My mom is dead. My mom died.
I keep repeating those words in my head, unable to comprehend this truth. We knew it was a possibility, even a probability, for so long and yet now that it’s happened, it doesn’t feel real.
Other times it feels like a stab in the heart. Or like an elephant sitting on my chest. Like a nightmare I can’t outrun. Like someone else’s life I am observing. Like the whole world is different. Like the world is the same and I’m different.
With two young kids, I don’t have the option of sitting around grieving. And to be honest, even though spending extra time in bed or on the couch sounds appealing, I want to keep moving forward with life – if for no other reason than my mom would’ve wanted me to. Even in her last weeks and months, she was worried most about how her death would affect us, how we would handle the gaping hole she left in her wake. She was concerned about other people so much that it drove me crazy sometimes!
She loved being a mom, and for the past four years, a grandma. There is hardly any aspect about mothering now that does not remind me of her. When I nurse Annabelle, I think of my mom nursing me until I was over 2 (so she said, I don’t remember it). When I rock either girl in my arms, I think of my mom, who loved, loved, loved rocking babies (no sleep training for that woman!). When they cry, I think of how she wouldn’t have been able to stand it—her momma bear instinct was too fierce.
Those reminders of her make me want to be a better mom. A mom who is more patient, loving, kind, gentle, self-controlled and self-sacrificing. I want to “major on the majors” and make sure I find time for the most important things, not let my days get eaten up with things that don’t really matter (even if they’re things I enjoy). I want to live my life with joy and passion, to pursue my dreams, to make the best use of my days. I want to enjoy being a mother, to truly embrace my role and not just view my girls as impediments to my freedom and personal time (which I do sometimes because I’m selfish). I want to be compassionate and patient with my girls, to hold them when they’re crying, to get on their level and understand what’s wrong instead of getting mad that they’re being difficult. Because life is short, and I want to look back on these years able to say that I loved deeply and lived well.
As we sat by my mom in her last hours, my dad, older brother Jeremy, sister-in-law Jen, younger brother Chris, and I all took turns rubbing her arms and hands. Her freckled hands were as familiar to me as my own. They were her instruments of serving and healing. Those hands cared for us, patched wounds, massaged backs and legs, changed diapers, blew noses, washed bodies, applied sunscreen, dried hair, cooked meals, wiped tears.
I find myself wishing I could talk to her in prayer like Jesus. Even though we were blessed with time for saying goodbye in long, heartfelt conversations, I find myself replaying what I said and wondering, “Why in the world didn’t I bring up more fond memories, instead of her being left alone with all the kids for hours by my dad and grandparents, and her throwing the hairdryer in anger at me when I was being extremely difficult? Did I even tell her that I thought she was an amazing mom and friend, and loved her to the core of my being?” So I ask Jesus to tell my mom that I love her and miss her, and that those aren’t what I think of when I remember her.
Instead, I’ll think of how she was my favorite person on earth next to my husband and babies. I’ll think about how familiar and dear she was to me, and how genuinely I enjoyed being around her. Yes, it’s true her worrywart tendencies drove me crazy sometimes, but isn’t that a mark of true intimacy? I’ll think about the weeks last summer that the girls and I spent with her while Travis traveled. Precious memories. I took them so very much for granted. If I had known then that she’d be gone by now…
But here’s the thing about watching someone die from cancer or disease: you often don’t know what to do or say. Even as a Christian with the greatest hope in the world, I stumbled through conversations and interactions because I just didn’t know. You can’t fully understand what the other person is experiencing, and you’re dealing with your own hard, mixed emotions about the whole situation. You want to be positive, but not Pollyanna. You want to be encouraging, but realistic. You want to empathize with their sorrow and fear, but not contribute or add to it. You want to ask about the situation, but you also want to distract them from it.
What I decided early on, especially since it was my mom, was that I was just going to show up and be real. I was going to try hard to point her to Jesus, and remind her of the hope she had in Him, but if I didn’t have the words, or know what to say, I’d just be there anyway. And I’d say, “I’m not sure what to say.”
