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Release

by Julia Sneden

My mother would have been 97 years old next January 9, but she died at the end of September. It was not an easy death, and it followed years of increasing disability. She had a hip replacement in 1989, and in the following eight years, she endured a heart attack; bypass surgery followed by a stroke; cervical arthritis of the neck so severe that she lost the use of her hands; an operation to lift the skull and stabilize the spine; and a broken hip.

By 1998, I had decided to retire in order to be more available for my mother's care. She lived 90 miles away, and I had been driving over there every weekend for quite awhile. I moved Mother to a nursing home just five miles from my home. It was as humane a place as you will find, run by the Moravian Church and staffed by efficient, earnest people. As my husband said, we weren't paying for the bricks and mortar, but for the considerate care that Mother would receive.

The stroke that followed the bypass surgery took away a quarter of her right visual field, leaving her unable to drive or read, her two favorite activities. After the broken hip, she used a wheelchair most of the time. So there she was: legally blind; quite deaf despite hearing aids; and unable to walk without her walker and someone right next to her. A lesser soul would have been daunted, but Mother had one of those unquenchable spirits that seemed almost amused by the challenge. While I found myself at a loss as to how to help her (I could not, after all, restore her youth, her eyesight, her hearing or her mobility), she and I soon found lots of ways to end-play her compromised situation. Her good intelligence was our best ally — that and my willingness to be present in her life.

One of the things she most loved was riding in the car. "I'm a child of the automotive age," she said. Her father owned the third car in San Jose, California, and like countless numbers of parents since those long-ago days, he and his wife soon discovered that riding in the car - a 1907 Kissel Car - would soothe a colicky baby.

"You're not taking that precious baby in thatthatMACHINE, are you?" the neighbors gasped. They did, and she began a lifelong love affair with cars.

"As long as the wheels are going around," my mother once said, "I feel normal." So she and I took a ride every afternoon between 2 and 5. Sometimes we went to the mall and just walked (well, I walked and pushed her chair), looking at window displays and people-watching. Sometimes we had a cup of tea back in my kitchen. Sometimes we just drove, and picked up a Diet Coke at a nearby McDonald's ("I do wish they wouldn't fly their silly McDonald's flag on the same standard as Old Glory," Mother complained). Sometimes we went to our local green market with a short shopping list, just to walk the aisles. Mother's sense of smell and taste remained intact, and she called the market trip "Going on a sniffnik."

Where I live, the mountains are nearby, and often we drove up to a summit to get what Mother called "a long view." Other times we drove to the small lake in town to watch the pedal boats.

One of Mother's favorite outings involved a walk into the woods, on a long, straight path mercifully paved for wheelchair compatibility. A small stream meandered alongside, and there were a couple of little bridges where we could play "Pooh Sticks" and listen to the water gurgle over the rocks.

If it rained, we stayed in and played Scrabble, although with her diminished vision, it was really more like me playing myself, as I read her letter tiles aloud to her. She was able to form them into words mentally, but she needed help to find places to attach her words. Every now and again, however, she'd astound me by pouncing on a Triple Word Score triumph of a word containing X's or Z's and connecting handily to some other killer score.

A couple of years ago, we realized that she had lived exactly half her life in California, and half in North Carolina. She came here when she married my stepfather in 1953. But as so often happens with the very old, it was her early years that she recalled vividly, and it was often clear to me that she had forgotten that she wasn't still in California.

Her mental acuity was hampered by short-term memory deficits, but her basic intelligence, i.e. the way she approached problems, was as extraordinary as ever. She was a practical woman, for all her energy and optimism, and when we spoke of something that would happen in the future, she would always say calmly: "Well, yes, if I'm still around"

Last year she made a most un-mother-like request. Out of the blue one day, she said: "When I die, I want you to be there" — this from someone who had never issued an order to me in all my years of adulthood.

"I'll try to be," I said. "Just don't drop out on me in the middle of the night."

During the last few weeks of her life, she suffered from congestive heart failure. Although the heart continued to beat strongly, she breathed rapidly, raggedly, and often choked. The last night, as I was feeding her dinner, she choked on some orange sherbet, and in an effort to breathe, aspirated it. I thought that we would lose her then, but despite deep rattles, her breathing finally steadied. She said in a calm, matter-of-fact way: "I want to stop breathing, but I can't!"

I started to read to her from one of the books in her poetry collection, but she stopped me. "It's all in my head," she said. Eventually, I started to sing, at first a couple of the lullabies and silly songs she had taught my brother and me long years ago, and then a few of the evening hymns she had known and loved. When I got to the one she used to sing in chapel at college, she smiled a beatific smile, and slept.

The next morning as they were feeding her breakfast, she aspirated once more. When I got there, the medical team was suctioning her. They warned me that "it'll be rough" and asked if I wanted to wait outside. I went to her and held her hands. "I'm glad you're here," she said between choking breaths. That settled it for me: I wasn't about to wait outside.

At one point I had to move aside so that they could move some equipment closer. "Don't go!" said Mother, with panic in her voice.

"I'm not going anywhere," I said firmly, and those were the last words I spoke to her. The medics moved around behind her, and I moved closer, holding her hands and looking into her eyes. I saw the light go out of them, and her open mouth filled with foam. She was gone.

The ensuing weeks have involved a huge adjustment. For five years, I have lived my life pushing myself to do everything that needed to be done in my home before 2 p.m., so that I could give those afternoon hours to Mother. I have sewn for her, ironed for her, shopped for her, made sure she was included in family gatherings, taken her to doctor and dentist appointments, sent out her Christmas cards, given her daily applications of eye drops and Chapstick and lotion for her dry skin, bought a weekly supply of Depends and Dannon yogurt, made sure she had a clean, soft pillowcase (the ones at the home are fairly rough), and done all the little things I could think of to make her life less unpleasant. In return, I was the beneficiary of her good companionship and absolute love.

One day I had made a minor mistake, and I muttered to myself: "Oh, Julia, you are SO stupid!"

Mother's blue eyes flashed, and she snapped at me: "You're not stupid, you're stupendous and I love you to pieces."

People have sometimes remarked to me that I was a good daughter. I prefer to think that I was the daughter of a good mother. There is nothing that I did for her that could touch what she did for me, all my life. She wasn't perfect. There were deceits and evasions and occasional resentments, as there probably are in any mother-daughter relationship. But the core of love held true for both of us, always. I think that when your last parent dies, either mother or father, it hurts to realize that there is no one left who knew you when you were young and innocent. That kind of love sees you always as adorable, even when you've long since grown past that likelihood.

My mind knows that my mother's death was a blessed release, both for her and for me. But the heart — ah, the heart! That's a different matter.

 

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