February, especially right here in the middle of the month, is not a good month for me, or my family; my sister died February 15, 2014; my Aunt Pam died, February 14, 2008; my mother passed away February 17, 2007.
I kinda loathe February. But, I’ll keep that in check and remember the good days, the good times, the good things about my Mom …
I learned a lot from my Mom, and my Dad, too. I learned that roles people play aren't defined by gender; that what you do in a relationship, the part you play, can change over time. Mom's didn't just bake cookies and be a Room Mother; they weren't just Den Mother's or on the PTA. Mom's went back to school to become nurses so that Dad's could get a teaching degree after retiring from the Air Force.
And Dad's don't just throw baseballs with their sons. This son wasn't the best catch, and to this day, I still throw like a girl. But Dad's can also take their sons on bike rides; they can go to arts-and-crafts shows; they talk to them. Dad's can do the dishes and cook the meals because Mom's working while he goes to school.
My Mom and Dad are those kinds of Moms and Dads.
In early 2006, my Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and my Dad did what he does best. He researched and called doctors and spoke to people; he took care of my mother every day from the time she was diagnosed until the day she died. And that is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s what husbands do; husbands who love their wives with all their hearts; husbands who've been married to their wives for over fifty-one years.
Carlos and I visited my Mom just after her diagnosis. It was all good spirits and a happy visit, but lung cancer casts an ugly shadow over everything. The survival rate is minuscule; surviving even two years with lung cancer is rare, but my Dad and Mom went through all the tests and the chemo; losing her hair, her appetite; the sleeplessness; the forgetfulness.
In January of 2007, my Dad asked that I come out again. It was hard for him being on-call 24/7 and he wanted a helping hand … he wanted an ear … he wanted a visitor. My Mom seemed in good spirits that week. We had fresh crab for dinner one night and she went crazy over hers. We told stories and laughed; we ate, we drank, we talked.
And the clouds grew a bit darker. A couple of weeks later Dad began using hospice to help him care for my Mom. He needed a break; it was a full-time job with no time off. I remember he gave me the name of the woman who handled the hospice care program and asked me to call her. I had been asking if he wanted me to come out and he said it was a decision I needed to make for myself. So I called that woman and she told me my father had been working so hard caring for my Mom; she told me he was reluctant to ask for help. I told her he was stubborn as a mule — a trait the entire family shares — and she said, "I can't say that, but you can." I asked if she thought I should go out there, and she said, "As soon as she can. Your mother really doesn't have much time."
Doesn't have much time. Awful, awful words.
Carlos and I flew out to Oregon. My mother seemed all right, at first. Alert. Awake. Happy to see us, all of us. My sister and brother had come up from California, so we were all together again, for a while. And it seemed as though, once she had her family around, my Mom knew she could go, that we would somehow be okay. The next few days her health began to fail rapidly; she slept most of the time, but when she was awake, she would say the most wonderful things.
My sister told a story of having dinner with our Dad while Mom slept on the couch in the next room. With the idea of death becoming clearer, my sister began talking about religion. We were raised to have our own thoughts and ideas about religion, what's right, wrong, who to believe, what to follow. My sister said something about having so many choices, what do you believe.
Mom woke up for a moment and said, "You take all the best parts of all of them."
Another time, in that week she died, Mom was asleep on the couch, and her legs slid off to the floor. My sister went and asked if she wanted to change positions and Mom said, "I'm just going to lay here and let them all watch me."
I like to think she was talking about the people waiting for her.
After we'd gotten a hospital bed for her, I was sitting by her side, and she looked through the front window and asked, "Who are all those people on the deck?"
There was no one there, but she saw them, waiting for her.
A day later she died quietly and peacefully in her home. I was sitting in the living room, with Mom asleep across the room. I wanted her to go. I wanted her to be peaceful. I didn't want her to hurt, or to worry about us. I wanted her to have her hair back and her smile; and that laugh; and the way she would say, "Oh Bobby!" whenever I said something outrageous — which was, and is, often. My Dad came out of their bedroom and went to stand by her side, and she was gone. That's a sound you don't ever want to hear, or will ever forget; the sound your Dad makes when he realizes his wife has just died.
So, that's my Mom. I was glad to be there when she died; happy to hold her hand on her last day; to send her off with the sounds of her family and her dog, her husband of so many years.
A funny side note: not long after I got home from Oregon, Carlos and I began house-hunting. Nothing seemed right. Too small; too far out; not enough trees. Then the realtor showed me a house, and as I walked in the front door I could see through the empty living room into the empty kitchen and out the window into the backyard. I saw my Mom, in one of her housecoats — she loved a housecoat — sitting at the breakfast table we would buy later that year, in that kitchen with her morning coffee, looking into the trees.
That was the house we bought. And I can still see my Mom every so often, in that kitchen, looking into my yard. I think of her every day. I talk to her every day. I cry a bit, like now, as I remember and relive those last days with her.
I've always said that it gets easier, but it never really gets better.
I miss you, Mom.
I love you.