I started Public School in’64, just before my grandmother retired from the Archives. Back in those days, a 6-year-old was able to walk the two blocks each way to school without fear of the sorts of things that happen to children in these allegedly enlightened modern times; I left my house for school long after my mother and grandmother… My parents… Had already left to drive into DC for work. When I got out of school in the afternoon I walked two houses past mine to stay with my babysitter until my parents got back home at night. My brother, 5 years my senior, was already being bused to Junior High School, and got picked up by our parents on their way back home from work. Because my parents were both members of several organizations, a couple of days a week, they would come home much later, nearer to bedtime, and on those days, I would stay with the sitter until everyone came home.

There is a group of organizations, Christian-based, that my grandparents had been a part of for much of their adult lives. My grandfather was a Freemason, as well as a Shriner, and they were both members of what is called the Eastern Star. As well, there are preparatory organizations – Job’s Daughters for girls, and Demolay for boys – that are designed to start early in their children’s lives to prepare them for joining the Masons and the Eastern Star once they have reached majority age, should they decide to go that route with their lives.

My mother was a Job’s daughter and, throughout her adult life held every office in the Eastern Star, and when it was our respective turn, my brother and I had been members of the DeMolay. I “get” that this might not be of interest to a lot of people, but this was the way my mother was raised, and it became the way my brother and I would be raised, at least until we were old enough to choose differently. Growing up in a God-centric household and being taught the importance of charity, the poetry of humility and grace, and the value of putting others’ needs ahead of your own shaped the person I became and, with all that my mother endured – in her relationships as well as her struggles to survive and raise two sons – that she held to these values and ideals all her life continues to inspire me all these years later after her passing.

I mentioned earlier that my father told me my mother had an amazing voice and was a good singer. As far back as I can remember, she was always singing; beyond the countless lullabies she sang to my brother and me at bedtime or to me when I was sick, it seemed like that’s all my mother ever did. She sang along with songs on the radio in the car, she sang along with the songs playing on the record player at home, she was a member of every chorus and choir that would have her… Sang on Sundays with the church choir and did countless solos at her Eastern Star meetings(which I wasn’t a part of because that was a members-only thing. Even my grandmother would tell me, out of my mother’s earshot, that she and Daddy were to blame for Mom’s endless singing because she had begged and pleaded with them to pay for singing lessons as a young girl until they gave in and signed her up. She would, however, quickly add that it was worth every penny because it gave my mother such great joy.

Not long after my grandmother died, my mother had a heart attack. My brother and I are pretty sure that the combination of my grandmother’s death, a lifetime of smoking, and the effectively impossible task of shouldering the financial burden of keeping up with the bills in my grandmother’s absence ultimately caused it. Mom, the eternal optimist, kept assuring us that it was all because of smoking and that she was never going to smoke again, but we knew better even as we let her think she had successfully assured us that everything would be just fine. It wasn’t. Finances eventually caught up with her, and with a little help behind the scenes from Aunt Lynn, she was ultimately convinced that the right thing to do was sell the house and get something smaller. She ultimately agreed, but only with the understanding that she wanted to be near her sons, and since we both lived in New Hampshire, she sold the house and got an apartment fairly close to where the two of us live, a few towns away from each other.

Her last job in DC, before moving North, was working as an administrative assistant for a public relations firm. During her time there, she met and shook hands with a number of famous people, but the one she never got over was having shaken Ronald Reagan’s hand.

She said that when he took hold of her hand, he leaned in close with direct eye contact and made it feel to her like they were the only two people in the room. She was Starstruck and never forgot that moment, however brief that she spent with the man who would one day be president. She retired from that firm as part of the set of plans for selling the house and moving, and for a while after the move, she didn’t work at all but would eventually sign on with temporary agencies for which she would have only short-term commitments that gave her time to do what she loved most; take long drives, do lots of sightseeing, and drive back and forth to Aunt Lynn’s house to visit from time to time on three-day weekend adventures.

