My mom passed away yesterday. She was 91 years old. She died peacefully in her sleep, which is what we all prayed for. Mom suffered for over 13 years with Alzheimer’s. It truly is the most horrible disease – “The Long Goodbye,” as it is known.. Not only do you lose your connection to those around you, but you lose little bits of yourself along the way. Mom had no memory of me, of being married, of having children. During our last visit, she told me she may be gone for awhile because she had made arrangements to go see her parents in New Zealand. And I think they are once again, all together as a family, with God singing Hallelujah! And that brings a smile to my face and forces some joy into my tears.
Mom and I were blessed to have spent some pretty wonderful moments together. I am not going to sugar-coat anything, because Alzheimer’s totally sucks and it makes life for everyone affected particularly difficult. But you know what? I’d rather remember the laughs and the giggles. The times where she was just so funny and light-hearted. Because mom could be that way. Once we got her off all her medications, this wonderful, kind, and fun old lady emerged and I enjoyed her immensly. During the last few months of her life, she was a happy woman. She loved where she lived, and everyone loved her. I know she could be a stubborn woman and refuse to say, use her walker (which is why she suffered with a broken nose and two broken hips within a year) nor would she stay in her wheelchair when she was asked to. But she could light up a room and make everyone in it glad she was there. Sometimes the comments she would make would cause us all to shake our heads in wonder and think, “Where the heck did that come from?” Near the end, when Alzheimer’s had pretty much won, conversation was virtually impossible. “Isn’t it a lovely day today, Mom? The sun is shining so brightly!” And her response? “You know, you have to weigh wether you want some thing in your life or not. So I put things up and stare at them, and then I decide.” Okie dokie! LOL!
One day we decided to have spa day. I did our faces with masks; we soaked our nails and did manicures; I did mom’s hair and my hair. We laughed at how we looked, but it was fun. And I am so glad I did that with her. It is one of my fondest memories of when she lived with us. And as I sat and went through the box of her things, I realized how weird it was that 91 years of life was in a box at my feet. Oh, I have other mementoes and photos, but these things were the things mom had around her these past few months. It was quite the collection: random envelopes with her name on them, but nothing inside. A Carhart clothing tag (Mom owns nothing Carhart). One of those plastic hook things that holds a sales tag onto clothing. 1 glove with no matching one. A broken watch. Some cards from friends. One of the most poignant for me was that she had two photos of my oldest son out from when he was a baby. One next to her bed and the other in the bathroom. He was there and I know it touched him deeply. An Alzheimer’s mind is so interesting!
Mom had an amazing life. Growing up in New Zealand and then coming to America by steamship in the 1950s with my dad and making a life here, away from all that was familiar. She and my dad are both only children, so there are no siblings, no extended family. Mom remained a New Zealand citizen her entire life (we used to call her our “resident alien”) and always felt close to her parents. She thought she would travel back “home” to see them again, and I never once reminded her they had been dead for decades. She never felt called to become an American, and it was one of the quirks I loved about her. That and her New Zealand accent that was coming back as she aged. She had it when I was a kid and I loved it. I’m glad it came back.
I was so blessed to have been introduced to Alzheimer’s Resource Alaska. I took every course they offered. I immersed myself in all things Alzheimer’s. With the consultation of two amazing Care Coordinators, I was advised to get all my mom’s affairs in order, while she was still her, still coherent, and could meaningfully engage in decision making. It was the best advice I could have gotten. Truly. Having that hard conversation about her end-of-life wishes was just that, hard. Asking someone how they want to die, and trying to get care details out of them is rough. But mom and I discussed as many scenarios as we could and each time it was, “I don’t want machines. I don’t want intervention. If it is my time to go, let me go.” The past six months, mom was on hospice care, and we had all the paperwork in place to just allow her body to stop living. At 5:30am yesterday morning, it peacefully did that. Mom chose her end and it happened just the way she wanted it. And we also made all the arrangements for her aftercare. Mom chose to be cremated and so we met with the Cremation Society of Alaska and they came to my home and we had another one of those hard conversations about what mom wanted. They are the kindest people. And it was such a blessing for right now, for today. Why? Because I literally have nothing to do. It is all done. Oh, there are little details, but nothing major, because we planned it all ahead.
People have been texting and calling. Some stupid calls from agencies already wanting to collect the bed she used or the nightstand next to the bed. She’s only been gone 1 day! Ugh. One of my closest friends called and she was being all sweet and kind and I told her to stop being so nice, or I would start bawling all over again. So she says, “Your hair looks bad today.” I love that woman so much! It was exactly what I needed. LOL. A good laugh. And quite honestly I am doing okay, until something stupid happens and I just start crying. Like the cremation man (not sure how else to put that!) called and mentioned mom’s cremains would be ready by Wednesday and I just lost it. Poor guy. He was so kind and I am sure he deals with grief every day. You just don’t know what will trigger it.
I was given mom’s wedding ring as they were preparing to take her away. I placed it on my right hand and it fit just perfectly. I thought I would just continue to wear it. As the day progressed it got a little loose but no big deal. My husband and I did some retail therapy after leaving mom yesterday. I’ve been looking for ferns to grow in a shade garden we have and I wanted to stop by this nursery I really like. We stopped and walked around. It was good for me to be outside. We found several varieties of ferns. So today, feeling all mopey and by myself, I decided to plant my ferns. It was good for me. My dog sat next to me while I dug in the dirt. I had bought 6 ferns so I was digging 6 holes. I was down to two more when I realized mom’s ring was not on my finger. I feverishly dug through those newly planted ferns until I found it. I put it back on and just sat there and cried my eyes out. I hope my neighbors don’t think I lost my marbles!!
But one of the things that has stuck with me the most was one of the comments my son made to me, while we were sitting there waiting for them to come and get mom. I was gently stroking her hair (she had the most amazing, soft hair) and he said to me, “I’m feeling kind of happy for Grandma because it all makes sense now, for her. She’s not confused anymore.” And he is right. All this time, with all the things we were doing to help her and she bristled at it, well, now she knows we were helping her. When we visited and told her how much we loved her and we hugged hard (even going against regulations and actually touching her) she now knows why we clung to her so hard. We truly were loving her, but it didn’t make sense to her why these strangers were there, and why they were hugging her. I’d like to think on some level it made sense and she knew, instinctively, that we were family, but I know with certainty, it is all clear, now. She stands at the timeline with God and He is explaining it all to her. She is surrounded by the angels and the saints, and her parents, and she is glowing and happy and joyously worshipping God – for eternity. The Holy Spirit has completely filled her so she is perfect once again, and in no pain, and with clarity of thought denied to her all these years.
Not gonna lie, even though I knew this day was coming on swift wings, and I was prepared for it with all the details taken care of, it hurts. It really does. I am a strong person and although I have been known to weep at TV commercials, I am usually the one helping everyone else grieve. I am allowing myself some time to fall apart. I am allowing myself to grieve, whenever and however it comes at me. It will lessen in time, I know. But right now, it is sharp and my heart aches. And I miss my mom already, even though we’ve been practicing this goodbye for so many long years. The pain of loss is still real. The other part of the equation is I am also relieved. And please don’t take that wrong. Mom is clear now. She can walk and not need her walker or wheelchair. She isn’t lost anymore. She is finally with her parents in a heavenly version of New Zealand. She is making her way to eternal glory through the mercy of God and His omnipotent forgiveness. God is good, and He has mom, now. I can rest in that.