Mom

CorcoranBToday would have been my mother’s ???? birthday. (If you’re wondering if I know when my mother was born and how old she would have been today, the answer is yes, I know, but she said she’d come back and haunt us if we revealed her age.) In her honor, I am posting an edited version of the eulogy I gave at her recent funeral.

“Vroom vroom, she’s coming around the curve, she speeds into the straightaway.”

That was my mom, playing ‘racecar driver’ after Sunday Mass. She would start her race commentary at a specific intersection on our street and continue it until our house. It was a routine we loved and asked for often, but my mom, being smart, didn’t do it every week—it was a treat we enjoyed all the more because it wasn’t a given.

This is not the only memory I have of my mother driving. There was the time when she and I drove my sister Nancy to Denver for her freshman year of college, then drove to St. Louis to visit my brother. In a role reversal, it was Mom who was speeding down the highway; when she asked me to keep on eye on the billboards for a motel, I said, “well, I would, Mom, but they’re a blur.” Then there were her car trips to see my sister Susan in another city; Mom’s trip times got progressively shorter over the years. We’re pretty sure she started lying about what time she left home so my sisters wouldn’t know just how fast she was driving!

This was part of the person my mom was—speed demon, college graduate, Girl Scout leader, traveler, adventurer, social worker, Catholic, choir member, friend, grandmother, mother.

My siblings and I have many memories of Mom’s years in the Girl Scouts. She began as a troop leader with the girls a year younger than me and there were many weekend camping trips in which the whole family joined. She was a camp counselor in the summers and eventually became a trainer, attending workshops in other states. I am proud of the fact that Mom was a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts and I like to think of the positive influence she had on a generation of girls.

When my siblings and I were in grade school, Mom started taking courses at the local community college. It took her five or six years to accumulate credits equivalent to two years of college. My senior year of high school, Mom started full-time at a nearby university. I remember her sitting at the dining room table, crying over her statistics homework, but it didn’t stop her. Her graduation was a family celebration of her accomplishment.

After several years of working at a hospital as a social worker, Mom applied for and was granted a Rotary Club Scholarship. That sent her to Wellington, New Zealand for ten months. She had classes to attend, but took advantage of her school vacations to explore New Zealand and Australia, making friends with whom she exchanged visits for many years.

After I completed my first Danskin sprint triathlon, I challenged my mother and sisters to join me in participating the next year. Mom went back to the gym and started training. During that time, she had a couple of bike accidents that probably would have broken the bones and/or resolve of someone else. Not Mom—she continued training and with my sisters and me, completed the triathlon. Whenever someone at work or the gym would say he or she didn’t think they could do a triathlon, I’d say, “well, if my 69-year-old mother could do it….” That tended to shut them up!

There were a couple of areas of Mom’s expertise that I found frustrating, only because I didn’t inherit those talents. One is that she had a green thumb—her African violets were the envy of many and her houseplants thrived. As someone whose horticultural accomplishments peak at keeping a cactus alive, I was envious. The other area was music. I can’t carry a tune but Mom sang and played the piano. It was one of the joys of her life to sing in her church choir and it was extra special to her when her two older grandsons joined the choir and sang with her.

Back to that race car routine. I thought of it during my recent stay in Italy because, after years of being an uber-cautious driver, I think I may be turning into my mother, at least when I am in Italy, where I seem to have become rather fearless. It’s a cultural joke with negative connotations to say ‘oh dear, I’m turning into my mother,’ but in reality, there are worse things to be than a leader, traveler, adventurer, friend.

Grief in the twilight zone

Last Mother’s Day, I wrote about the twilight zone my mother was in as a result of dementia and how my siblings and I and our relationship with her were also in that twilight zone. By this Mother’s Day just past, our mother was dead and I find I’m still in a twilight zone of sorts.

When my father died unexpectedly several years ago, I was overwhelmed with grief, sometimes sobbing uncontrollably in those first days after his death.

With my mother, it has been different. This is due in part to the long slow lead-up to her death. At every care conference for the last 18 months, one of the professionals in attendance has told us that dementia is a progressive, fatal disease. There was no attempt to give us a timeline, but there was no sugarcoating either.

However, if you had asked any of us this past Christmas how Mom was, we would have said physically stronger than she had been in a year, able to read and somewhat comprehend books and the daily newspaper, and conversing rationally at times. We knew the dementia was still there, but the decline seemed to have reached a plateau of sorts.

When she got an infection in late winter, though, it was the beginning of the end. By April, the care center recommended hospice, which started a couple of weeks before her death. When the end came, it came swiftly, for which I am grateful.

And that’s the twilight zone. I did not want my mother to die, but I did not want her to live the way she was living, either. If she had continued as she was at Christmas, it might have been okay for a time, but when she was no longer eating and drinking and starting to have trouble recognizing family members, we saw how ugly dementia could get and how ugly it was for families whose loved ones have been in that stage for months and years.

My sister referred in a post on her blog to the devil of dementia and this state of mixed emotions is one of those devils. Even before the dementia, I am not sure my mother and I ever would have had any kind of resolution or reconciliation in our relationship, but dementia robbed us of that chance, as it robbed her of herself in many ways, and as it is robbing me now of the kind of heartfelt grief I had with my dad’s death. When I say to myself I wish my mother back, I know I am saying that I wish back the woman I knew as a child and a teenager and a young woman. I cannot wish her back only to have her suffer, as I know she did, the devil of dementia.

In the early morning hours after my mother’s death, jet-lagged and exhausted, I was in that half-awake / half-asleep stage when one doesn’t know if one is dreaming or thinking. The only word for what occurred is a vision, where I saw my mother breaking out of her body as it had been and standing there as she was many years ago. I like to think that is what has happened to her mind and heart and soul and that now she is whole and at peace.