Lessons from my Mother’s Death
It took my mother 45 days to die.
During the long bedside vigil my family ricocheted between a desire to see her released from an undignified, painful deterioration, and a crazy impulse to wrap our arms around her and somehow stave it off. Magical thinking, we learned, holds no sway in hospitals.
My mother’s response to a decade of failing health had been a passive one. Because she’d seemed resigned to experiencing the rest her life through the prism of infirmity, I expected she would approach her impending death with the same equanimity. How wrong I was.
Mum was furious, dismissively flicking her hand at the parade of well-intentioned health care workers — and even worse, spiritual counsellors- who came to offer support.
“How are you feeling?” they asked.
“Pissed off,” my normally well-mannered, softly spoken mother replied. “Pissed off that I’m going to die.”
It wasn’t dying so much as being separated from my father that she couldn’t accept. Throughout their 61-year marriage he had provided protection from a world I suspected she had found vaguely frightening, and now she railed against facing the abyss without him.
Despite knowing there was no hope of recovery, Mum fought on, and I was proud of her for that. I steeled myself to enter that awful room and see her battered body hooked up to countless machines, but I dreaded no longer making the trip, no longer having her waiting for me. She said she knew when I was coming down the corridor because she recognised my footsteps.
When news spread that this would be her last hospitalization, friends wanted to visit and say goodbye.
“No,” Dad explained. “She’s appreciative that you want to come, but she only wants her family.” People understood.
It was hard to see any comfort in those long days, conversation all but exhausted, her weakness creeping then galloping.
But now, as the first anniversary of her death approaches, I see the long hours that turned into long days very differently. I see them as the most unexpected of gifts, because sitting at her bedside provided a perspective on my mother’s life that will inform the rest of mine.
We were very different, Mum and I. She was a product of her time, happily defining her life through her three daughters, beloved husband and brood of lively grandchildren. We were all that she wanted or needed.
There were times when I wished Mum had taken greater advantage of her privileged position and experienced the world more viscerally, tested her place in it more robustly, because that was my way.
I never judged Mum for keeping her life small but couldn’t really understand her need for containment. This I learned in her hospital room.
I learned how magnificent it is to have everything that is meaningful to you held in one room.
While I have spent much of my life striving for success, creating, toiling, negotiating, networking, acquiring and impressing, my mother had simply been loving her family.
This was not the superficial love of beautiful people creating carefully styled moments for posting on social media. It was an infinitely richer love forged through caring for sick children, fretting over rebellious teenagers, moving locations and then countries, and accommodating an ambitious partner whose success brought challenge along with comfort. It was a love worthy of a bedside vigil.
“What could I fill this hospital room with?” I ruminated.
“Even though I’m proud of my books they wouldn’t take up much space in God’s Waiting Room.”
Children are such an easy way to give life meaning but I knew that ship had sailed for me, and there wouldn’t a husband any time soon.
While I squirmed in that uncomfortable plastic chair, I realised that everything I’d strived for during my life, and in most cases achieved, would still leave a similar hospital room barren when doctors came in and explained that there was nothing more they could do for me. Of course there’d be people who would care, visit, and probably be there at the very end if I asked; but I would have to ask.
I thought about legacy as we waited. Mum’s legacy was evident in the shape of her daughters’ hands, the curve of our cheeks, in familiar gestures magically passed on through genetic serendipity.
Only my words would live on, minus the magic.
As she slept and I vigilantly watched over Mum’s failing body, I realised that what I’d seen as her sacrifice to domesticity was an investment in the people she loved. That investment was now being repaid, with no expectations from us except for the chance to grasp hold of her beautiful fading presence for just a little longer.
We visited daily, willingly, unquestioningly. She had cared for us since we were tiny babies and now it was our turn; brushing her hair, rearranging her pillows — although never fully to her satisfaction — feeding her one tiny spoonful of food at a time. We cajoled her to take just one more sip or one more bite, as she had when we were young.
I was surprised by my ability to tend to her physical needs. My older sister is a nurse and has always been the capable one. She ministered to Mum’s requirements throughout her long illness and there had been no need for my participation in her care. I had been happy to keep the reality of her physical state at a distance for years. I had been a coward.
It was different now and I don’t know what surprised me more: that my mother asked for my help or that it was so easy for me to patiently give it. There was such grace in the reversal of roles.
Words came easily too. “I love you” had not been spoken much in our family but they were the last three words she said to me. What a gift.
A friend once said to me that that you can’t prepare for the death of a parent and he was right. I have lost people I loved and I’m no stranger to grief, but during the last year I have missed my mother in ways I could not have imagined.
I’ve reflected endlessly on her last six weeks of life and wondered how to change mine, so it’s more aligned with the span of Mum’s eight decades.
I know that I cannot become my mother. Her choices could never make me happy, even if I was young and able to make different decisions at sliding door moments.
We all forge our own path in life and Mum’s was predictable and ordered, mine unpredictable and disordered. What I’ve decided I can do, though, is make more conscious decisions about how to spend my time, now that I better understand life’s brevity and fragility.
I’ve decided to focus on the people that I love and let the extraneous relationships fall away.
I’ve always thought that friendships are sacred and you must never discard them but now I am less inclined to stick with people that drain me and don’t understand reciprocity. I’m through with friendships and relationships based on obligations. The social part of social media feels too superficial to be bothered with these days; the competition pointless.
I want to invest my time in deepening the connections that really matter to me. I’m lucky to have my family close by so I can witness the next generation creating their own lives and families. I hope I can be an important person to my nieces and nephews, someone they can rely if they need help. And I hope my presence can be some comfort to my father as he tries to understand how to exist in the world without his best friend.
I’ve had a very privileged life and have always felt an obligation to give back, but there seems more urgency to balancing the scales these days. Helping others, being kind and contributing to the world in an unselfish way seem like good starting points for living a life of meaning, and eventually filling that final space.
My mother taught me such a lot during her lifetime and I wish she had known that some of her most important lessons were demonstrated during her death. Or maybe she does.