” Nothing more. I sobbed.
Forty minutes later, I tossed my suitcase into the trunk of my rental car. Somehow I had managed to hold myself together on the shuttle ride to Enterprise Rent-A-Car. As I slid into my Ford Fusion rental and pulled the car door shut, I could not contain my tears. I was disappointed, angry, exhausted, and sad. I had tried to make it to my mom in time to say goodbye. But she hadn’t waited. I pulled a damp tissue from my coat pocket and blew my nose. Why hadn’t I chosen an earlier flight that day? Why hadn’t I gone home sooner? When Mom had broken her hip, the nurse explained to me over the phone that statistics showed Dementia patients tended to die within a month, six months tops.
“Will you call me when she’s dying?” I asked the nurse. “I know you nurses know these things.”
“We’ll do our best,” the nurse assured me.
I could have gone home then, to see Mom. But I hadn’t. I hadn’t because I knew that my mom no longer remembered me. The last time I’d seen her during the summer in the Alzheimer care unit, she’d stared vacantly at me and asked, “Who are you?” A friend, I replied. “Oh that’s nice,” Mom said.
Would it have made any difference if my sister-in-law had told my mother that I was flying home to be with her instead of telling her I was in the room with the rest of the family? Who knew? And if she didn’t remember me, how could she still know my sister-in-law?
The Enterprise rental office went dark and a silhouette stepped through the front door, turned and locked it. Time to drive to the hotel. After midnight, it was time for bed. Somehow I needed to sleep; rest up for the early morning drive to my father’s home in Washington, Illinois.
As I reached for the ignition key, I thought about today’s date—now December 19th. A year ago on this same day in 2011 I had visited my parents for an early Christmas celebration because they could not come to California to celebrate with Ed and me in our new home. On that night, the last night of my visit I was exhausted from five days of listening to my mom’s repetitive stories. Through them I had gleaned she’d forgotten my brother’s name. Sometimes she forgot and then remembered mine. When my dad arose from the couch for bed, Mom and I followed suit. As I bent to hug her good night, she reached up and tightly gripped my shoulders pulling me towards her so we were eye to eye. She looked as if she were looking for something. I waited for her to speak.
“I know I know you, but I keep forgetting your name,” she finally said.
“I know, Mom!” I inhaled slowly to hold back tears.
“LISTEN,” she said sternly.” Startled, I held my breath afraid to move. “I want you to know that I love you. Do. You. Know. That I love you?”
“Yes, Mom. I know that you love me. And I love you.”
“That’s good,” she replied.
We stood. Eyes locked. I waited.
“Where’s Bill?” Her hands dropped to her sides and she shuffled past me towards her bedroom in her tattered faded robe she refused to remove, slip hanging askew below it, and mismatched blue and pink fuzzy socks.
I released my grip on the steering wheel of the Ford Fusion. My tears abated. My tense tired body began to relax. I hadn’t made it in time today to say goodbye, but I had a year ago. You never know, I thought, when the words I love you will be, goodbye. This is what I will remember every time I berate myself for not picking the right flight from San Francisco to Chicago to make it to her bedside in time for her death. I will remind myself we said goodbye while she still had an inkling of me.
A car sped out of the Enterprise parking lot. I hugged myself amazed that I could still feel my mom’s fingers with her pointy fingernails digging into my sweater as she gripped my arms. Remembering that moment I saw the intensity of her gaze. And I heard her voice, “Do. You. Know. That I love you?”
“Yes, Mom,” I whispered into the darkness. “And I love you.”