I finally “woke up.” It was odd how the loss and depression had kept me in a mental fog.
I kept going to work, church, outings with friends and family. I functioned just fine. When people asked how I was doing I’d shrug, smile kind of, and say “better every day” with a cheery lilt.
But I was numb. Simple tasks took longer, small frustrations got me angry quick. My job seemed so hard all of a sudden.
|The whole family – less than four months before my Mom (second from left)
and my father-in-law (far right) passed away in September
Photo credit: Amy Straka Photography
Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of support … church, family, co-workers, neighbors, friends at Jazzercise, our group of “oldie-moldy” friends. But I had trouble focusing, sleeping, buying groceries. You name it.
I was walking around in a bubble. It was like the old Charlie Brown episodes where the adults all sounded like they were muted trumpets under water. The world was whirling around me and I was a spectator trying to figure how to climb back into life.
Then I needed to get some tax info from the basement and noticed those last 6 boxes. How did we miss them after the funeral? And then I remembered, they had never followed mom to her assisted living place. We had stored them here after she moved out of her house. They didn’t seem essential to her everyday life there. She had plenty of clothes, art supplies, towels, etc. So the boxes sat under the stairway in my laundry room.
Mom fell twice at the assisted living place — once in her apartment, once in the dining room. After two trips to the hospital in a few short weeks, we knew she couldn’t return home to her apartment. She had to come home with me.
They said congestive heart failure was possibly her last battle, that Hospice would be there to help her (and us) through it all. My son’s fiancé and I cleaned out her apartment and brought everything to my home … along with her.
It’s a bit blurry now … amazing how one “functions” without really “being present.”
Just one day before we brought Mom here, another Hospice organization had cleaned out my father-in-law’s room. About six weeks previous, my 91-year-old, strong as an ox, fierce caregiver of the children, grandchildren, and his remaining siblings (there had been 10, only 2 left now), began to be confused. He took some falls, he was evaluated in the hospital and sent to a nursing home for “rehab”.
Basically, the facility just left him alone in the room. We hired a caregiver to go into the nursing home to care for him – bathe him, feed him, be a companion. Pretty much he just laid there, and couldn’t understand why he felt so bad. It broke his spirit. We brought him home, and the caregiver started coming to our home. She cared for him with love and dignity. My daughter-in-law and 4-year-old granddaughter came the days to help in-between her visits. He died on 9/9/2011.
My daughter and granddaughter from Florida missed seeing him to say “good bye” by about two hours. I wouldn’t let anyone tell her until I knew the plane had landed and she was in the car on her way to us.
My brother-in-law was also in flight that day and also missed him. We wouldn’t let Pops be taken from our home until the kids and grandkids had a chance to say goodbye.
Pop’s funeral was at the American Legion, complete with a 21-gun salute (a really hard moment), Polish food, a polka and lots of memories shared.
When he was alive, Pops often shared his war stories … never gruesome or sad … really funny stuff. He was
stationed in the Philippines. I shared the stories at the funeral, and many of the American Legion buddies enjoyed them. Here are a couple of my favorites:
— There was a tank that hadn’t run for quite a while. The general told Pops to crawl in there and see if he could figure anything out. He realized fairly quickly that all that was needed were 3 simple fuses. But, he took his time in there. He eventually went and secured the 3 fuses, and voila … the tank ran.
— He also described their barracks. There was one floor visible at ground level, and two floors dug into the ground. One night, a bunch of them went into town and stole a lot of beer from a local brewery. With a human conveyor belt, the beverages were stored in the lowest level. There was some questioning the next morning … but no one seemed to recall seeing any beer.
— He also complained about an older general there who Pops felt was endangering the men with poor choices. “A chest full of medals and sh- – for brains,” Pops would often say. One day, a Polish general was on the base, and Pops spoke to him in Polish, letting him know the concerns. The next day the “general in question” was transferred … to the relief of many soldiers.
— Pops was among the forces that went into Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped. He could not speak of it. If asked, his eyes would well up, and he’d say, “War is a terrible thing, honey.”
— For the 40 years I knew him, he told me so many times, in so many situations, “Everything is going to be alright, honey.” I’ve trusted him on that one many times through the years. But I must say, it’s taken several months to
get to “okay” this time (and I’m still not completely there).
So we moved Mom in on 9/13/2011. She was gone by the 22nd.
I’m sure the neighbors had to wonder when a hearse arrived at our home to retrieve two bodies within two weeks from the same house.
There is no way to explain what it’s like to watch your parents die. And yet, I would have never wanted them to be
alone. They were here, and then with one last breath, they were gone. That’s that.
So, as I said, one Hospice agency moved out Pops’ stuff and another came the next day and moved Mom’s stuff in. Our sweet nursing assistant and our daughter-in-law/granddaughter combo picked up with mom where they had left off with Pops.
