Caring for a parent, Death & Dying, mother daughter relationship

Leaving the Door Open

I took my mother to a memorial service last weekend. We had visited Lois several times at the assisted living place where Mama would have been living if I hadn’t come; where she would have gone had I not extended my one year commitment. Lois is the only friend she has regularly visited in the nearly four years I’ve been here. She always acted like she was doing it for Lois, not for herself, because that’s how she is. She doesn’t ask to visit people if she thinks they have better things to do than visit with her. But I know she enjoyed it too.

Mama always told me before we got to Lois’s room to come back in 20 minutes. “I don’t want to wear her out,” she said. But it was never long enough for Lois. Really, it’s Mama whom visiting exhausts. I rarely stayed in the room with them, because Lois tended to talk to me instead of to Mama—as do most people who visit with her if I’m there—but I was always struck by two things about her: her wit and her acceptance of the way things are. Very different from my mother, and that is all I will say about that. After every visit, she told me with a smile and a twinkle in her eyes, “I love your mama!”

At our early visits, Lois would shuffle to the door with her walker and greet us, then sit in her recliner to visit. Later visits, she would call to us from her wheel chair to come in. The last visit, needing more care, she had moved to an adult family care home and asked when we arrived if we had come for the Jewish wedding.

Mama almost decided at the last minute not to go to the service. “If there are lots of cars in the parking lot, no one will miss me,” she said. “It’s not about being seen,” I said; “it’s about saying goodbye to your friend. We’re going. You will be glad.” We have this conversation before every memorial service.

As we sat in the pew,  waiting for the service to begin, I looked at the photo of Lois on the screen at the front of the sanctuary: “In Loving Memory…April 15, 1925-March 16, 2016.” It wasn’t an old photo, she looked just like she did when we visited. Tears leaked from my eyes, rolled down my cheeks. Other services I’ve taken my mother to—this was the fifth in three years—were for people I haven’t seen in 40 years; this felt different. I didn’t know her when she was younger—or when I was. Even Mama has only known her for a decade. I’m sad for Mama; I’m sad for me.


A friend asked me last week if I would be relieved when my mother dies. She said she will be relieved when hers dies; theirs is a strained relationship. The first thing that zipped through me was “God yes.” But then I realized there is a lot more to it than that.

I have thought many times about what it might be like to live in this house without my mother (and wrote about it in Past, Present, Future last month); but what will it be like to experience her death? It’s hard, living with her. Will I grieve? I think I have been grieving for a long time. When I came, I thought maybe we could finally have the relationship I’ve longed for with her. I’m still staying, but I realize now we will never have that relationship. We are too different. There is too much luggage. So what will be left to grieve?

As I said that to my friend, I knew, suddenly, I will grieve the foreverness of giving up on my longing to have a champion, to have a mother who could express head-over-heels pride in her daughter, to have a mother I wanted to share everything with, to know my mother as a best friend. I know, now, that won’t ever be—and I’m sure I’m not the daughter she wishes she had, either—but I can still keep striving, in spite of too many failures, to be the best I can be, as long as she is living.

May Sarton wrote in Journal of a Solitude (one of the books that changed my life many years ago):

“We have to live as close as possible to all that leaves the door open to the ‘holy.’ The problem is not to sink into apathy.”

When she’s gone, any miracle transformation goes too. So I will grieve. And then I will feel released, because hoping and trying and not giving up is exhausting. Maybe I can’t let her be who she is until she is gone. Maybe it’s only then I can forgive her for not being that mother—and myself for not being that daughter.

Each person who spoke at Lois’s service said she was very opinionated, and drove her children bat-shit crazy. Well, they didn’t say that exactly, but I know that’s what they meant. I was surprised, and pleased, at their honesty. Her son spoke of a difficult relationship between the two of them. Still, he had to stop speaking several times to get his voice under control. I knew I was right, then. When the door closes on what will, finally, never be, we do grieve. Even if we have always known it will never be. “Hope dies last,” May Sarton said.

And so I keep living as close as possible to the open door, even while waiting for it to close.

When we got home from Lois’s service, I told Mama what the speakers said from the notes I took for her. “I’m glad I went,” she said, teary for the first time.



26 thoughts on “Leaving the Door Open”

  1. Loss of mother is an important passage and I like acknowledging that. Now I am mother, and I have and I continue to hold up the flag, hold up my end of the line between us, while spaces come and go, and life evolves. Easy, no…doubtful, quiet, dramatic, and somehow satisfying in all that. Maybe there is more, likely so, let’s just see! Isn’t it all love!


    1. So true, Mary Lou. That loss of the top tier will be strange, where there is no barrier between me and the end. Rebecca and I think our mother will outlive us. Funny, makes me think of Prince Charles. Haha.


