Monday, August 25, 2014
My mother died almost three weeks ago.
As I've gone through life this past three weeks without her, I've cried, laughed, gotten angry, been sad and been grateful for the love she had for all of us.
She lived a full life and was only sick for about a week before her death at age 76. As her "baby," I was the youngest of her three children and had the privilege of being loved and nurtured by her for 45 years. I was a "pill baby" born in the 60s and she often referred to me as "the best mistake she and Dad ever made."
Mom lived for her husband, my dad, and her kids, grand kids and great-grand kids. I don't think she ever knew a stranger and would gladly talk to anyone about her family. She always had a picture in her purse of a grandchild and always had a story to tell about any of us kids and her grandbabies.
She was a very talented artist, specializing in folk arts and crafts. She and dad made thousands of handicrafts and went to hundreds if not thousands of arts and craft shows. I always remember her walking at various lakes and ponds that she and dad were fishing at looking for pieces of driftwood that she would paint Santa Claus faces on and sell at craft shows. She could paint, sew, decorate beautiful cakes, cook and make anyone feel at home in her home.
I remember as a child she would decorate cakes. She would make beautiful frosting roses on pop bottle caps fastened to nails in a wooden board (something my Grandpa Fox had created for her). She would take those flowers and make gorgeous cakes for many people's birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and other special occasions.
She was a gracious host. Our house was always open to friends and family and there was always something good to eat on the kitchen counter - especially when we got home from school. Homemade long johns, cakes and cookies were normal at our house. When she and Dad had retired and they volunteered for the American Legion and Legion Ladies Auxiliary, they were the ones always making soup, ice cream or baked goods for the many fundraisers they had.
I know there will be thousands of times I will miss her, but especially at Christmas. For the past 25 or so years, she has made each one of us kids a homemade angel Christmas tree ornament. Each one is different. Some years we each got one and other years she would make a set of three for each of us three kids. She also used her sewing talents to handmake a doll and doll quilt each year for each of her granddaughters. Each year a new doll. My 21 year old niece has 21 of those dolls! My 10 year old daughter, Grace has 10.
Another Christmas tradition that will live on forever in our family is our Christmas stockings. When my older brother and sister were little (in the 1960s), she made personalized stockings out of felt for her, Dad and my brother and sister. When I came along in 1969, there was one for me, too. As we became adults and got married, our spouses each received a personalized stocking, and as each grandchild was born, a new stocking was crafted. Each year at Christmas, she made sure that each stocking was filled with special gifts for each person, along with an orange in the toe.
I'll miss that.
I'll miss her smile, her laugh and some of her other quirky habits. I'll miss her love of cinnamon bears and clove-flavored candy.
I'll miss her "Watch for Rudolph" warning when we were leaving her house after dark to go home, reminding us to watch out for deer on the Kansas highways.
When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 abdominal cancer (they believe it started in the pancreas) just one week before her death, she took the news gracefully. We talked about how she wanted to handle the situation and she took it head on. She said she didn't want to sit in a dark corner and feel sorry for herself. When the oncologist visited with her the day we got the diagnosis, he was amazed that she hadn't been in severe pain for several months (based on the degree of how the cancer had spread to many of her organs.)
She was a very lucky woman to have gotten a stage 4 cancer diagnosis and was gone in a week. Yes, the cancer diagnosis was a complete shock and then her sudden deterioration and death was another shock, but once again, my mom handled this gracefully. She talked about her living will with us and that she didn't want any extraordinary measures to prolong her life. She knew she had a terminal diagnosis and also knew she was loved by all of us. As we looked through the safe deposit box a few days after her death, we all felt comforted when we read her living will. We made all of her end-of-life decisions just the way she had directed.
Although it was heartbreaking and the hardest thing I've ever lived through, I'm so glad I got to be there for the last 10 days of her life. I got to witness the true love and devotion of her and my dad. Married for 57 years, my mom and dad breathed the same air for a majority of their lives. The love and dedication my dad showed to Mom in that last week was amazing. After only two nights in the hospital, he moved out of his hotel room and stayed by her bedside for the rest of her hospitalization. He was there in the middle of the night when she would wake up disoriented and upset and would be the one to stroke her arm and whisper reassurances to her that she was ok.
The last 24 hours of my mom's life on earth was so surreal to me. It was the first time in probably 30 years that just the five us - Mom, Dad, my sister, brother and I - were together alone without spouses and children as a nuclear family. We spent those hours in her hospital room and shared stories, favorite songs and just time together.
So what have I learned in the last three weeks?
I've learned that the love of a mother is the strongest love a child can feel. When she's gone, there are other people who love you, but nobody can replace that love of a mother for her child and the love of a child for his mother. My heart aches, but it is also filled with joy that she was a Christian and is in Heaven with God, free of cancer's evil hold. She's surrounded by my grandparents and her grandparents looking down on all of us - surrounding us with her love.
I've learned that nothing lasts forever, including your parents' lives.
I've felt the pain and heartache that my own wife felt just four short years ago when her mother died suddenly. But I've also felt the love and support that my wife has provided me as she knows the pain I'm feeling.
I've also learned that support from friends and family is very important to get you through these rough spots in life. The day we got my mom's cancer diagnosis, I got in touch with a few of my closest friends from college to let them know I would be needing their support as we went through this next stage of life. Each one of them offered their support and we talked many times that week. The night my mother died, I had a 2 1/2 hour drive home and I was able to talk to each one of them as I drove home. Each one cried right along with me. I knew they hurt right along with me as I was processing how I was going to live without my mother.
I've learned not to take anything for granted.
Ten days before my mother's death, I had no idea how much time we had with her.
I'm glad I got to spend time with her.
I'm glad I was picked by God to be her son. She taught me so much about life.