During this stretch of time in her life, I separated and ultimately divorced from my first wife. 2 years later, I remarried and moved to Texas, where I would stay for ten years. During that time, except for trips I took picking up and dropping off horses in New England, we didn’t spend much time together. The Baton, so to speak, was handed to my brother, with whom she ultimately moved in a couple of years before I would divorce my second wife. The period of not quite two years between the initial separation and the ultimate divorce is what I routinely refer to as my dark years, and I only mention it here because, unbeknownst to any of us at the time, my mother was entering her own beginning stages of winding down toward the end of her life.

After my first divorce and before I met my second wife, I took a solitary trip to collect my thoughts and spend some time with my ancestors. The first leg of my sojourn brought me to the Antietam Memorial Cemetery in Sharpsburg, where I walked the grounds and looked at headstones. I made my way from there over to the battlefield itself and climbed to the top of the lookout tower that had been destroyed during the battle but was rebuilt after the war. I am told many of my relatives helped with its reconstruction and placement of shrines, statues, and markers. From there, my final leg, I went to the Family Cemetery and sat down at my grandmother’s headstone.

We talked for at least an hour, first about how everyone was doing, then about the many things she had taught me and how right she was about everything she had warned me against. Then I laughed and apologized one more time for my middle and late teenage version of me that had been so damn stubborn and such a pain in the ass… And I’m pretty sure I heard her whisper back to me that I was forgiven and that she was proud of the many different things I had accomplished so far, but that I wasn’t done yet, and there were many things left to do. And my apology was sincere.

After a little while, deep in thought, I spun around, seeing Aunt Carrie’s and Aunt Ruth’s graves, and then there was Miss Hattie’s (her lineage is Kinfolk of the McCoy side of the famous feud) and all the other names I had either heard or had spent time with in my youth. I reminded myself that all of the people laid to rest in this spot had some connection to my existence, and if it weren’t for this combination of people, I would never have been born and would never have had the opportunity to become the man I am today, built with pieces from each of them, and that I owed each and every one of them a debt of gratitude I can only repay by making good use of the collective lessons they left behind for me to learn.

I was laid off in early ’08, and when the money ran out, so did my second wife; she took with her everything I cared about, built a life together with her to acquire, and took on a lover next door to the house we were living in. Whenever the day comes that I have summoned the strength, emotionally, to write my monograph on the subject of love and relationships, you will get every gut-wrenching detail of that nightmare, but for now, it is mentioned here only because – when that hell had gotten to its worst, my oldest daughter told me it was time to come back home to New England and in 2010, I did.

When I first got back, I stayed on her summer porch with the cat and two dogs my ex didn’t take. It was tight, but when family is in trouble, family circles the wagons and takes care of one another, and we made it work. And sticking with that theme, a couple of months after I got back, my brother reached out to me and told me he needed my help, asking me to go to his house for beer and a family meeting.

During the time I lived in Texas, my mother bought a mobile home in a senior trailer park and did quite well for herself in the early years, finally getting out of the apartment life and having a home of her own once again. By the time my life in Texas started falling apart, my mother had begun to exhibit early signs of dementia, and not long before I was back in New Hampshire, he had had to move my mother in with him because she needed someone to keep an eye on her in fear of all the things that come along with dementia such as driving alone, leaving burners on, forgetting to pay bills, and so forth.

With no hesitation, I accepted the job of moving her back into her house and moving in with her so that she would not be alone or, worse, be shipped off to a nursing home. And just like that, the generations-long script of the eldest child caring for the senior parent had been flipped, just as it had (under different circumstances) when my mother had taken on that task for her mom. And while I appreciate that some would be quick to disagree, I remain convinced to this day that it had been God’s plan all along for my life and my mother’s life to come back together, full circle, in this way. I can’t deny wishing it had been a snidge less painful, but, as the post-divorce tattoo over my heart says, “it is what it is.”