Same with being by her side in those last days. What do you do in that situation? I wasn’t sure, but before I even left my house, I determined that I would not let my weird hangups or fear of awkwardness make me regret not doing something for her or with her at the end of her time on earth. So I sat by her on the bed, holding her hand. I hugged her, and rested my head on her shoulder when I saw tears in the corners of her eyes as she listened to a music therapist named Julie sing Beyond the Sunset with just her voice and an acoustic guitar. I wiped her mouth, dotted chapstick on her dry lips, and told her through sobs that this wasn’t the way I’d remember her—that there was this picture from the Mexican family reunion where she was playing a guitar made out of a skewer and aluminum sheet pan and laughing. That’s how I’ll remember her.
My brother Chris called the Tuesday before she died. “They don’t think she has long left,” he said. Even though I had visited her in the middle of January and said what I wanted to say, how do you not rush to the bedside of one you love so dear? So I packed up and hit the road with Annabelle (Travis would follow with Tina Tornado on the weekend so that I could have some quiet time with my mom), arriving in Rochester Tuesday evening. As I was unloading the car, my dad took Annabelle up to see my mom. He said she just lit up when Annabelle entered the room.
That night and Wednesday, she was alert for 30 minutes or so every few hours. Wednesday night, my dad woke up Jeremy, Jen and me in the middle of the night, thinking that the end was near. But her heart was stubborn and held on for all of Thursday too. That was a long day. Some extended family came to visit. The music therapist and hospice nurse came for a bit. Several times, we thought the end was close, but she recovered, heart beating, lungs breathing.
Thursday night, we went to bed around 10:30. About 12:15 am on Friday, I woke up to my dad nudging me and he simply said, “She’s gone.” I got up and followed him into the hall, where we talked to my brother and sister-in-law a bit. We said good night and headed back to bed, but the second I got under the covers, I was like, “What am I doing? I can’t go back to sleep right now!”
So I headed upstairs and asked if I could see her. And it was true: she was gone. Just the shell of her earthly body remained. Her soul, the real her, was in heaven with Jesus. Chris said truthfully, “Now we’re the ones to feel sorry for.”
My dad called the funeral home and they said they’d be out in 30 minutes to take her body. So Chris went and got Jeremy and Jen, and we all stayed in the bedroom until the funeral home people arrived.
While they carried her body out of the house, the rest of us moved into the kitchen and Chris jokingly suggested taking shots of pickle juice (one of my mom’s favorite things) in her honor. “Let’s do it!” I said. So the five of us said, “Cheers,” and drank shots of pickle juice at 1:00 in the morning.
Early afternoon on Friday, Travis and Emma arrived, and the rest of our time down in Rochester was a blur of funeral preparations, seeing extended family and chasing wild kids. That was one of the hardest weeks of my life, and I was relieved when I could finally retreat to my own home and familiar comforts. I see vaguely now that part of the reason was that I wanted to escape the relentless reminders of her absence, a luxury my dad doesn’t have.
Two weekends ago, I returned to Rochester for the first time since my mom died. As I walked in the door of my parents’ house and saw a peace lily from the funeral my dad had placed on the piano, it hit me afresh that my mom was gone. It was just his house now. Little by little, evidences of her decorating, organization, presence will disappear. We boxed up unused medical supplies and sorted through her clothes, personal items, jewelry, shoes, and purses while I was there, making piles of things to keep, things to sell, things to throw. I know it’s time to do these things but it still just feels too sudden, too soon. I haven’t been able to delete her contact from my phone because it feels like I’d be erasing her. I know it’s not… but still.
Grief is a process, and as the hospice chaplain told us, it’s different for everyone. When I focus on this earthly life, I am devastated my mom died. But when I remember the hope of heaven, and the fact that she’s there now, I feel peaceful. As one of the wonderful sympathy cards we received says (in the words of M.B. Anderson): “God confidently assures us—in the great symphony of life, the final refrain for the believing heart is triumphant, everlasting JOY.”
We’re sad on earth, but my mom is celebrating in Jesus’ presence. We saw her earthly life end, but she is living a glorious beginning.
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor. 15:54-57)