Me and Mom

On this New Year’s Day, I am stuck on a thought: When is a writer ready to write about an emotional life experience? Most writers of memoir say that we need time and distance to enter the reflective process, especially with a highly charged memory. We know we have been transformed, but how? Transformation (healing, movement of ideas, change) occurs slowly over weeks, months and often years. Each person responds in their own rhythm with the revelation and understanding of how the event is part of the big picture – the story. For those who want to nudge the process along, taking notes and keeping a journal is useful. Then, at the right moment, a voice says: Write something, now. Surprise yourself with ideas about what happened. Go as deep as you can, for now, always asking: Is this true?


My mother and I were more like sisters than mother and daughter. She lovingly tolerated me when I was a child, but a deeper, more collegial bond emerged when I became an adult. I was surprised when I felt “orphaned” after her death on January 1st, 2008 at 12:00 noon.  I was sixty-one and thought it odd to feel bereft of a parent in this way. I had witnessed her decline for years and I watched her battle against impending death during the four preceding days and nights that it took her to depart the world. The sudden awakenings, the furtive looks, the grasping for my hand, the noisy, ominous breathing, the calming effects of morphine doses – only during the last four hours of her life did she seem somewhat peaceful. But I’d always known her like this – a fighter. At her final moment, she took in a small breath and simply didn’t let it out.


I admired my mother as a caregiver and a nurse and wondered how she would have handled and assessed this final parting scene.  I barely left her side, but I’m not trained like she was as a nurse except through informal observation (of her in her nursing life). After days of little sleep and being fixated on keeping her comfortable, I was exhausted. I’m sure she would have had some advice for me about how I managed her death and dying. As close as we had been for many years, it was these last moments that stirred the child in me. I wasn’t afraid – except of seeing the last moment. I just felt smaller, younger and sad to see her in such distress.



She was a Registered Nurse beloved by everyone she cared for, and she died in a bed at the nursing home she had opened in 1967. The last ten years of her life were spent there as a patient. The private room she lived in had been converted from the original nurses’ station during one of our many renovations. The home began with thirty beds and over forty years was increased to one hundred beds after three wings were added. Three of her four children served stints as Administrators. I was the last of the dynasty and ran the place while my mother languished in a room down the hall. She had reigned over the facility from its inception and, like a declining queen of her empire, she diminished from monarchy to serfdom during her progress into deepening confusion, loss of balance, loss of mobility and independence.


During the years that she had built the business into a highly regarded institution, she cared for the aged relatives of almost everyone in town, at one time or another. She needed her obsessive/compulsive personality – just to keep the place going. But the dangers of being a “Type A” along with a bevy of risk factors – high blood pressure, overweight, high cholesterol – combined to create an environment for early strokes. She didn’t like medical advice unless it coincided with her own beliefs and would inform me that I knew nothing about medicine, especially regarding her ills.

Towards the end of her life it was difficult to tell if she couldn’t see well, or, if she couldn’t perceive what she saw. She did recognize me up to the very end (although she also thought that I was her mother). It didn’t matter. As long as she believed she was with someone she loved, that was enough for me. We cannot ask much of those with dementia. But, even after her decline, she continued to be lauded for her compassionate care-giving, her teaching of the art of nursing to staff, her boundless energy, her honest criticism, her sense of humor and generosity. She was a tough act to follow and, although I wanted to lead in my own way when I took over the administration of the nursing home, I felt quizzically complimented when people would say, “you’re a lot like your mother.”


“Really?” I said.


My older brother, Bob, my last surviving sibling, was attending the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena when she passed on January 1st. We had been through so many physical and mental ups and downs with her that, when she started running a high temperature on Christmas Day, I called him in California to report that she was very ill and reminded him that she had pulled through many times before.  Perhaps I thought that I would really feel like a child again if my brother was present, or maybe I was worried about taking care of him, too, in front of her illness.


“Enjoy the parade,” I said. “I can manage things here.”


When I reached him by phone in the moments after her death five days later, I could hear a marching band in the background. It was 9:00am California time and the parade had just started.


“Mom died,” I said.


“What! Speak up. I can’t hear you,” he said. Now I could hear the drums and the trombones.


“Your mother died,” I said as I raised my voice above the trumpets and cymbals on his end playing a John Phillip Souza march.


Finally, there was something fitting about the fact that I had to scream, “MOM’S DEAD,” into the phone before he understood what I was saying.  How appropriate that a high-stepping military band was about to descend on him as if to pay tribute to the departure of our mother, a great monument in our lives.


The passing of time has not changed the situation; I’m here in Connecticut in the same house as four years ago on this New Year’s Day, and my brother is back in California attending another Rose Bowl parade. The story is changing though. I’ve thought and re-thought her life and death, and what she was like as a parent. She must have done a good job because, finally, I like the kid within my grown-up self. I feel loved and capable, like she did, and I hold my mother in my heart.