My mother was the most influential person in my life
by Rod Labbe
(Waterville, ME USA)
I moved back home after college (in 1985) and lived with my mother and father. Dad had been sick for many years with heart and circulatory issues. Mom, however, was very strong, very vital. She went to an exercise class three times a week, was working, stopped smoking (and drinking) and even earned her high school degree through adult education when she was 60! Dad's condition never got better, and finally--in 1998--he passed away from congestive heart failure. My two sisters, both of whom live in NH, have their own lives and rarely saw our parents. I, however, saw them every day, except for my time at work. I'd go out to eat with them, talked with them, was there when the ambulance came during the middle of the night, accompanied my mother to the hospital to visit my dad. You name it, and I was involved.
After he passed away, I told myself that I'd open up my mother's world. She'd devoted so much time to dad that she'd become a prisoner in their house. He was sometimes grumpy and didn't want to do anything but sit and watch TV...so, she did the same. The shock of his death (a life event I dreaded experiencing, and when I did, it was surreal, like a dream) eventually wore off. I began taking my mother and her widowed two-years younger sister on road trips. We traveled everywhere, to malls, to restaurants, just through the wilderness, to the place where they'd lived as little girls, etc. All the while, there'd be conversation, lots of laughs, and a great feeling.
Then, in 2004, my aunt suddenly died. We were all taken aback by this, but my mother, especially, was affected. No more daily phone calls, no more reminiscing with someone she'd grown up with. Though I never saw her cry, she oftentimes told me how she missed Florence. I took it upon myself to keep my mother's world open and free. I hated seeing it closing, but as her loved ones expired, the walls moved in. We carried on without my Aunt Flo, but my mom began having health problems. Small ones, at first: the gout, mostly. Then, it got worse. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, had one breast removed and recovered completely without chemo. In 2003, a pacemaker was installed. There were more and more trips to emergency rooms, again mostly from gout--which was very painful for her.
Nonetheless, my mother was still working and began a new phase of her life as a crossing guard at age 74. She did that for 6 years before retiring, but she always talked as if the retirement was only temporary. We'd go for rides where she used to cross the kids, and I enjoyed hearing her stories. In 2010, she had her pacemaker replaced. Then, in 2011, I received horrifying news: she was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure, the same ailment that had killed my dad. Her disease was slow, at first, but as 2011 progressed, so did the illness.
By year's end, she'd been hospitalized three times (short stays) and was on oxygen at night. She began 2012 with another hospitalization in February. Now, she was on oxygen 24/7, which she hated. Through it all, I tried to keep her spirits up, but at times, I'd find myself staring at her (without her knowing) and wondering, is my lovely mother going to die?
In May of 2012, she was hospitalized again, for breathing issues. A stay in rehab came afterward because suddenly she had difficulty walking. I watched in horror as her limbs began swelling, especially her legs and feet. This went on for 2 and 1/2 months, until August 3rd, when I brought her home. She was incontinent and somewhat hazy from the massive amounts of Lasix they'd been giving her. She still had swollen limbs and couldn't climb the stairs--so the living room counch became her bed.
I was totally at her beck and call. I cooked her meals, washed the soiled sheets and clothing, combed her hair, washed her face, stayed with her, comforted her. She had home health care for a short time. It seemed like I was constantly fighting with medical personnel. Though I had my mother's power of attorney, I found the document meant nothing. Nurses, social workers and doctors would do whatever they wanted, sometimes with disastrous results. I was so incredibly angry over this and had many, MANY confrontations with nurses, physicians and social workers because of what I saw as poor and inattentive care. My complaints, though officially logged, were never acted upon.
Amazingly, my mother snapped back to health by the end of August. She could walk unaided, could go upstairs, take a shower, even dance. She'd lost forty pounds and was proud of her figure, though the Lasix had caused her hair to thin. She always had beautiful hair, and now it was white and lifeless. Her hairstylist suggested a wig--we sent away for one, it arrived a size too small, and we laughed as she tried to pull it onto her head. She continued, through the fall months, to improve. I kept a close watch on her weight. Anytime it went up three pounds, I gave her an extra half Lasix tablet. That didn't happen often, thankfully. We began going out to eat again and taking drives through the beautiful Maine countryside. I'd become self-employed by then and worked at home and devoted all of my time to mom.
We had a wonderful Halloween, and she sat with me on the front porch as we handed out candy to kids and their parents. In 2012, we had 50 people, which is amazing considering that for years and years, there'd been no one. She was very happy about it. But disaster was waiting around the corner.
On mid-November morning, I checked on her, and she was confused. She thought my younger sister, aged 53, was still in high school. I brought her to the emergency room, and they said she was too "dry." They had to rehydrate, and it seemed to do the trick. But that week was a turning point. She became confused again and had difficulty walking, resulting in a very scary fall. I call 911, and she was transported to the hospital for observation.
This resulted in a LONG series of hospital stays,both in my home town and away. Then, again, she couldn't walk, so they sent her to a rehab facility. Through all of this--as I had in the summer and all other times--I visited everyday for an hour to two hours. On January 31st, a Thursday, I brought her an Almond Joy, and we sat and watched an old rerun of a Julia Child "French Chef." We used to watch her when I was a kid. After two hours, I kissed her forehead and said I had to go, to run errands. She asked me to stay, but I wanted to get to the store and home. The next day, I went to see her again, but no one answered the call box at the nursing home (the receptionist leaves at 7 PM, and visitors must ring a call box). I hit the button twice then decided to go home. "I'll visit tomorrow," I said to myself. "What's one day?"
The next day, at 4, I received a phone call from the nursing home. My mother had very suddenly passed away. When I heard those words, I screamed. Literally. I felt like the world had spun away from me. They asked if I wanted someone to come and get me, and I said no, I'll drive. I hung up, called my older sister, then sped off for the nursing home. All the way, I was crying and talking to myself, saying, "no, ma, please don't be dead. Please, don't be dead!"
When I got there, I went upstairs and they led me to her room. She was lying on the bed, on her back. I felt her hand, which was very warm. "Are you sure she's dead?" I asked the nurse. She nodded yes then left me alone. I held my mother's hand, rubbed her forearm, kissed her forehead. Then I pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed, holding her hand. I looked up at her face, so still, and suddenly the enormity of the situation overwhelmed me. I got up, threw my arms around her and cried like a baby.
I'm crying now, just typing this. I couldn't believe I was actually standing there, looking at the body of my mother. She looked peaceful but very ashen. Her lips were gray instead of pink. But this was my mom. I stared at her face for a very long time, committing to memory. I remembered how, as a little boy, I'd sometimes ask if I could make her up. I'd comb her hair, put perfume on her, try to put lipstick on her without messing it up. She'd always laugh, and then I would, too.
Now, it's been a little over a week. I've cried every day. Only one sister came up, and that was almost three hours after she passed. I stayed in the room on and off in the meanwhile, and each time I came in, the enormity would sweep over me again. My poor mother. She died alone. I so wanted to be there for her. But, strangely, I felt a presence in the room...as if her spirit was lingering, so I could say my goodbyes.
Since then, I've thought many times of my mom. Of the road trips, her singing, the shows she used to watch on TV. In the spring, summer and fall, I'd sit with her outside, before the flower garden I always made. All of that is in the past. My life has changed forever.
And it's the oddest thing: I always thought I was my mother's companion. Truth is, she was mine.