“Your mother was a remarkable woman.”
From person after person at the wake service. Over and over. Hundreds signed the guest book, and we guessed that a hundred more, at least, came. And this for an 88-year-old woman many of whose friends and relatives had already passed on.
“Your mother was a remarkable woman.” Like a refrain.
My mom, Eileen Barbara Stevens, died a little after 2:30 pm, on May 17th, 2013, in Chicago. She’d been hospitalized about a week before after a noticeable decline in her status, including disorientation and inability to swallow. From that point, she spoke little; and what speech there was, was difficult to understand. She recognized the older siblings, speaking their names as they arrived, but it wasn’t clear who else.
My wife and I, as it happened, had already been planning to come into Chicago the weekend her rapid decline began, to pick up our son from college and visit with Mom and family. Many of my eleven siblings reside in Chicago, and as it became clear that death was imminent, the rest began to drive or fly in from out of town. Her last night conscious was the 10th, after which she fell into a sleep/coma from which she never awoke.
The beginning of the next week, Mom was moved back to her apartment, so that she could die at home. This also allowed any visitors who wished, to come and go as they pleased. Immediate family kept vigil during the nights, and during the day Mom’s apartment was filled with family, relatives, and friends: some chatting, some sitting by the bed; and always, always someone holding her hand. As someone commented, it was a lot like a wake, except that the person being mourned was alive, albeit asleep, in the midst of it.
One sister-in-law suggested that someone lead a prayer for Mom every hour on the hour, and siblings took turns doing so. Mom was also anointed at least twice by priests who were friends of the family. At one point, the weather being beautiful, we moved Mom in her bed to a balcony overlooking a courtyard of the retirement center where her apartment was. Her wonderful caretakers had made a point of taking her there whenever the weather was fine.
As I noted in a reflection I e-mailed out shortly after the funeral, the varied ways my siblings and I grieved my mother were touching and beautiful. Only my mother could have brought together and connected so deeply with such an array of personalities! But that was simply a microcosm of Mom’s life in general. I have never met anyone else with her gift of making and keeping friends from every walk of life imaginable. A lady from the retirement center who hadn’t known Mom for that long told us that Mom was her best friend. I realized that Mom’s special gift was to make every person feel that he or she was her best friend. And with her children and grandchildren, as a family member commented, she had the gift of making each of us feel like her favorite.
My grief over her passing has come slowly. I’m grieving her more now than immediately after her death. Part of this may be that her dying was more of a fading than an abrupt ending. She had been steadily losing her memory over the last five or six years, and more recently, her orientation to who people were and where she was. Phone conversations had become brief, as Mom’s short-term memory was so poor that “I don’t remember” was the only way she could answer most questions about how she was doing or recent news.
The last year or so of her life, Mom slept more and more, so that even visits in person involved little conversation or face-to-face time. Visits and outings that she’d previously greatly enjoyed became a tug-of-war as her chronic hip and shoulder pain increased along with her overwhelming fatigue. So (as all of those who’ve seen a loved one decline into dementia know) it was as if most of the “real Mom” had already died. And she herself was so aware of her decline that she was very ready to leave this life.
Another reason that her death is just starting to sink in is that my family and I have lived at least a couple of states away for the last dozen years. Not seeing Mom for months at a time hasn’t been unusual. And since her death, we aren’t in Chicago, as many of my siblings are, constantly running into friends or acquaintances telling us, “I’m so sorry to hear about your mother’s death.” So the realization that I truly will never see her, touch her, hear her again, in this life, has been slow in coming.
It hit me in a deeper way one morning this week. The night before, my son and I had played a puzzle game called “Blokus”, in which you take turns placing different colored tiles in a grid. Whoever is left with the fewest pieces wins. But in the process, the grid is nearly filled with a beautiful, colored pattern.
As I prayed that morning, I realized that my mom was like the large, center piece in a complex, multicolored, beautiful grid. She connected so well with so many people. She touched SO many lives. Besides raising twelve children and being an unusually well-beloved “Grammy” to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she continued to be in touch with friends from high school, college, and the two parishes in which she’d been so involved before moving to the retirement center. Before her own medical issues, she faithfully kept contact with her many relatives from her mother’s side (her mother was one of ten children) here and in Ireland, where Mom was born, as well as the fewer relatives she knew from her father’s side. This besides her thirty years or so of teaching special education in Chicago’s inner city, providing nurture, learning, and structure to kids who often had precious little of any of these things.
