I should have realized when my mother chided me for being maudlin that we would not have a proper goodbye when she died. We were in the kitchen, our usual place for conversation; I was visiting from LA. It was 1985. Sitting at the round oak table under the tiffany style lamp, I looked across the burnt orange countertops at my mother as she stood at the sink rinsing the coffee pot. This was her favorite perch in the house. From there, she could see out the window to the driveway in the front of the house. Whenever any of us visited, we would first spot her bright face in that window followed by her excited figure at the open front door as we walked up the sidewalk.
When we talked in the kitchen that day, my mother had recently been diagnosed with polycythemia vera a rare blood disorder.
“It’s more a nuisance really,” she said. “I just have to go on a blood thinner, and then get a blood test every week so the doctor can monitor my red blood cell count and adjust the dose if needed. “
“Oh,” I said, “so will that cure it eventually? Or do you have to do this for the rest of your life?”
“Well it is a degenerative disease so it won’t get any better but it’s not going to change suddenly or anything. It’s manageable.”
“Degenerative? What does that mean, it will get worse over time? Could it shorten your life then?”
“I suppose it could but really, it’s not a big deal.”
Lately I had been doing some math. I had moved to LA in my mid twenties and managed to make a trip home to Philadelphia about once a year. If I continued this pattern I would have maybe 30 more “parent times” in my life. That sounds like a lot of times but it seemed odd that this was a finite number; I had always seen that as an unlimited thing. My parents had always been there for me. Now this new medical condition could further reduce the ‘mom times.’ Was that now 20? It was then that I realized she would in fact die one day. Up to then I never believed either of my parents would die. And this wasn’t because I was in denial exactly, I just didn’t think about it at all. That’s the innocence of being young.
Overwhelmed, I got up from the kitchen table that day and went over to my mother. I put my arm around her shoulder and leaned my head on hers. With tears starting, I said, “Mom, I don’t want you to die.”
She quickly stopped me and moved away a little, “Oh no! Let’s not get maudlin now, this is not a big deal. I’m not worried about it and I don’t want you to worry about it either. “
Not worrying her children was important to her, even when complications arose a few years later and she ended up in and out of the hospital in the months leading up to the birth of my first and only child, her first grandchild. She planned to come out here for the first few weeks to help us when the baby came, it was all we talked about. Then one day she called and said,
“I was thinking that if this doesn’t resolve itself, I might not be able to make the trip out there and maybe you should start making other arrangements for help.”
“What? You might not be able to come out?” Terror raced through me. Terror that she was really sick, terror that I had no idea how to take care of a baby.
She didn’t make it out here. She was at home the night I called to tell them Monica was born. They were thrilled, and she sounded happy and strong, at least on the phone. But she went back into the hospital a couple of days later and things really started to deteriorate. We spoke briefly that week, but then she was put on pain medication so calls became difficult. She died eleven days after my daughter was born.
She must have known she was dying because she told my father that under no circumstances was I to come back for the funeral. She said I needed to stay home with the baby. Being bossy beyond the grave, that suited her. And of course she was right.
Even though she had an idea she was dying, she didn’t say goodbye. Not to me, not to anyone. Who starts that conversation anyway? None of us said goodbye because we were expecting her to make it. Isn’t it a betrayal if you say goodbye: You’ve lost faith in their ability to recover. Maybe you’d lost faith in..God….
And is it necessary (to say goodbye)? I have envied deathbed scenes friends have shared, how profound they seem, how much closure the person says they felt. But maybe we weren’t the kind of family who could have handled that. It’s not part of the Irish character to express big emotions like that. Growing up, we laughed a lot, we got angry sometimes, moody at lot, but not “Goodbye I love you.” Weeping at the bedside. That seemed very Italian. Operatic. That might have embarrassed us.
But still I wonder, would saying goodbye have made it easier for us to deal with her death? We were in such shock. It’s hard to say. And I forgive her, I know she was weak at the end; she fought as hard as she could, and then slipped away. It can happen that way. Her parting gift to us was each other. There were five of us kids born in six years. I think that makes us technically quintuplets. It sure felt that way growing up. Grief has a way of flattening you, you lose your pride, your defenses. We all became closer in grief than we would have in joy and we’ve continued to be there for each other over the years.
As a mother I’m similar to mine in some ways. Like her, I have a bottomless pit of interest in every detail about my daughter and her life. But on the other hand, I’m not as stoic as my mother. I’m more of an open book. She never let us see her cry. I never wanted to burden my daughter with my emotions, but there were times I felt it was healthier to be real.
I recently turned 60 and it felt like a wake up call, after all my mother died at 63. My own death, while probably not imminent, will happen. When it does, my parting gift will be to say goodbye to my daughter. And I want to tell her some things she can draw on later for comfort. I want to assure her that she can get through grief and that it gets easier over time. I want her to know that that there can be beauty in loss. And lastly, I want her to understand that love doesn’t die just because a person dies. Once you’re loved, that love is alive and it is yours forever.