My mother lived four more years after we brought her back home to her own house. The first three of these years were special for both of us; we did a lot of catching up about my time in Texas (she had come to visit once in our early years there and had a chance to see what I had built and the horses that we had – although she wanted no part of getting on one – and she was very proud of me for having realized that lifelong dream of mine she was to blame for inspiring me to pursue all those years ago after putting me on the first one I ever rode. We had a lot of laughs, she opened up to me about things she didn’t know I already knew about her time after my grandmother had passed. She was in good spirits, she sang songs for me (at my request), I took her to church on Sundays so she could stand up and sing hymns with the rest of the parishioners, and she made me drive her all over God’s creation.

We went to visit Aunt Lynn several times, and these trips always required that we visit the cemetery. Each of us talked to the family quietly to ourselves, and I would go off into the distance, pretending I wanted to visit some of the other family plots in other parts of the cemetery but really just wanting to give her some time to herself so she could weep, like she always did, at the grave site of my grandparents , as I had, all those years earlier after my first divorce. She had advancing emphysema and COPD at that point and had that little portable O2 bottle that was light enough for her to carry in a strap over her shoulder, but walking was getting increasingly difficult, so I would just leave her to herself and help her back in the car once she was ready to go.

Aunt Lynn never went with us to the cemetery. She always used to say the same thing… “There’s nothing but dead people there; why do I need to go there?” but the reality – and the whole family knew it, so we never argued with her about it – was that her youngest daughter, Karen, had died at the age of seven and she didn’t have the strength to visit her at the cemetery.

She had died in my house when I was no more than 10, after having been sick and vomiting in the middle of the night. Everybody was screaming, my brother and I were called up from the seller where we had our bedrooms, he tried to administer CPR but you could tell, long before the ambulance actually got there, that she was already gone. We would find out after the autopsy that she had an undiagnosed enlarged heart and that the violent vomiting was just too much for her heart to take. The doctors ultimately said her condition couldn’t have been repaired and that it was inevitable that she would not have lived a full life anyway, but this obviously never provided comfort to Aunt Lynn and she was never the same after having lost her child.

My mother and Aunt Lynn spoke almost daily on the phone, sometimes for hours at a time – God knows what those two talked about – and she had even come to visit us once . She never drove, never had a driver’s license, and was scared to death to ever get behind the wheel of an automobile. Whenever she did travel, it was either by plane, train, or bus. She said she was happy to do so because it gave her more time to read, which is something she told me once was her greatest joy in life. She stayed with us that one time for a few days, and

I took “my girls” anywhere they told me to go. We saved my mother’s favorite place for last (Nubble Lighthouse, in Cape Neddick, Maine) and it was the place she made me take her to when it was just the two of us every weekend it was nice out up until about the last six months of her life. Some of her ashes were sprinkled there, and it is a place I continue to visit whenever someone will take me… and it has been my go-to -spot to recharge my spiritual batteries for almost 50 years.

Over the period of our last six or eight months or so together, now fully in the throes of Alzheimer’s, the rate of her decline seemed to speed up so dramatically that it felt like a switch had been flipped. Where our evening routine the entire time I lived with her was for me to cook dinner and then sit with her through Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, cutting up as we wondered whether Vanna and Pat had something going on on the side or seeing who could answer the Final Jeopardy question first, she began to refuse dinner all together and needed me to sit next to her holding her hand as she tried to fend off the increasing degrees of anxiety and panic attacks (they called this “sundowning”). And the harder I tried to convince her she needed to eat, the more reasons she came up with for explaining why she couldn’t. It didn’t taste right, the chicken was too stringy, the way I had cooked it was wrong, or maybe her dentures were just too dull to chew anymore; she always had an excuse and always made me just go to McDonald’s and buy her chicken nuggets and fries. I would always give in because at least she was getting some level of protein in her system, but it only made the situation worse.

I knew I was in over my head, that care of my healthy mother was easy but that understanding the disease and understanding how to manage the symptoms (knowing what to look for to determine where things were in the progress of that disease) were things I was not trained on, didn’t understand, and was clearly losing the fight against.

As the pounds were falling off of her, her weight dropping alarmingly fast, I finally decided enough was enough and set her up to see her doctor. Every previous schedule I had set up for her would end up being canceled because, at the last minute, she would tell me she wasn’t having a good day and needed me to reschedule.

