The Sunday essay: My mother, finally free
How do you mourn a parent when they were lost to you a long time ago?
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Original artwork by Erin Forsyth
It is a dark night, as if the sky had been painted with thick charcoal. A tiny crescent moon appears behind the cloud cover as a flickering light. At 10 p.m., an email from mom’s nursing home landed in my inbox, forwarded by dad.
Good night! Hope all is well with you and your family. Just to give you an update on Mary. It seems to have deteriorated further. We noticed it 2 days ago when she was unable to tolerate her meal, then it progressed and now she cannot swallow anything. We do not give him anything by mouth because it is dangerous to do so. She is less sensitive to voice now and there is already a change in her breathing. It would be better if you saw her tomorrow. Just so you know. Thank you!
I try to phone dad but he doesn’t answer. I fall asleep and expect to dream but there is nothing, just emptiness.
I wake up at 7am to three missed calls from dad and two from my sister. I phone dad but he doesn’t answer. I call my sister. “Sare, mom is dead.”
II’ve been waiting for this call for so long. When mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at 61, doctors gave her a decade or less. It was 14 years ago. Ten years ago, she was placed in full-time foster care. Seven years ago, she stopped recognizing her family; around the same time, she lost all ability to communicate.
There are logistics to settle. My younger sister wants to get out of Switzerland. She will have to quarantine herself for two weeks. We do the math. We could celebrate mom’s life on May 13th or 14th. I’m superstitious, we can’t bury mom on May 13th.
My doorbell rings. A work that I commissioned a month ago has finally arrived. I tear up the cardboard and remove the polystyrene surrounding it. It feels good to do something physical, to anchor myself. Adhesive tape falls on the carpet, it remains there like peeled skin. The painting is blue and cream, the colors of the walls and the dishes in mom’s favorite room at home. Koru’s whirlpools remind me of the ocean she loved to watch from her lawn.
The flight to Napier is delayed. Dad waits at arrivals, his heavy hand slapping me on the back as he pulls me closer. I thought I was crying when I saw him. I do not.
Mom’s nursing home is concrete painted in cream; from a distance it looks like a low-lying bunker. Over the past eight years, I have said hello to the front desk staff and have walked these hallways so many times that I have lost count. Residents are in the common living room and watch midday television. They lie on Lazy-boy chairs, while caregivers and nurses hand out pills as if they were candy. The walkers are scattered like spiders ready to crawl. For me, this place has always been like a waiting room for death, a glimpse into the realities of human mortality.
Mom’s bedroom door still has the black and white photo that Dad stuck on it as a beautiful young debutante, but now a new sign is stuck next to her: “Ask a staff member. before coming in”. Inside, mom is lying on the bed, supported by pillows. Her skin is yellow and her eyes are closed. I lean in and kiss her quickly: “I love you mom.
The room still smells like itself even though it’s gone. Here it is the scent of old age and disease, a mixture of urine, rancid sweat and unventilated clothing.
I remember the last time I saw Mom on Easter Friday. She was lying in this bed with the rail up to prevent her from falling. Someone had tied a scarf around her hair to remove it from her face. I remember it was pastel pink and cream, the same colors mom never wore. Someone had put lipstick on her thin, patchy lips. The lipstick had flowed as if tiny red veins were cascading out of her mouth. Her face was thin, her cheeks hollow, her pale skin translucent. I gave her a kiss on the cheek and whispered, “Mom, it’s time.
My daughter Mia was with me. She kissed her grandmother and perused the floral guestbook. We pinned new photos on the wall, right next to Mom’s bed: one of Bianca at her prom and another of Mia and Isabella smiling in the golden light. I realized that most of the photographs on mom’s wall were ten years old, of my three daughters when they were little and in elementary school. It was as if time had stood still, as if we were keeping the girls at the age when Mom last remembered them.
I had whispered this line over and over again, on every visit. “Mom, it’s about time. “
I haven’t cried yet. I don’t know why I can’t cry.
I wake up early to the chirping of sparrows and a blazing orange sunrise through the roller shutters. Mom surrounds me here at my beach bach in Waimarama, in the mosaic tiles she made that are now under the apple tree, in the blue bottles she has collected now scattered around the kitchen near her blue jug favorite. The sun warms my face as I sit on the deck and wonder how is going to be today: the day we bury the darling mother we started losing 14 years ago because of the Alzheimer’s disease.
