On the Death of My Mother

On the Death of My Mother June 21, 2024

My mother died a few weeks ago.  She was 93, had Alzheimer’s, was ready to go.  Some deaths are tragic; hers was poignant.  It made me very sad but also filled me with good memories and appreciation.

I was in North Carolina, as I blogged about yesterday, when we heard that she had slipped into unconsciousness and that her time was undoubtedly near.  We flew back to St. Louis, then drove to Oklahoma.  Thanks to the devoted and self-sacrificial care of my sister, she has been at home throughout her long illness.  I went into her room and talked to her.  She was unconscious, but they say sometimes even people in comas can hear you.  A little later, the hospice nurse showed up, making her rounds.  She and my sister went in to tend to her.  And then, my sister holding her hand, she breathed her last.  She died two hours after I arrived.

I have always been uncomfortable with all of the customs surrounding death, finding them morbid and painfully emotional.  But now, from the point of view of the bereaved, I found them overwhelmingly consoling.  I was so glad to have talked with her before she died.  The words of comfort from friends.  The presence of the family coming together from far and wide.  The food people brought over.  The kindness of the neighbors.  The people of the church being there for us.  Even seeing the body was strangely comforting, the sense that this inert object isn’t her, that the person she was has departed for somewhere else.

When I was a child in the 1950’s and 1960’s, living in small town Oklahoma right on Route 66, I remember thinking that my mother looked like Queen Elizabeth and my father looked like Elvis.  My parents were my celebrities, and I was one of their biggest fans.

I was their firstborn.  Their second child died at birth.  They named him David.  I have dim memories–maybe my first memory, since I was only 3–of asking where the baby was, of seeing him in his little casket, of my mother crying.  Not long after, my sister and brother were born.  Twins, which I think was a great solace to my mother because the two of them made up the number.

My mother and father were such great parents.  They ruled with affection, kindness, and humor.  Were they strict?  Well, they must have been, since they embodied the highest moral rectitude and behavioral propriety.  But we didn’t feel any external strictness.  My childhood memories are primarily of freedom, ranging all over town on our bikes and playing with great impunity.  I sometimes misbehaved and got in trouble, but I never took that too far, as so many of my friends did, and I was never a rebel against parental authority, as so much of my generation was.  I didn’t want to disappoint them.

They were enjoyable to be around.  I remember a number of times when I felt obliged to go out with my friends, when what I really wanted to do was stay home with my parents and siblings to play Monopoly, despite my father’s triumphalism when he won which he usually did.  My parents also taught us kids how to play Bridge and Canasta.  They took us on epic road trips and camping trips–to New York, Yellowstone, even Hannibal, Missouri, to indulge me in my Mark Twain phase–and we hit all the tourist traps along the way.

Whenever our church had a service or any kind of activity, we were there.  This included what we called “night church,” the Sunday evening service.   Those early television networks showed The Wizard of Oz once a year on Sunday evenings.  I never saw the ending of that show until I left home for college, since we always had to leave for night church right after the flying monkeys. When the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, I was only able to hear their first number before we had to go.

We were members of the First Christian (Disciples of Christ) church, a mainline ecumenical Protestant denomination.  Though lacking in specific theology, since everyone was free to believe pretty much what they wanted since we had “no creed but the Bible,” our particular congregation was conservative and I did learn the Bible pretty well.  My exposure to the modernist liberal theology that dominated the church’s seminaries and hierarchy came mostly from church camp and statewide youth conferences–which I had to go to, due to our practice of going to whatever the church was putting on.  Later, when I was grown and drifting to Lutheranism, my parents helped the congregation break away from the increasingly liberal Disciples and affiliate with the conservative “Christian” faction of the “Restorationist Movement.”  That allowed our congregation to keep their gospel hymns and Bible preaching, until a new minister introduced contemporary worship and the church growth movement.  As so often happened, the tactics of church growth led to church shrinkage, driving off one family after another until no one was left and the congregation had to close.  My mother grew up as a Methodist, appreciating the creeds and greater structure, so she and my father joined the Methodist church across the street.  Later, that congregation also went through its own schism, but by that time my father had died and my mother had Alzheimer’s, so they were spared that one.

My mother’s decline started 11 years ago when my father died.  He fell and hit his head, a much harder death for us to process.  It turns out, my father was the extrovert who always liked to interact with people and do things, whereas my mother was the introvert.  She was so game for whatever and they were so in synch that we kids never noticed a difference in their personality, but now my mother, without him and despite all that we tried to do for her–I’m thankful that my wife taught me to call her every day–she pined away and steadily withdrew from her world, eventually lapsing into dementia.

There is a lot to do after someone dies–from clearing out the house to taking around death certificates to the institutions that need them–but thanks to my sister (who weeks earlier had her first grandchild whom she is now free to visit whenever she wants) and my brother the lawyer (who some of you may remember used to comment at this blog sometimes–I don’t think he’s a subscriber, the cheapskate!), the deeds-on-death and other arrangements they made when my mother was lucid have made it a lot easier.

Still, my wife and I stayed around a while, helping with things and carrying out what we called a “retrospective” of our life in Oklahoma, visiting some of our old haunts and favorite restaurants.  We had actually planned to come around this time anyway for our custom of visiting the cemeteries where members of our families were buried and putting flowers on their graves.  That act of filial piety is a credit to her, but I have found it meaningful too.  By this time, I was pretty sick of cemeteries, but we slipped out and drove around the state.

The cemetery at Tonkawa is where my father’s parents, my grandparents who died before I knew them, are buried.  Also there is David, my stillborn brother.  Seeing his grave, the thought flashed on my mind, “Now my mother can get to know David!”

 

Photo:  Joyce Veith

 

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