My mother, Barbara Jean Ferverda Long, passed away 11 years ago, today.
Some events and the surrounding snippets of time are indelibly burned into your memory, forever, like a movie for replay on your internal screen.
However, looking back those 11 years, it’s not so much what happened then, but the 11 years of silence that has followed. Of all the things, I miss Mom’s voice the most.
The voice who chastised me, a lot.
The voice who congratulated me.
The voice who called in the middle of the night to tell me a family member had unexpectedly died.
The voice who called me just to chat.
The voice I knew would always answer the phone, be there, on the on the other end of the line.
It was Mom that I called from the hospital when crisis hit my young family.
After moving away, it was Mom’s voice that connected me so often.
It was always Mom. Always the rock.
For a long time, I saved one message on my voice mail where she told me she loved me. I replayed it over and over, when I just needed to hear her voice. Then, one day, my carrier made a change and that was gone too – and the silence got a bit deeper and more permanent.
We think to take pictures, but few of us, at least not before the convenience of cell phones that take movies, thought to make recordings.
The last time I talked to Mom before she had a massive stroke in April 2006, she was laughing about me stopping traffic to escort a goose family off the road. Well, she wasn’t laughing at first, she was admonishing me to be careful out in that traffic because there were crazy people who would hit me. Or was I the crazy person for being out there in the first place, she asked. Then we both laughed.
I often called her on my way home from work. Mom couldn’t have a short conversation, and I certainly didn’t have a short commute, so hands-free cell was a blessing for both of us.
Then, one day while I was at a customer site, my cell phone rang and it wasn’t mother, but my sister-in-law, telling me that mother had fallen, crawled into the closet where they found her, and they had called the ambulance and taken her to the hospital. I left immediately and went home to quickly pack a bag and then begin the three and a half hour drive to where she lived.
When I was leaving the house with my suitcase in tow, my sister-in-law called again to tell me that mother had slipped from consciousness. I knew, in the pit of my stomach, what was going to follow.
By the time I arrived at the hospital, they confirmed that mother had suffered a massive stroke. The next 24 hours were critical. She would either get worse or get better. I knew mother’s worst fear was that she would be disabled and reliant on others – read vulnerable to abuse in a nursing home. She feared that far worse than death.
At that time, mother would rouse slightly to my voice, and I think she squeezed my hand once, but she didn’t seem to be able to respond to any requests. When we moved her from a gurney to the hospital bed, her eyelids flew open and much to my horror, I realized that her eyes were entirely sightless. She was blind, couldn’t talk and could only move one hand slightly.
I remember my abject horror at seeing her so terribly impaired – and knowing in that instant what she would have wanted.
She didn’t improve the next day, nor the next.
Then, we had to make a decision. My brother left, unable to deal with the situation, and my sister-in-law and I followed my mother’s advance directive and removed life support.
In spite of my mother’s well-known wishes, it was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. I am extremely thankful that there were no family members opposed and I am incredibly grateful for Mom’s signed directive. We don’t think she could hear us, given the depth of her coma – but still I felt someone needed to tell her what we were doing and why, just in case – and that someone was me. Part of me desperately wanted her to sit right up and object. There was no response at all.
Then, the waiting began – for her to dehydrate/starve to death. It took 7 more days. What passes for acceptable care for humans would be viewed as unwarranted torture for a much-loved pet. Until you sit those 7 days and watch the painfully slow process, you don’t realize how barbaric it is. I’ll spare you the details and hope fervently you never discover for yourself.
Mother lived near the hospital, so I stayed in her apartment during my visit. I’m so eternally grateful that my daughter took time off work, which she could ill afford, and joined me for the wait. We took turns sitting watch at the hospital, comforted knowing the other person was no more than 5 minutes away. The initial days of hoping mother would recover and survive were replaced by hoping the call that she had been released would come sooner than later.
My daughter’s dog came along, because there was no one at home to take care of her – and walking Chica, who has now joined Mom across the rainbow bridge, was such a welcome respite from the hospital. There was a little woods behind the church a block from Mom’s apartment, and that walk in the woods provided us some much needed relief.
In contrast to our dark internal gloom, springtime was popping out all over. I vividly remember the cherry tree in front of Mom’s apartment resplendent in all of its pink glory. It’s amazing what we remember in highly emotional times of stress. I can’t see one today without thinking of mother.
Mom didn’t have a computer, so she didn’t have wifi either, but a coffee shop a block or so away did. By the time Mom passed, my daughter and I were regulars and every day when we walked in, the staff looked at us a long time, waiting for a yes or no headshake. The day it was yes, they didn’t have to ask.
April 30th was on Sunday that year. Mom finally breathed her last a little before 9 that morning. My brother, sister-in-law and I were with her, holding her hand, caressing her, telling her to let go – that her mother was waiting for her and so was Dad.
The night shift had been mine, and my daughter was sleeping. I didn’t call my daughter for the end, because I really didn’t want her to remember Mom like that. Seeing death is not anything you ever forget.
