“Nothing and everything has changed.” After Mom died, a friend sent this sentence to me in a long email about death, loss, and how to keep moving. She’s an expert at it, I’d say, after losing both her partner of 25 years and her mom.
Losing is a funny euphemism for death, isn’t it? It’s not like they’re stuck under the bed, or hidden under a stack of papers. But they are gone, and even if we firmly believe in some form of afterlife, the truth is we don’t know where they are. Not really.
The night before Mom died, the hospice nurse told us it could be another three to four days, since Mom’s blood pressure was still normal. She hadn’t eaten or spoken in days, but her heart was strong.
We laughed and said Mom might die on April Fool’s Day – that would be just like her to pull a joke at the very end. Then my brother said that wouldn’t really look good; Mom wouldn’t like that date on her gravestone. And he was right.
Mom died peacefully Monday, March 31 at 2:30 p.m., surrounded by her entire loving family. In that instant, everything changed. The woman I’d spent 54 years with was gone. The ragged breathing she’d had for hours was gone. The dementia? Gone. Her laugh? Gone. Her sweet kisses and warm hugs? Gone. Those incredible blue eyes? Gone.
But her spirit? Oh let me tell you, it was still in that room: in all 15 of us crammed around her bed, desperate to be with her until her last breath; in all our hugs and tears and exclamations of “she’s finally free.” I could feel her in that space between us all, loving us as much (or more) than she loved us all her life. I could feel her in our relief, and in our despair.
The next day, when I came back to the memory care facility and walked down the hall to her room like I’d done a hundred times before, I literally felt her beside me. Not shuffling, or using a walker, or being pushed in a wheelchair, but skipping and laughing and clicking her heels, so happy she wasn’t there anymore. I said out loud: “I know, Mom. I’m happy for you, too.”
Later that week, when my grief was so physical it felt like I was wearing lead clothes, I stood crying in a restaurant bathroom stall and felt her arms wrap around me and hug me. I wanted to stand there forever. Mom – still being a mom.
The week before she died, Mom was able to have brief, but meaningful conversations with all of us. She had that pre-death rally I’d always heard about, and was remarkably lucid. While I was alone by her bed one day, she said (eyes closed): “I want….” I asked her what she wanted. She said, “be ok.” I assured her I’d be ok, that we’d all be ok. She said “good,” then went back to sleep. Mom – still being a mom.
In a sense, then, nothing changed. And now, almost a month later, I can still feel her and hear her. I hope I always can. Her sense of humor and her laugh will always be with us: we have so many of her letters, her hysterically annotated photo albums and cartoon clippings, and recordings of her voice and laugh. We have countless stories.
If I can carry even a fraction of her humor with me, maybe I can make a dent in the sadness and despair that comes with dementia. If I can carry even a fraction of her fighting spirit with me, maybe my voice can get a bit louder in advocating for a cure. If I can carry even a fraction of her compassion and grace with me, maybe I can help those who suffer so much from this disease.
Nothing and everything has changed: Mom is gone, but she’s not. She lives on through One Brave Cowgirl, and through each one of you who wake up every day determined to make the most of a rough road. You inspire me to keep moving, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.