Gloria J. Deller, 61, died Tuesday, September 25, 2012, at her home…
So begins my mother’s obituary.
I was there, staying with my father and brother in the house I had lived in from the age of 11 until I left to go to college.
I had left my job in Florida to go back to Pennsylvania, knowing that my mother was in hospice care at her home, surrounded by loved ones. Her hospice nurse had told me over the phone that she may only have a few weeks left to live.
I flew north believing I would have some time to help care for my mother, to reminisce with her, to hold her hand and make absolutely sure she knew how much she meant to me and how much I loved her.
I had seen her just a month before, and had brought her a framed colorful butterfly cross-stitch. Butterflies were her favorite animal, her “totem” in a way, and her house was filled with images of them. She had still been much like her old self: lively, a little doting, kind, generous, worried about what I’d eaten that day and if I was hungry, asking about the grandchildren she’d had for 12 years already as well as her newly-adopted granddaughters, talking about her plans to go to the York Fair in a few weeks, looking forward to the holidays during which she’d always mail a veritable tornado of cards and collect a treasure trove of gifts for the kids.
And then just a few weeks later my father was having hospice care deliver a bed and set it up in our living room.
When I arrived in York, I was hungry, and wasn’t sure of when I would eat again, so I stopped at a Five Guys and wolfed down a burger. I hurried to the house and found my father, brother, my Uncle Larry (my mother’s brother), and my mother’s cousin — her best friend and de facto sister — all there, waiting for me. It was a little get-together, the eldest son visiting, as if it were a special occasion.
I thought I had two weeks, at least. Maybe three.
My mother had been losing weight steadily for the past six months, eating less. Chemotherapy and radiation had taken their toll over the years, and the cancer was continuing to spread. She’d decided to stop treatment, and her body quickly deteriorated. She’d probably lost another ten or fifteen pounds in just the few weeks since I’d last seen her — a lot considering her already sub-100 lb five-foot-two inch frame.
She’d been sleeping in the hospital bed at night, and spending days sitting in a comfortable new chair my father had bought for her. She looked so frail sitting there when I walked into the house. The light had already begin to go out of her eyes. I could feel it. It was near. Too near.
Within the first ten minutes of being home, I sat beside her and was encouraged by relatives to let my mother know that it was okay…okay to let go. Okay to die. I was flabbergasted, but had no choice. My mother sat there, weak, in a pale yellow bathrobe, holding my hand, and I could tell that she wanted to die. For the suffering to end.
Soon, everyone but my father and brother had left. I helped my mother eat a few spoonfuls of pudding and drink some water, and soon she was in bed. I slept on the living room couch next to my mother that night. The hospice nurse arrived in the morning, bathed my mother and took vital signs. She gave us a bottle of liquid morphine, a cobalt-blue fluid, and instructed us on how much to administer to help my mother relax and sleep better through the pain caused by the thousands of tiny tumors throughout her body and the discomfort of her starvation and dehydration.
I remember thinking that it would be better if she was in a hospital, hooked up to an IV to better deliver the medication, and fluids. But that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to be at home.
We talked very little. She was mostly in and out, that day, napping most of the time. She couldn’t drink, even through a straw. Wouldn’t take it. We had to dab a moist sponge to her dry lips.
She would moan softly in her sleep. Her breathing became ragged.
In just 24 hours she had gone from sitting up, waiting to greet me, however weak and tired and in pain she might have been, to laying in her hospice bed, barely conscious.
I delivered droplets of morphine into her mouth throughout the night as she moaned in her sleep and her breathing grew more strained. I held her hand for hours, until I myself tired. It was about one in the morning when I finally fell asleep on the couch next to my mother’s bed.
I woke to the thick light of dawn that always fell through the living room’s big picture window to see my father standing next to the bed where my mother lay. His face was sullen. He held one of my mother’s small hands in his, looking down on her. She was quiet. Cold, when I took her other hand. She’d stopped breathing perhaps ten minutes before I woke. My father hadn’t wanted to wake me for the end.
Within a few hours, the bed was gone. The coroner took my mother away. I had called the list of relatives and friends that had sat by the phone for the past weeks. I considered sneaking off and gulping down the rest of the little bottle of morphine. I sobbed.
I never saw my father or brother cry before, during, or after the funeral. They looked sad, but they just didn’t cry. They may have gotten that out of the way in the months they’d spent closely with my mother leading up to those final days. They might have already handled it.
A lot of the crying I did came from the guilt I felt for just not being there very much. And for giving my mother “permission” to pass. And from feeling cheated, not having the time I thought I might have with her. It was selfish grief, compounded with the sheer loss of it all. To this day, five and half years later, I still feel the same. I still feel that I somehow failed her, and myself.
I had never thought to sit down and write about this before. I’ve never even really talked about it before, at any length, to anyone. Time went by quickly after the funeral. I had young children to think of and a demanding job to get back to. The grief filed itself away among the piles of other memories good and bad, one thing stacked among others like the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Until now, when I decided to go pick through the stacks, pull it out and reexamine it. To write about anything is to remember, even if some details are foggy. Even if you are writing pure fiction, completely imagining a new world, you draw on memory.
In the past hour or so, in writing this, I’ve experienced all those emotions again, outside of the immediacy of the moment and unaffected by the fatigue of days on edge, knowing that I would be seeing my mother alive for the last time, sitting through the meetings with the funeral director and the man who would make the grave marker, knowing that I would have to greet and thank a parade of friends and family at the funeral. Over two hundred people.
Thinking about it all, well-removed and beyond the moment, has helped me feel differently. Not necessarily better, but more accepting of my emotions and of that time.
I’d lost people before my mother. All of my grandparents had passed away years before. And I’d come close to losing my biological daughter when she was born over three and a half months prematurely. Though I’d felt grief before, nothing had hit me quite like the loss of my mother. It’s a stunning blow, I think, for most people. Even though I’d always known I was a fairly empathetic person, since that loss I am more so. Knowing that almost everyone I encounter in life also has a mother, whom they love and who loves them, and knowing that they, too, in the majority, will experience the same pain, and possibly guilt, is a gift of perspective that is both blessing and curse.
I’ll be going to visit her grave again this autumn, and I will sit there and feel the sun on my face and remember the times when my friends and my brother and I would be out bicycling around the neighborhood and my mother would step outside and call out to us, “Come on home, dinner’s ready!”, and the times when I’d visit with the grandkids on a holiday and she would happily dole out bags of gifts or Easter candies, a smile on her face, laughing, happy.
Diagnosed with cancer in the early ’90s, my mother lived well past the initial 10–15-year prognosis given by her oncologist. She was able to see her children grow, find careers, prosper, and build families of their own. And she was loved.
Thank you for reading.