I remember it like it was yesterday. It was twelve years ago when life was about playdates and nap schedules and making sure my kids ate their broccoli. My mom and I were driving in the car. We had gone to her school to pick-up some paperwork and were heading to my dad’s office, a drive she had done hundreds of times. She suddenly pulled the car over and started to cry. She humbly admitted that she couldn’t remember how to get to my dad’s office. I tried to hide the shock as I listened to her confession. She continued to tell me that she was having a hard time remembering what day it was and how to do small tasks and that she was scared. If you know my mom at all, this was a rare moment of vulnerability for her and I was honored to be her safe place. We cried together on the side of the road and I held her in my arms and told her it was all going to be ok. This was the beginning of the longest goodbye.
Several years went by and we all secretly murmured about moms’ forgetfulness and decline. Simple tasks like making pancakes and cleaning the house were taking her hours. She began losing her words and was constantly repeating herself. Then on March 23rd, 2010 my brother died. My parents were visiting me in Indianapolis when it happened and I saw my mom crumble. I remember her uttering the words “I just wish I didn’t have to remember anymore.” And as a parent I can only imagine that I would feel the same way. The years that followed were ones of further decline and confusion and fear.
And then it happened. As my kids and I were in the car with my mom leaving a visit to Target with a trunk full of toys, the moment I had been dreading happened. She looked straight into my eyes and said, “You know my daughter Heather and her family are moving to Belgium.” I quickly glanced back at my kids hoping they had not heard. By the puzzled looks on their faces I knew they had. My eyes filled with tears as I softly spoke with my mom about her daughter and the exciting move ahead and how she was going to miss her grandchildren. And my heart ached because I knew I was losing my mom.
I could write pages about the years in between. There was so much heartache and confusion as to how to take care of my mom. She didn’t accept her disease which made caring for her even that much more difficult. We feared she would wander off and get lost. We feared she would leave the stove on and burn the house down. We feared she would take the wrong dosage of medicine and get sick. And my dad was a saint. He patiently cared for her and loved her in the midst of a great deal of pain and chaos.
I’m thankful that as her disease progressed she had a few good years, living in a space where she was no longer fighting the disease, a space where she was happy and content, almost childlike. All of the pain and hurt in her life had been slowly erased and she was able to smile and laugh and live. This was a beautiful time of connection for us all. She seemed happier than I had ever seen her.
My dad continued to care for her in their home but as her memory faded it became increasingly difficult. After locking up every sharp object, dead bolting her into the house and turning off the gas to their stove, he finally called one day to tell me it was time to put her in a home that could care for her safely. We moved my mom to a memory care unit. It was a difficult time. We knew that my mom would never return home.
My mom lived for several years in the memory care unit. Each time I visited I saw a noticeable change. She went from walking to a wheelchair, a wheelchair to a bed. The last time I visited she was just a shell. She laid still in bed barely able to move. She was nonverbal except for the occasional moan or cough. But as I held her hand she would squeeze tightly. As I stroked her hair she would softly close her eyes. And as I bent to kiss her goodbye she sweetly puckered her lips to return my kiss. And I believe that there is something so incredible about a mother’s bond with her child, that it surpasses memory and intellect and all things rational. I believe that inside that shell of my mother was a beautiful heart that felt my love and loved me back and with every squeeze of my hand and gentle kiss she was showing up for me with all she had left.
These past 12 years have been full of such suffering and pain and beauty and transition. My kids have grown from toddlers to teenagers. We have moved to Europe and back. I lost my brother. I have battled cancer twice and lost my marriage. My mother has become a grandmother to two more beautiful grandchildren, and even a great grandmother. My parents renewed their vows and celebrated 50 years of marriage. Life has continued to go on because that is all it knows how to do. And I have missed my mom dearly in so many moments and so many ways. And I have struggled with not being there for her as she lays 3,000 miles away in a hospital bed. And more than anything I just miss my mom.
Yesterday, huddled around my phone, the kids and I said a final goodbye to my mom over Facetime. It was not at all how I had planned but Covid-19 made it impossible for me to be by her side. I’m thankful for the nurse that held up the phone so I could see her one last time. And with my kids wrapping me in love, I sobbed and told my mother how much I loved her and that it was time for her to go to heaven and that I was sorry that I couldn’t be there and that she was a wonderful mother and noni, and she was LOVED. She laid still, with shallow breath. I hope that she heard me. I hope that her last thought before leaving this earth was that she was loved.
Everytime I have seen my mom I have said goodbye. I never knew when it would be the last time. This morning at 2am my mother left us. While none of her family could be with her I can only hope that somehow she was able to remember us and our love as she took her last breath. I hope that someone was holding her hand or stroking her hair. I hope that she wasn’t afraid or in pain. I hope she had an army of angels ushering her into heaven.
Saying goodbye is so hard. I have missed my mom for a very long time. I have said goodbye too many times to remember. I look forward to celebrating her life, together with friends and family when we are all able to travel and unite again. But today I’ll just let myself cry and remember and feel the loss. I’ll soak in the love of my children and dad and sister and friends. And I’ll honor the beautiful life that my mother gave me.
It’s been the longest goodbye. I love you mom.