Mom had not been conscious for four or more days. She had eaten little the week before and stopped taking fluids. But she was resilient, just like her Mom before her.
The family all arrived in the afternoon on Christmas Day. I went in to see her. She thrashed her arm a bit, and I tried to re-cover it, but she didn’t want it covered. The Visiting Angel who was watching over her gave me space and time to be with Mom.
Mom always wanted to have her family home for Christmas. My wife and my children and I were there along with my brother’s family. We all–my dad, other extended family members, and alternating Visiting Angels–traded off spending time with Mom during Christmas, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. The Angel told us that while Mom couldn’t talk, she could hear everything we said. So we started chatting with and about Mom so she would know that we were with her. We held her hand and felt the warmth.
One of Mom’s favorite holiday songs was Silent Night, so my son and I sang a duet of that for Mom, and it went well. Then we tried a second song. This one was off pitch a bit and we were stumbling over the words. Mom’s armed thrashed and she made a noise. We stopped…leaving well enough alone.
In the other rooms of the house, we celebrated the traditions that Mom had established. We caught up on family news while sharing cheese and crackers, admiring Mom and Dad’s Christmas tree, and watching the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers come back from behind to defeat the Baltimore Ravens. This to the glee of a few and the groans of others.
We opened gifts, retold the story of how Mom hand-knitted and sent a huge Christmas stocking with presents to Dad before they were married,this while he served in the Army during the Korea War. We cooked Mom’s favorite dishes and shared Christmas dinner together while a Visiting Angel watched over Mom.
How Much Time Do You Have?
We continued to visit Mom in her room, chatting and saying prayers. Many of my prayers were a thank you for the extra three months we had with Mom, because we thought we would lose her in September. In Mid-August, Mom stopped eating and started sleeping most of the time. Her biological clock started winding down. We all started wondering, how much time do you have, Mom? How much time do we have? We all focused on visiting more, on getting her to eat when she was awake, and on offering her fluids to drink. The support from the Visiting Angels, combined with Mom’s resilience and Dad’s love, kept her alive. There was time for visits and talks by phone. In November, Mom was even able to get up and come to the Thanksgiving table by wheelchair for about fifteen minutes. All of this extra time was a series of blessings.
Pop Tarts and Tea
Just before Mom’s birthday in October, I was up for a visit. I found a box of Brown-Sugar-Cinnamon Pop Tarts at the store. In the late 1960s and early 70s, I had fixed one of these Pop Tarts and boiled a cup of tea for Mom every morning before school. I smiled at the memory and bought a box.
The next morning when Mom woke, I asked her if she would like a Pop Tart? “What kind,” she asked. Your favorite, Brown-Sugar-Cinnamon without the frosting, I replied. She remembered, so I toasted one and brought it in for her with a cup of tea. An Angel helped her to eat and drink.
Later, Dad or one of the Angels offered her the rest of the Pop Tarts. With mixed feelings I saw that the box of Pop Tarts was gone when I visited in early December.
Back at the end of August, I had talked Mom into going for a swim in her backyard pool. Mom had always loved her pool. She had taught most of her grandchildren how to swim at “Grammy Camp” during summers past. Her first job as a teenager was teaching children how to swim at a summer camp. She taught her four boys how to swim, then later drove us to a pool for lessons and to the YMCA for swim meets.
This time, she resisted a bit. She was weak but still able to get her swim suit on and walk out to the pool.“I don’t think I want to get in,” she demurred, “I don’t know if I can get down the steps.” I can help you, I replied, and I did. Mom eased into the pool. Eventually, she relaxed and floated on her back. She was Mom, and she was in her element.
The next time I came up to visit, thoughts of putting a bathing suit on were beyond her. But Mom, I said, I need someone to watch me. I can’t swim alone. Mom had instilled this precept in each of her children from an early age: never swim alone. So I went out to the pool and Mom followed to sit in a chair so that she could watch me. I swam and we talked, and even after my brother came out to visit, Mom stayed there watching over me. She had been sleeping most of the day by that time, but she would not let me swim alone.
Old Photos and Stories
During a visit in September, Mom lay propped up on the couch as I went through a photo album from 1996 that she had curated. I showed her the pictures, she smiled a bit remembering when her oldest five grandchildren were little. My daughter was just a baby. There were lots of smiling faces in the photos with “Grammy” and “Pop Pop” at the pool, the beach, family gatherings, and during holidays. I reflected on the amazing memories my Mom had preserved, but also of the indelible memories and experiences that she had fostered.
Though I continued to wonder how much time Mom would have, I was very glad that she had so much time to share her love of her family. I realized that there were shelves full of memories, dozens of photo albums, and all those family pictures on the walls throughout her house. As a professional Personal Historian, I had started recording Mom stories and Dad stories and Their stories back in 2012. I have well over 100 hours of recorded memories and stories on audio tape. Mom also had filled in a question book with over 170 pages of handwritten responses to questions about her life. She had given us an amazing legacy of memories and a legacy of love and shared family experiences.
Our Last Christmas Memories
Christmas to Mom was family time, we were playing a family game as Christmas 2016 came to a close. Family members gathered in Mom’s room as the day came to a close, and just after Christmas ended, Mom was ready and she went home. She was at peace as we said our final goodbyes. Afterwards, I pictured her sitting in heaven with two of her lapdogs on her lap watching over us.
None of us know how much time we have. Thank you Mom for loving us and for investing in us your values and all of that quality time. The memories will last and the stories will live on for generations to come.
Editor’s note: A version of this post originally appeared on Bruce’s Summoose Tales blog.