I smell jasmine flowers wet from yesterday’s rain. I close my eyes. When I reopen them, a fantail flies close to me, flying so close I could touch it. In seven years, I have never seen a fantail here. I have the impression that mom is with me and says to me: I am fine, I am free now.
I feel mum in a way I never felt when she was lying in that nursing home bed with the gate up. My chest heaves and I sob for the first time.
Myour uncles are strumming guitars and my cousin plays the organ, the songs that mom loved. Everyone from my childhood has been there: the couple who took care of me when she went to the hospital, the neighbors we barbecued with, our parents and best friends, her old school friends. . This church was her privileged place: in the foreground, on the altar where the priest awaits her, Mum was reading the prayers of Sunday mass while I was agitated on the bench.
Here I am Lord ring. Mom is carried by her brother, her nephews and my partner. The man I love passes me in a blue suit with his head bowed, carrying my mother. I sob and suffocate. Mom never knew him. He came into my life when she had no idea who or what someone was or anything. I’m not sure I can breathe. The bench is hard under me; my daughter’s body is warm and soft and I sink into it.
Stylish in his navy blue suit, Dad begins to read his welcoming eulogy, the speech he wrote seven years ago in preparation for the day. He talks about the loss of his best friend, about love and acceptance: how mom understood it. My uncle, mum’s younger brother, tells us about how she grew up in a family of seven, helping their dad sell magazines in his Waipukurau bookstore and at the train station, and how, as a teenager, mom was obsessed with Roy Orbison. . When she met daddy, he had thick black-rimmed glasses, just like the singer. My uncle talks about how dad took care of mum when she got sick, how daddy applied moisturizer to her legs every day and put lipstick on her.
My eulogy is a gift for mom. I see the crowded benches and the eyes watching me but I think of her and try to calm my voice. The mother we remember is not the one whose spirit we fainted, I say, whom we lost years ago to this cruel disease. She has been deceived from years of experiences – retirement and traveling with dad, time with her grandchildren and with us – and we have been deceived, too.
I say mom – the mom we remember and think of – is in her sewing room pedaling the sewing machine, making beautiful clothes that she often left hanging from our handles. door during the night, as if a fairy had come to visit us. Mom is in the garden, leaning over a rose bush, cutting off rose bushes and pruning plants. Mom is the life of the party, in her dining room with friends or relatives who have come to visit her. Mom is at the piano, her fingers run over the keys as the music echoes around the house and makes us all so happy.
Mum will be buried in Wharerangi cemetery. When we arrive, the tomb awaits him, under an elm tree with a view of rows of tombs strewn with flowers. It is a perfect place for a mother who has always loved living on a hill with a view. Our first house was on a hill in Napier with a view of the bush, and when I was 12 we moved to a house on a hill with a view of the sea. His rest home was on flat land reclaimed from of the Napier earthquake in 1931. Before that, the land was a pond.
We sing as she is carried up the hill by her brother, nephews and my partner. Above us, the elm is losing its leaves, golden and glistening in the afternoon light. Someone hung a chime from a tree branch.
The priest prays. I follow the others to the edge of mom’s grave. I pick up a mound of dirt and sob. I cry for seven years of tears, a sorrow that I could never release in his lifetime. We drape a bouquet of blue delphiniums, white roses and white lilies on top of the tomb.
Mom is buried near her babies. She carried her only son for 31 weeks; he was born breathless two days before my first birthday. She could never see David or hold him in her arms. Dad brought him here with a priest and they buried his little body here, 20 yards from where we are burying Mum today. Fourteen months later, she gave birth to my sister, Maggie. A brown scar that snaked across Mom’s abdomen was the only evidence she had carried a second stillborn child – another child she was not allowed to cry for. I remember running my fingers over the scar and I remember mom hugging me and squeezing me.
I visit mum the next day, before returning to Wellington. I pull my jacket around me, goosebumps pricking my arms. The wind picks up, freezing my wet face. I don’t want to think of her lying there in the cold. The bouquet is still fresh and fragrant, covering her like a blanket, but only one rose came loose and fell on the heap of earth. I close my eyes and think of her. When I reopen them, a fantail flies around, flying in and out of the elm branches above.
Death reminds me of life, of not taking a single day for granted, of gratitude, and of expressing love to those who are most important. I have never visited the graves of deceased relatives but now I understand. In the nursing home, every year that Mom’s illness kept her away from me, as if the person I was visiting wasn’t really, really, the mother I knew.
Now I take the white rose and place it on David and Maggie’s grave. Mom is with her babies now, and she is finally free.
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