That she was “in touch” and “kept in contact” scarcely captures my Mom’s influence, however. She loved, she welcomed; she engaged, she laughed. She was (until her decline) brilliant; a great conversationalist and delightful storyteller; competitive and energetic; extraordinarily well-read; very funny and quick; hard-working; uncomplaining; practical and down-to-earth.
Not perfect, of course. She wasn’t too much for “arm around the shoulder” sympathy: she’d listen politely, for the most part, but approached your troubles – as she did her own – with an “and what do you plan to do about it?” air. She wasn’t easily impressed, nor was she effusive with her praise: not too many swelled heads in my family. For example, when I told her the theme of my Master’s thesis, which I’d sweated blood over, wearing my little typing fingers to the bone (sob!) her comment was, “Well, isn’t that kind of obvious?” And when I got my Ph.D., she observed, “You know, Sean, you’re not the first person to get a Ph.D. in the family.” She freely admitted, with her dark Irish humor, that she’d have made a lousy therapist. “I’d be telling your clients to suck it up and get a life!” she laughed.
She was a larger-than-life woman, truly. The number of people who had, for example, the full, immediate, unqualified, delighted approval of my mother-in-law (another remarkable woman, by the way) formed a small club indeed. If I had a nickel for every time I heard her say, “Sean, I just LOVE your mother!” I’d be a rich man. But Mom had this effect on nearly everyone she met. The 19th-century cardinal, John Henry Newman, had a beautiful prayer that states, “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.” Mom linked so many chains, connected so many people.
In her decline, so much changed. Yet it revealed another facet of her amazing strength – how uncomplainingly she suffered what she’d feared most, the loss of the cognitive capacities. After caring for her own mother through Alzheimer’s, Mom’s worst fear was that she herself would go through dementia. What she feared most came upon her, by degrees: she was no longer able to drive; to keep her home; to walk without a walker; and the last year or two, to remember events from a month ago, a week ago, a day ago, five minutes ago. We eventually needed to have caretakers with her round the clock. They were marvelous! She was unfailingly kind and grateful to them, and they loved her as we did.
A stripping took place during her last years. Mom was always a do-er for others; and like many doers, she had a hard time separating her value and lovability from her doing. (Even before her decline, we’d have to intercept her as she tottered over to “help” us move a piano or a heavy table.) As she was able to do less and less, and as memory loss robbed her of her conversational and storytelling abilities, she’d often say things like, “I’m not much company” or “I feel like such a burden.” I’d tell her, “Mom, you’ve been doing for us for years – we’re happy to be able to give something back!” During her last year, she would become terribly anxious at night, and sometimes disoriented. It was difficult to see her that way. She would ask, “Why am I like this? What’s happening to me?” in a bewildered voice.
We who loved and knew her were stripped, too. We came to realize even more that the one we loved so deeply was simply Mom herself: not what she could do for us, say to us; not her wit and knowledge and wisdom and stories; just her. In the end, all that was left was her physical presence – her hand to hold, her hair to stroke, her cheek to kiss – as she slept those final days. Her near-epic qualities before her decline made the crumbling and collapse that much more poignant and difficult: like seeing St. Peter’s or Notre Dame Cathedral falling apart, stone by stone. We saw her purgatory: stripping, stripping, stripping; yet her beauty remained and paradoxically intensified. There was nothing left to obscure it…
In a way, my firm knowledge that we will meet again – “glorious and grateful around His bright throne”, as a song I wrote long ago puts it – has made the grieving process more complex. The knowledge “but the separation isn’t forever; and she’s happier now than can possibly be imagined” makes it harder to let myself just MISS her. Yet I do, terribly. Shortly after she died, I had a dream. I saw her coffin in an enormous burial vault, with a large house resting on rafters atop the vault. I worried if the house would collapse into the vault, given its precarious foundation. This last week, I have begun again to collapse, to cry; I did, frequently, during her last days and at the funeral, and now the second wave is hitting.
Pray for Eileen, my friends – although I think she scarcely needs our prayers. Much more, we need hers. Pray for those close to her; losing her is hitting us all in very different ways.
“Your mother was a remarkable woman.”
Oh, my gosh. Yes.