When I finally got her appointment scheduled, I threatened to sling her over my shoulder if she didn’t get in the car… Trying to make her laugh and promised her a meal and a chocolate shake at Wendy’s after the appointment, as I said so… It didn’t take long for her doctor to tell me that it was time to consider hospice care. I knew what that word meant, but it didn’t sink in until after I had gotten her home that we were really talking about her being near the end of her life, and I honestly felt both an overwhelming sense of sadness and grief but at the same time I felt as if a huge weight was being lifted off my shoulders, and I hated myself a little for thinking that way.

Before I bring Mom’s story to a close, I simply cannot do so without taking a moment to talk about the people upon whose shoulders the job of administering effectively terminal care is voluntarily placed there; anyone who performs this work is the truest of angels to have ever been born. As I met and worked with these men and women, I was humbled by their spirit, by their kindness, and by their ability to bring joy to patients they were assigned to, knowing full well that those patients were going to die. I can’t imagine a job any more difficult or gut-wrenching than the one performed to help their patients die comfortably and with the utmost dignity and grace.

The transition to hospice care was breathtaking; case workers began to come and go, administrators brought paperwork and notebooks, and started throwing all kinds of services at us. Without even asking for one, we were given a handicap parking placard, had a wheelchair brought to the house, and I was given emergency supplies should there be any events that might come up in the hours between when they got there in the morning and after they left in the evening. Home Health nurses came in every day, checking vitals and just sitting and visiting with both of us, and then- dismissing me for things like taking a shower, reading my email, or even just taking walks around the block – while they visited with my mother one-on-one, building a rapport, brushing her hair or doing her nails, or whatever she happened to be in the mood for on any given day. Did I mention that it was breathtaking?

Initially, Mom seemed quite happy, thrilled about the attention she was getting, and enjoying all of the activity and the coming and going of visitors. This made me very happy, of course, but it also got me wondering whether I hadn’t been doing enough and that maybe her condition wouldn’t have progressed to this point had I done things differently, or at least more of this myself and sooner in her stages of decline. When I brought this up with the case care supervisor, she got a big smile on her face, leaned way in toward me, looked me straight in the eyes, and told me to put out my hands, palms down. As soon as I did, she slapped the back of them pretty firmly and said to me: “Stop that, just stop that right now.”

She explained to me how Alzheimer’s and Dementia work, how different parts of the brain start shutting down at different times, and that literally everybody who has lived through this experience with a loved one always starts off looking for ways to blame themselves or second guess themselves about what they might have done differently if they had it to do over again.

She said I was wasting a great deal of time, energy, and emotion beating myself up about something I never had any control over and that I needed to let it go. I share it here because, for those of you who have already experienced this, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For those of you who might someday in the future find yourself in this position, know that all you can do is love them, protect them, keep them safe, and provide them with someone to keep them company on this last stretch of their life Journey. Know, as well, that you are not alone.

After approximately six weeks, and I was warned in advance to be expecting this, my mother began to get irritated by the smallest of things, increasingly defiant about taking her medication, and downright indignant about someone else helping her bathe. I was honestly a little surprised, at first, to see her mood swings flailing all over the scale because that had not been her nature her entire life. By the grace of God, since I’d been warned about this in advance, I stuck to the game plan of reminding her that she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to or that made her uncomfortable; I tried to encourage her to let these nice people help her… That they were only doing their jobs and only cared about her best interests… But we were nearing the end of her time (about which she had no clue, living moment to moment as patients with this condition do, so I “just let it go.”

Somewhere around the beginning of September 2014, at the age of 82, I heard my mother calling out to me in the middle of the night. She had apparently gotten up to pee, walked herself into the bathroom with her walker, and fallen to the floor. She wasn’t in pain, hadn’t broken any bones, and only said that she was embarrassed but that she needed me to help her up and put her walker in front of her so she could walk back to her bed, which was an overstuffed rocking recliner chair (because she couldn’t lay flat on her back, it made her feel like she couldn’t breathe, so I had long ago gotten her the chair so she would at least be comfortable.

