I was in high school when the new family moved in up the driveway. I was gone two years later and didn’t bond with them, but my mother did. Sandy and my mom became best friends, and remained so for fifty years.
They explored the woods adjacent to their homes, and it was Sandy and Robert who partnered with my parents to save the forest forever from the chainsaws. Sandy, my mother, and Audrey—our younger third neighbor—shared a birthday month and celebrated together every June, right up to last year. Sandy and Robert and Audrey and Brad made staying on the hill tenable for my mother after my father died, until Rebecca moved across the country to help.
Saturday, Rebecca and I took Mama to Sandy’s memorial service. I have taken her to say goodbye to several friends in the almost five years since I moved from North Carolina. And in the past few months, we have also lost the remaining three family members from her generation, and last week a member of the third generation.
My mother rarely expresses emotion (we are similar in that way). She says she didn’t cry for my dad until a year had gone by after he died. She wept in March when her sister died, but not for the other friends and family. But the loss of Sandy hit hard. Her eyes filled as she held Sandy’s hand at her bedside, and again when we told her Sandy had died, and once more when I read the obituary to her.
Mama is ready to join her loved ones in death. She has told me and others, including the hospice staff that no longer come (she was discharged, remember), that she “wants to bang her head against a wall until she dies.” Everything has been taken from her. Everything except her family, her dogged ability to walk, and her mind for the most part. Maybe what is hardest is that last. She still has her mind that can mourn the loss of her peers; that is aware of the loss of her vision, her dignity, her abilities, her taste buds, her home on the hill.
She had a marvelous day on Sunday. She came to the house for brunch and time with her beloved granddaughter and granddaughter-in-law and the littles.
When everyone had gone, I helped her to the bathroom before I drove her back to the Manor. It had been about six times as long as usual since she last went; she was sure she would be too late. The toilet no longer has a riser on it and she was, shall we say, “reluctant” to trust me to gently bring her cheeks to the seat, but by then it was too late to abort. When she came to an easy rest, she switched her concern to my back.
When she stood again, she was amazed that she got there in time. I told her for almost 101 she has strong bladder muscles. She considered for a moment, then said, “What I’m worried about, Gretchen, is my heart.”
“I don’t know what to say about that,” I said, “except to remind you that doctor after doctor has told you time after time that your heart is fine.”
“I haven’t seen a doctor for a long time,” she said.
“A week and a half!” I exclaimed
“That wasn’t a cardiologist,” she argued.
“It was a doctor with a stethoscope,” I said, wishing for the weekly hospice nurse’s reassurances.
“Well, I’ve been having pain around my heart,” she said, which she has been telling doctors (and me) for years (and as recently as last week). They tell her it’s gas.
Maybe something to worry about reminds her she hasn’t given up, and giving up is something she will never do.
I could have asked her what she would want to do if it was indeed her 101-year-old heart getting ready to quit. I could have reminded her what the cardiologist told her when he took her off the medications she used to be on, that she had “won the race,” that if she hadn’t had a heart event before now she wasn’t going to. But I said that last time we had this conversation. I could have reiterated that the doctor two weeks ago didn’t recommend going back on the meds because the side effects were worse than the risk of heart failure. Which is why she was happy to be off them after self-regulating the dosage because they made her tired.
Maybe I should have sat her back down and tried to get to the bottom of her fears with her, if there is a bottom. My mother has spent a lifetime concentrating on staying healthy. By which I mean obsessing about staying healthy. Physically healthy, not necessarily emotionally healthy. Maybe that’s why she is able to talk about head banging, but to stop eating the “terrible” food—a reliable source of conversation—or not exercising or ignoring chest pain is unthinkable.
Maybe she doesn’t want to die suddenly, like my father did; or alone, as he and her mother were. We all glibly say, “please let me die in my sleep,” by which we mean healthy and then suddenly gone. But maybe that’s not what she wants. Maybe she wants time for goodbyes; maybe she wants to know the end is imminent.
I will ask her about the fear behind her chest pain. (I miss the hospice chaplain, who asked me if there were concerns, and told me about their conversations. I wonder if she is talking to her minister about it, who doesn’t talk to me.) She will forget the conversation because her brain is old, or perhaps what we truly fear never really goes away anyway. It is an anxious time of life, on top of her anxiety-prone personality. When I consider that, she is doing pretty well.
The one thing Mama says she will miss when she is gone, is seeing what her great-grandsons become. Maybe one more time with them is why she hangs on.