…when it is time to say goodbye.
My 88 year old mother died on December 1. The day after I visited her, made her a milk shake, read her mail to her, stopped to just say “hi” like I did on many Saturdays. I thought I would see her again on Monday when I was off the island again to get a haircut, have another lunch with her and her friends at the table, tell her about the progress I was making getting ready for the weekend craft fair coming up. Mom had become quite physically compromised in the last year, and her loss of independence could really frustrate her. Yet, she didn’t let it bother her for long. Even on her bad days she still managed to have a smile, delight in a piece of chocolate or two, and enjoy hearing about what was going on in the rest of the world. At quiet times we would look out on the incredible view of Frenchman’s Bay from her apartment window, where we could watch white caps build up on the water if it was windy, and enjoy the constantly changing blues and greens of the ocean.
When I got the call on Sunday morning, it seemed so sudden, yet so gentle. She had died in her sleep, just as I had hoped and prayed she would when her time came. No scary hospital drama. No teary clinging. And nothing left unsaid. Our last words to each other were, “I love you!” said breezily because we planned on seeing each other again in just a few days.
I canceled my plans for the craft show, and got to work with my brother on the details of saying goodbye to our mother. As I (with some tremendous help from her caregiver, Nancy, and others at Birch Bay) packed up her belongings in her apartment, my brother, in Maryland, wrote her obituary and started to plan the program for a memorial service on December 7. Our mother brought us up to be as efficient as she was, so now we are both marveling in our ability to wrap up so many details in one short week, and at how empty it all feels. It was only details we accomplished. The grieving is just beginning. I may not have made any jewelry this week, but I cleared space in my studio to sit and write a eulogy for my mother. It felt good and right to be in my most comforting and creative spot as I thought about all she has meant to me in my 60 years of life. I’m glad I did my writing there, because when I eventually get back to work on jewelry, it will be in the place where I worked on remembering all the good stuff I will miss about Mom. This is what I said yesterday at her service:
My mother was a fiercely independent woman. The fact that she was born with cerebral palsy was not a handicap to her. A challenge, maybe, but one she embodied with intellect, style and grace. She told me once, that she never felt sorry for herself, because she really had no knowledge of what life would be like living in a body that had the physical abilities she lacked. When she was in second grade she was encouraged to use a typewriter in school so she wouldn’t be held back by the physical challenges of handwriting. To this day I am amazed and grateful for the forward thinking of her parents, who moved from Rochester to Fredonia, New York, in the early 1930’s, so Mom could attend an elementary school that was affiliated with a teacher’s college. Had they stayed in Rochester, where at the time, children with physical handicaps were combined with children who had mental handicaps to be “schooled” in an institution, we all would not be here today sharing memories of the amazing woman who has had such an influence in my life.
There is no question that Mom could and did enjoy life like everyone else. She just needed time to think things through and find her own way to achieve the same results as others. It is human nature to think our own way of doing things is the best, but Mom’s way was usually how we did things. Her family nickname was, “The Cruise Director.” She earned it and she was good at it, even though there could be times when it grated on us.
She was an excellent driver, having fought a little harder than the rest of us for the right to take a driver’s test. Right from the start, Mom figured out that it saved time and gas and was much safer to plan out all of her errands using right hand turns, avoiding left hand turns as much as possible. Over 50 years later, UPS would make this a policy for their drivers, saving time, money, and promoting driver safety. She was way ahead of her time on many things.
For one segment of her 2,000 hours as a volunteer for Highland Hospital in Rochester, N.Y. she was a buyer and manager of the hospital gift shop. She was expected to keep the cigarette machine stocked. At this time in her life, she and my father had already quit their own smoking habit and she felt it was an ethical dilemma to make cigarettes available to doctors who were telling their patients to stop smoking. She petitioned to have the machines removed from the hospital, much to the dismay of the hospital board. She had to fight to get her way, but eventually she did. With the beginning of the environmental movement in the 1960’s, Mom had her family trained to cut the tops and bottom off cans and flatten them for recycling. She faithfully took bottles, cans, newspapers, and cardboard to the new town recycling center, before I had ever heard of anyone else’s parents doing this. She was an avid skier, going without ski poles so they wouldn’t trip her up, a technique that eventually became useful in teaching young children to ski. She also had “shortie” skis that were easier for her to maneuver, years before they would become a popular commercial option.
I learned a lot from my mother, but some of the most lasting lessons came to me when she was not actively “directing the cruise.” At age 10, my friend Linda and I wanted to make chocolate chip cookies. “Here’s the bag, the directions are on the back,” said Mom. She was nearby in the kitchen, as Linda and I put all of the ingredients into one bowl, neglecting to read the part about creaming the butter and sugar, adding the eggs and then adding the flour and chips at the end. The cookies were a disappointing mess. Mom didn’t criticize or say anything more than, “Oh, maybe you forgot to read the directions all the way through first.” A life lesson learned in one shot.
I watched Mom learn to arrange flowers from a class taken with her friend Marianne Woodams. I think of her every single time I put flowers in a vase. She was good at it and showed me how to do it by her example. I learned to identify birds and carry a bird book as a result of watching her own interest in birds. Her love of unusual jewelry, much of it influenced by the Arts and Crafts tradition, probably had the most profound impact on my life. I always had access to her jewelry drawers, and from a young age she let me borrow pins to wear to school, trusting me to still have them firmly attached when I returned home. In our house, any craft activity was encouraged. Trips to Mr. Minor’s craft shop on University Avenue always took precedence over buying toys at places like Neisner’s and Woolworth. After a childhood like that it is no surprise that I’m very satisfied to have ended up with a career in jewelry design. Thank you Mom.
Thank you for your love of sweaters, for teaching me about cashmere, for your amazing sense of color and design, for your incredible ability to laugh at and lighten awkward moments, for taking us to hockey games, for the endless drills in grammar that taught us when to use “me” and when to use “I,” for making sure I never used the word “irregardless” because it isn’t a word, (though it has been so commonly misused that it now is a word!), and for teaching me that “some of each” is correct and “some of both” is not.
Thank you for your tremendous strength and amazing calm in helping Dad through his dying process, and for finding the courage to travel, learn about stocks and bonds, and take on so many activities as an independent widow. You lived a full life, on your own terms. A true example of strength.
In the past few months, my mother would get a little gleam in her eye and say, “I think I want to tell you a secret. You have to promise not to tell anyone because I think they would frown on my activity here. But, I had so much fun. I snuck out, got in my car, and drove to Washington to see the apartment where Steve was going to move.” I was fascinated. I asked for more details and learned she never actually saw anyone, and she was happy with how at how quick the drive was. (Only an hour to get there!) She said it was so easy to drive again, as if she had done it yesterday. I was fortunate to hear several versions of this story. Each time it ended with her words, “That was the best day I’ve had in a long time.”
I visited my mother the day before she died. She was doing well with no signs of distress. She did ask me about renewing her driver’s license. “Do I have to take a driving test again?” she asked. Probably, Mom. I think after three years they ask you to take a test in the car. “Darn it!” she responded. I comfort myself with the feeling that her abrupt departure from this life, involved sneaking out to get in the car and drive away on her own terms. If I’d known she was going to go like that, I would have said the same words she said to many of us when we were headed out the door: “Drive carefully and lock your doors. I love you!”