I spent the rest of the night on the couch, pretending to sleep but just lying there with my eyes closed and listening closely to her every move. Thankfully, she seemed to rest peacefully the rest of the way through the night. When she got up a little after sunrise, though, she went down the hall to the bathroom again… And fell again. This went on for three days, neither of us sleeping and me eventually going all the way into the bathroom with her, turning around to give her a little privacy as she pulled her pants down and sat, but every time I took my eyes off of her she just kept falling, and I knew that sooner or later she was going to break a bone; she was under 70 lb at this point and I knew she was both fragile and brittle, and couldn’t go on any longer- neither of us had slept in 3 days, and I had no choice but to make the call.

The case Care supervisor was there within half an hour or so, talked to Mom for a few minutes, gave her a pill from the emergency pack they had left for me all those months ago, and made me go outside to wait for her, where I would then chain smoke as she explained what was going to happen next.

She told me that the pill she had given her, I don’t remember exactly what it was… Haldol, maybe… was going to make her fall asleep so she wouldn’t be scared or upset about being put on a stretcher and loaded into the ambulance she had already called for. It was actually a pretty cool ambulance at that, an old-school, early ’50s model, and a little classy and elegant. She said there would be no lights, no sirens, and that I should call my brother and give him the opportunity to be with us.

Given her condition, by the time we got her to the hospice facility, they told us she only had a few days to live. It’s a funny thing, though, about my mother; she wasn’t ready to leave.

Her room had a table and a couple of chairs on one side, a TV on the wall above the foot of her bed, and a fold-out couch directly across the room from her bed. My brother brought his laptop, working at the table in her room during the day, and I spent the nights lying on the bed with her, watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, holding her hand like we had done every night of her final year. For the first few days, she was able to squeeze my hand back until she had gotten so weak she couldn’t do that anymore, even as I continued to squeeze hers. When those shows were over I would set her up with the Hallmark Channel, her favorite, and put myself to bed on the couch so I could listen to her breathing and be at the ready to call a nurse if something happened.

My brother’s daughters visited her during the day, reading from her favorite book of the Bible – the Book of Ruth – and my brother and his wife, coming and going, would sit with her and talk to her even though she was, by and large, uncommunicative. But one night, towards the end of her first week there, she snapped straight up into a sitting position on her bed, looked at me, and said “David? Am I dying?” and, if I’m being honest, it kind of freaked me out; here I had been, listening to her every breath and wondering which of them would be her last, and she snaps up opens her eyes looks at me and asks me that question.

I looked at her for a moment, arguing with myself about what I should say, and then I decided to go with the truth. “Yes, Mom, you are.” Without the slightest hesitation, she replied, “Then take me home.”I took hold of her hand and explained to her that she was too weak to be moved, that she needed to stay where she was, and that I would be with her every step of the way. Then she laid back, the look of defeat all over her face, and it was the last conversation the two of us would have before she died.

My oldest daughter came to visit her with her two kids so they could say their last goodbyes. It was September 17th, my granddaughter’s birthday, and she sat with my Mom for a while while I sat in the waiting room with the kids and visited for a little while, answering whatever questions they had about what was going on and whether great grandma was going to die. I kept it honest and set the seed in my granddaughter’s heart that every year on her birthday, she would always be reminded of her great-grandmother and that wherever she was, great-grandma was looking down and smiling in Celebration of her birthday. And I know what you’re thinking… But I didn’t want her to spend her whole life feeling like her birthday was a reminder of her death, but rather a chance to celebrate the memory of her and the good years they spent together before she died; that’s what I went with anyway, and ten years later, that’s how she looks at it.

The two of us had a cigarette together after I walked them out to the parking lot to their car, my daughter crying and me trying to be reassuring, and when I went back inside, there were three serious and somber faced nurses surrounding Mom’s bed. She had been drawn up into a fetal position for several days at this point, and when I looked at them and they looked back, I already knew what they were going to say, but I let them go ahead and tell me that she was in her last moments… That it would be anytime now.