I really didn’t think she would leave so soon. She was on oxygen, she was using a walker to keep her balance, she was taking her meds, we were having good conversations. She wasn’t remembering much … wasn’t hungry … unhappy that she couldn’t go back to her apartment … asked the same questions over and over. I had to assure her several times that we had moved all of her belongings out of the apartment. She’d wake up in the middle of the night, thrashing about with the walker, completely lost.
And still, I didn’t think she was going to die.
Friends started dropping in. She still had a group of high school friends that she got together with monthly for lunch. They were showing up. Neighbors, Art League friends, church people, good friends from every walk of her life were showing up.
Yes, the Hospice people were showing up faithfully. Yes, she seemed weaker. I remember asking the Hospice nurse why mom was given morphine. Good Lord!
Darlene sweetly explained, “When someone’s heart is dying, it really hurts. Let’s save your mom that pain.”
She seemed really weak one evening, and a few of us got together. I called and our pastor came over. He read her the 23rd Psalm, and prayed with her. My visiting daughter got up at 3 a.m. to give mom a dose of the morphine. That was mom’s last interaction with anyone on earth.
Note to those of you who aren’t medically minded: When I woke up the next morning, I went in to check on her. My husband had left for work. She seemed really still. I texted him to ask how one knows if someone is alive or not. In his infamous wisdom, he texted back, “Put a piece of tissue in front of her nose and see if it moves.” Good Lord! I tried it. Inconclusive results.
I texted our wonderful nursing assistant and asked how to tell. She said she’d be right over. She flew into the driveway in her pajamas, slippers, and long blond hair in complete disarray in literally minutes.
My daughter, granddaughter and I sat quietly in the living room. The caregiver lingered for some time (in retrospect, I’m sure she knew mom had left, but she was trying to be kind). She came out and gently said, “Yes, your mom is gone.” And she followed up with, “When you’re trying to decide if someone is breathing, it helps to remove the oxygen tube first.”
We called the Hospice nurse who had to secure the morphine ASAP. And of course, the second funeral. My sisters, brother, their spouses, nieces, nephews were enroute. My friends were hovering. My boss and co-workers were concerned.
Mom loved our church, so we started the plans for a simple service … mostly family … guests able to visit prior to the service … a side room for the family to have a beverage or light snack if needed. Rather simple.
My nephew (a musician with a following in Texas) asked if he could sing at the funeral (he’s the first grandchild … always close to mom). Then our pastor found a really amazing video clip on the Internet that needed to be included in the service. He reviewed his teaching … it was going to be great.
And then, our church family decided that they wanted to have a dinner for anyone who came. Ham, side dishes, desserts … the works. It was overwhelming. But she was leaving an empty spot in all their hearts.
Also overwhelming was the mixture of guests at the funeral. My mom’s girlfriends from high school (they had met once a month for cards/lunch faithfully for years), neighbors, friends who had attended other churches with her, a judge whose parents had been great friends of mom and dad, past customers from the days they owned their restaurant and bar. It was incredible.
And then people began to share how important she had been to them. I was praying for her dear friend, Helen. They had been through so much through the years … kids in school together, a shared loved of art, taking classes together to hone their skills, showing off their works at local festivals, going through very hard/challenging times of loss and illnesses within their families. As well as aging and losing their own parents, friends, family members. My mother’s paintings were precious gifts given to family and friends after her death. These were lovely treasures that we could all share.
I was humbled and broken. There had been times I was frustrated with mom. After the stroke, there were many confusing phone calls. Sometimes, the same call over and over again in a day. She would accuse people of taking things, and she was mad that we had moved her out of her home. Sometimes I would just shake and my head would pound because I was trying so hard to stay calm answering the same questions over and over, assuring her that she was safe and that no one was stealing from her. God bless the staff at her assisted living facility. No matter what she said or accused, they continued to call me to verify information, and treated her with the utmost kindness and concern.
And then she was gone. Those last days my pride and frustration was broken, and I realized how much she had done to support and help me through the years. I remembered my parents’ generous gifts to our kids. I remembered their help financially during some tough times we had faced.
I know I did everything I could to help her. But I also felt guilt for the times I was angry, when I felt she could have helped me more in life, when my voice was tinged with frustration after she called me for the 3rd or 4th time about the same matter. And I felt so sad.
It took me two months to wake up from the fog of despair. I was visibly functioning at work, church, home. But I
was lost somewhere in the darkness of my soul.
And then I found the last 6 boxes. There were things in there that mom had saved from her parents, and there were many more photo albums and loose pictures. I began to sort through the items, making packets for siblings, friends, cousins, my children. Slowly, I began to come back.
I could think more clearly; I began to sleep; I felt at peace again.
There is no specific moment when the grief ends, or the self-doubt subsides. Did I do everything possible to help them? What did I miss? Did I honor them completely?
I have no profound words of wisdom to offer you if you are in the midst of a loss. It hurts; it’s emotionally confusing. There is no specific moment that you are “okay.” And even when you think you’re “okay” something stings your soul and it hurts again.
But, I do know, that we need to send our loved ones away with peace and forgiveness. And I know that I did that.
Hold on to the good, release the anger, and give love where you can. Life is so short.
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