As I was leaving, my daughter was coming in the hospital door. She knew immediately when she saw me, and I suggested that she didn’t want to go up to the room. Mom wasn’t there anymore, thankfully. She was free.
We turned around together, returned to Mom’s apartment and went for a long walk with Chica. The church bells rang, and we cried together in the rain. Our already small family, now one person smaller.
Later that day, my daughter packed to drive home and go back to work on Monday, while I began to pack mother’s things into boxes and prepare to go to the funeral home the next day to make final arrangements.
Thankfully, mother had taken care of many of those details. It was her way of removing the burden from the family, and I was oh-so-grateful that she did.
There is no such thing as an “easy” funeral for me, but I got through it as best I could.
We celebrated Mom’s third career of more than 25 years as an Avon Lady. Many former customers came to pay their respects and tell stories about how Mom had helped them over and over again. Mom viewed her Avon work as her “home visitation” mission, not as a job, which is why she never felt she could take any extended time away. It’s also why she never made a profit. She would drive across the county to deliver a tube of lip gloss and take a gift or food too.
I tucked a tube of Avon’s lip balm in her hand in the coffin – just so she doesn’t run out in the afterlife. She was always so concerned that her family would run short that she was constantly giving us a tube. The last one sits beside me at my desk today.
A couple weeks later, I celebrated the first Mother’s Day without Mom by loading her furniture into a rented truck to bring my portion home. Not exactly how I had planned to spend Mother’s Day. I ate the chocolate I had purchased for mother on the long drive home. She loved chocolate and I know she would have approved!
As I look back, there are several things that make me sad:
- That I never got to take Mom back to Germany to visit her ancestral homeland. She never felt she could take the time away, and by the time she did, she was suffering from the early stages of dementia and was frail.
- That Mother died in such horrid, abysmal circumstances – having to lay there and dehydrate/starve until dead. We prayed for another stroke to take her. Had we not discontinued the IVs, they told us it could be 30 days, or more, instead of 10. We had no good choices.
- That some relationships she cherished were never repaired in her lifetime.
- That she can’t share the genetic discoveries made since her death – both in general and relative to her ancestors. I would love to tell her about my finds. We enjoyed sharing so much.
- That I didn’t coerce her into going on even more trips.
- That I didn’t take advantage of some opportunities to do things together due to my schedule conflicts.
- That I didn’t call and visit her more often – although I don’t know after someone is gone whether there is an “often enough.”
- That I found so much literature about loneliness and depression in the elderly among her things. My heart aches knowing she was lonely when it’s too late to remedy.
- That I was not more forceful in insisting, as in taking her kicking and screaming if necessary, that she see a neurologist. She was apparently having small strokes that went undiagnosed before the big one, but she did not want to admit she was having issues and became very angry with anyone who suggested otherwise.
- That I had to spend the majority of my adult life living several hours distant, although I came home several times each year. However, coming home to visit is not the same as living a few blocks or miles away where you can pop in and out regularly and be a part of someone’s daily life.
As I look back, there are several things for which I am very grateful:
- The last time I talked to Mom, we were laughing. That goose adventure makes me smile even yet today.
- That I talked to Mom often, but not often enough.
- That I made her several quilts because she covered up with them all the time and they could hug her when I could not.
- That Mom gladly took every DNA test I asked her to take, and that she was genuinely interested and encouraged me to pursue genetic research. Had it not been for mother’s encouragement, I don’t know that I’d be doing what I do today.
- That Mom and I went on several trips together, visiting where her ancestors lived, to libraries for research, to antique shows, to quilt shows and to the State Fair. Those days are golden, irreplaceable memories now.
- I’m glad that I took my daughter, then a child, on many of those trips too – even though she didn’t necessarily want to go at the time. I’d wager that my daughter is glad now too.
- That Mom and I had the terribly difficult discussion about end of life choices and where things I needed were located – before we needed to have the discussion – because we couldn’t have had that discussion when we needed to have it. I tried not to cry, but I just couldn’t help it that day. She cried too, because I was crying. Then we both laughed at ourselves. I’m laughing and crying just thinking about it!
- That my daughter simply came to stay with me when Mom was hospitalized. I didn’t realize how much I needed her, and I would never have asked.
- That my daughter’s dog came along. Fur family members can be infinitely comforting in times of distress.
- That my son and his wife and child came to visit with Mom one last time – even though she may not have known. Then again, she may have known at some level.
- That Mom’s funeral arrangements were, for the most part, already made. Thank you Mom.
- That I knew unquestionably what Mom would have wanted under the circumstances.
- That the springtime flowers were blooming furiously, because they lifted my spirits, even if just for a minute or two, from a very dark place. I somehow realized they spoke to the future and that there would be life after…
I have far more regrets about what I didn’t do than what I did. Life is about spending time together and on each other. Our time is the most valuable and loving gift that we have to give. Time is what makes memories that at some point will have to be enough to last us a lifetime.
Now, 11 years distant from that rainy spring morning, what remains, aside from those memories, is the loudness of the silence that never ends.