  2. Your words make me realize that our family, too, has been grieving for a long time. And how lucky my sister and I am to have always had a champion in our mother. I love your ability to put all these emotions into words.


  3. Thank you so much for this post. So many memories surface for me from when I cared for my father and on some days it was so exhausting I wished it were over. And then when I read the following, I realized that the same will be true when my son dies (probably before me due to life choices but perhaps I am being presumptuous)…
    “When she’s gone, any miracle transformation goes too. So I will grieve. And then I will be relieved, because hoping and trying and not giving up is exhausting. Maybe I can’t let her be who she is until she is gone. Maybe it’s only then I can forgive her for not being that mother—and myself for not being that daughter.”


    1. Thank you Marjorie. I’m sorry to hear that of your son. I’m sure it’s heartbreaking – but they make their own choices, don’t they? A friend offered the word “release” rather than “relieved.” And that is it exactly. Sadly, my mother felt just the opposite when her mother died. Rather than released, she has been entombed in guilt for nearly 30 years. We build our own prisons too.


  4. Once again….the right words at the right time. We are due to bring Mother home with hospice next week… Hard to say how long this will last, but the cats will be able to sleep with her again, and I will play the piano… I think one of the hardest things for me will be accepting the help of strangers and friends…. something that has never been easy for our family. We have always been the helpers.

    Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler I am glad to hear that, my friend. You are a good advocate for her. The hospice people will become family, and they are there for you at least as much as for your mom. I always felt that with them.

    Sue Ellen Hall
    Sue Ellen Hall I’ve heard that from lots of folks. In conversation Sunday with a young man from our church who went into nursing, then hospice nursing, he told me to let them do the care-taking so we could concentrate on the care-giving…

    Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler Exactly right, and well put. This is what I’ve been thinking about taking over my mother’s shower or letting her paid person do it, now that we’ve lost hospice. I couldn’t figure out quite how to express it. But this is it. Thank you.

    Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler We need to concentrate on being the daughters, not the nursing staff.

    Sue Ellen Hall
    Sue Ellen Hall He didn’t say it exactly that way, but it was what I ‘heard’….


  5. There is so much I would like to say here. Just one thing, though. I replaced the “relieved” with “release.” For myself, for the family, and my father. For years he died a thousand deaths…and bounced back…while declining. My young niece said, “I don’t want Papa Erwin to die. But THIS is stressful.” And it is. No matter what the situation, it is stressful. And the ocean of anticipatory grief is vast. You are deepening spiritually as you do this with. It will forever change you…And her. There is no perfection. There is no ideal. Stick with the real and relax. You’re gonna make it through. In the end, nothing can prepare you for her death. The care you offer her is the best preparation.


    1. Again, thank you for that word, Janet. It is just right. I tell myself all I can do is what I do; all I can be is what I am. And I know it’s not enough, because it’s not perfect. I think my mother expected more – or hoped for more. I hoped for more from her too, but we can’t be other.


  6. You will grieve. You will feel the loss. You will be glad you had this time with your mother,despite how difficult it seems now. You will also feel relief that you can finally move on to the next phase of your life, even though it certainly won’t work out quite like you expect it to. Unfortunately all these feelings will be jumbled together. I got through the loss of my parents mostly by accepting all my feelings as genuine and equivalent. I still feel the loss though.


    1. Time will tell, I suppose. All loss is a jumble, though, right? As is all joy. Acceptance is the gift, something my mother has not done in nearly 30 years following her own mother’s death. I grieve for her that she has carried that weight for all these years. Thanks for reading.


  7. To this point: “Her son spoke of a difficult relationship between the two of them. Still, he had to stop speaking several times to get his voice under control.” Speaking from my experience, in the end we often realize that it’s the difficult relationships that teach us and shape us the most, and even though they don’t have our ideal qualities (or what we’re conditioned to believe an ideal relationship should be like), when we have to part from the other person we see that there was something more complex and meaningful than we ever expected. Perhaps it was like that for Lois’s son, as it was for me when I lost my dad. Our relationship was never easy….but it sure was important, and life-changing. ❤


    1. Points to ponder. The war letters are helping me see the complexities in my mother and in their relationship; hearing her stories of her mother’s life helps me see where she came from and what she did with it. I think I have yet to know how this time will change me, but I know it has and will. I’m still looking for myself to change while she is still here to benefit, but I seem stuck in myself. 😘


  8. I don’t *know* if it makes it harder or easier. I think she made it her goal to be the kind of mother whom her children would worship the way she did her mother, not realizing that her trying so hard made it impossible for us to have that kind of relationship.


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