Early in the morning, four years ago today, my mother took her last silent breath while I sat nearby, writing status reports on Facebook, then switching to a blog post when my swirling thoughts and restless heart begat too many words.
Mama is sleeping with the rattle in her chest that hospice tells us sounds worse to us than it feels to her. I’m on high alert every time she stops making the sound I wish she would stop making because I want her to be more comfortable, because I’m afraid it will wake her up, because it sounds frighteningly like the end and I’m not ready, because I’m afraid she is taking her last breath and I will miss it, because I’m afraid I’m too far away. Because I’m afraid.
We didn’t think she was leaving quite yet, but we knew it was soon. She was beyond ready. And it was the eve of Earth Day.
My mother loved this earth, and she was its steward. Spring was her favorite season, the trillium its harbinger. When I took her walking in the woods by our house where she had explored for decades but could no longer manage by herself, she would point with her walking stick and say, “is there a trillium there? a patch there?” She could no longer see, but she knew their locations by heart.
When I walk in the woods now, especially when the trillium are blooming, she is there, with her long-silenced camera in my imagination; with her cane and holding my arm in my memory. I stop at Staebler Point each time I walk, and talk to my parents who are together there in my beating heart. Some days, I try to bypass the Point and go on home; then I turn around and go back, imagining their disappointment that I didn’t take time to stop.
My memoir about our nearly six years together will be published in October. After I submitted the manuscript for publication consideration during the first long Covid winter, I didn’t think about it for months, busy caring for my family and guiding Pandemic School, and compiling into a book the letters my parents and my father’s siblings wrote during WWII, when they were all so very young. And being glad my mother—and by extension, my sister and I—didn’t have to deal with the virus.
When the accepted and copy-edited manuscript was returned to me during the second Covid winter, I read it all—out loud—looking for typos and word-smithing yet again, then sent it in for the professional proofread. Now it has been to layout, and I’m reading the designed pages cover-to-cover, looking for lingering errors, not allowed to make substantive changes. It will be in people’s hands in a few months.
This story. My story. My mother’s and my story. Each time I read it, my heart breaks a little bit, wondering why I couldn’t have walked her last years with her “better.” More compassionately. More selflessly. Why I didn’t know until I read some of the countless notes, musings, unsent letters she wrote, as I went through boxes during this past winter, that she had yearned for an adult relationship with me as much as I did with her. I should have known, I’m a mother too, and want that with my children. But she couldn’t stop pushing my buttons, and I couldn’t stop reacting.
Was it too late at ninety-six and sixty? It seemed like it was. She returned to mother mode when I came home. I returned to adolescence. She was clinging to her independence. I was clinging to mine. We did not learn the concept of interdependence.
It’s too late to change the story on the page, to make me look better, to make her look better. Besides, the book is non-fiction, the truth to the best of my memory (and interpretation). Since I wrote it as I was living it, it’s hard to hide behind the “telling it slant” excuse. It went down as it did, and it’s not always pretty.
“I just don’t want you to be sorry like I am with my mother, that you didn’t understand what it’s like to be old,” she told me. I don’t think we can know, even as we are watching it happen. I see now how hard she tried to deal with all the losses, sometimes with courage, other times complaining incessantly: her friends’ deaths, her body, her energy, her abilities, her mind (which—and I suppose it was merciful—she didn’t know, or could seldom admit, she was losing), her vision, her hearing. The list goes on. But then, she just exasperated me. Maybe because I really couldn’t help it be better, I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t stop looking for solutions, and she couldn’t give up control of her life. Maybe we were both clinging to the longing for a different relationship, and had no ability to let go of the old one, even if it wasn’t working.
I thought I would be so sick of this story, I could not possibly read it again. But as I sat in my father’s ugly recliner yesterday, looking out over the valley view they both loved, reading my designed pages, this reading is easier than the last. Maybe because it’s prettied up. Maybe because I’m glad we have both been released from those hard years. Maybe because I am seeing that I did grow and that she did love me well and that she was an amazing woman and that I did a good thing being here with her.
The moment she died, just after midnight, I began letting go of the challenges of who she was. As I continue to let them go, I see her more clearly for the remarkable woman she was. And I want to be just like her. Well, maybe not just like her, but the best of who she was.
To read more about my memoir, Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver and for care partner resources, visit my website www.gretchenstaebler.com. Subscribe to my e-Letter there, and read the first two chapters!