I sat on the bed next to her and immediately flashed back to my last moments with my father. Without even thinking about it, I did with my mother what I had done seven years earlier with him; I stroked her hair and rubbed her forehead and told her that it was almost over now, that she didn’t have much time left, and that it was okay for her to let go. I told her that she had lived a good life, that she had been a good mother, a good daughter, and a good sister, and that Mother, Daddy, Aunt Ruth, Aunt Carrie, and Miss Hattie were waiting for her and that she needed to go be with them and be at peace.

I kept repeating this over and over again for several minutes, nurses checking her heart rate and pulse as they encouraged me to keep talking because they said studies have shown they can still hear your voice even if they can’t respond or react and that it’s the last sense that is lost before death. I’ll never be sure if that was just to keep me strong, but at that moment, it certainly did, and I kept doing it until the last heart rate and pulse check was done, and they looked at me and shook their head, telling me she had finally passed.

Mom’s room had a little porch, and the nurses told me that I could go out there, have a cigarette, and make any calls I needed to while they prepared her body… “her body?”… It sounded so detached when they said it, but it sure slapped me back to reality, and the first call I made was to her sister Aunt Lynn. We wept together for a few minutes; she said a prayer for my mother’s soul as I dragged on my cigarette, and then we were off the phone, and I was calling my brother. And just like that, as my brother said later, at a bar we went to afterward for a drink to celebrate the life of the woman who was responsible for our very existence, we were officially grown up now because we didn’t have parents anymore.

PostScript:

After my Father had died, a memorial service had been arranged at the VA Cemetery, where he was buried. True to my Father’s reputation, the hearse was late getting there, and we all had the chance to laugh that only my Father could pull off being late for his own funeral. I spoke at that service, as I mentioned, and when the service was over, his wife Joann asked if anyone wanted the casket opened so they could see him and say their last goodbyes. She knew, but I did not, that he had always wanted to die with a smile on his face, and that is precisely what the Undertaker did- he formed a smile on his face as part of preparing the body. She and I immediately broke out in hysterical laughter, which was probably in poor taste, but even in his death, he was able to have the last laugh, and I will always admire and respect him for Swan diving off of this Mortal coil on his own terms.

My brother spoke at my Mother’s memorial service, which was by design because I intended to speak at the internment of her ashes at the Family Cemetery. He told those who had attended the church service that even though we were poor growing up, we didn’t know it because even though we had learned from both our mother and grandmother that we didn’t have a lot of money, we never went without the things we needed and that made us the richest people on earth.

When it was my turn to speak, as we placed her urn right in the center of her parents’ headstone and I told the family that had gathered there how much I knew it meant to her to be surrounded by her family and loved ones and that everybody she would have wanted there had been there and I thank them all for that on her behalf. Of course, what only she and I, and all the other family members already resting in peace in that spot, could have known was that I was talking just as much about those still living as I was about those ancestors who had long ago passed on. And just as my father had gotten his last wish, so too did my mother; she was at peace, she passed with no regrets, and she was resting for eternity with all of those who had come before her in that place she always wanted to be.

With permission from a writer for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration, I will close this with a quote from her that perfectly expresses my mother’s feelings, and mine, about her family and its rich history (of which she was eternally proud). Be it graveside or sitting peacefully somewhere in deep reflection, the whispers of my ancestors are with me everywhere I go, in everything I do, and continue to be my greatest comfort as I go about the business of living out my remaining life until it’s my turn to do my own Swan dive off of this Mortal coil.

I have always loved the expression, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” but it seems to me, in the context of the family tree and all its subsidiary offshoots, that something is missing. What I believe is that if even one piece of where we came from(and who) were missing, the whole of us would have never existed. My Father was a selfish man who always put himself first, and my Mother was the most generous person I’ve ever known. She always put everyone else’s needs ahead of her own. Had either of these two people been the slightest bit different, even in the smallest of ways, I would not have become the person I became, and the whispers of my ancestors and the lessons they left behind for me to learn would never have been taught.

“Sometimes it’s like ancestors whispering amongst the dirt you walk in—you can hear the whispering—but it isn’t so easy to find where it originated and when it started, but you feel it in your bones.” ~ “The Rewind”

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