This is a tough post to write. My mom passed away last week.
Her obituary is here, and sets forth the basics about her life. This gives you a flavor:
Barbara’s educational journey began at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, New York. She then pursued her undergraduate studies at Cornell University, ultimately obtaining her Masters and PhD from Texas Woman’s University. . . . Barbara made significant contributions as a Book Editor/Copy Editor for Thomas Y. Crowell Publishers in New York, New York. Later, she found fulfillment as a special education teacher for Fort Worth ISD, dedicating 23 years of her life to Jo Kelly School. She also devoted many years to assisting her husband with his CPA business while simultaneously caring for four of her children and often running a daycare. The sacrifices she made to be present with her children will forever be cherished by them.
Barbara sought friendship and community in her places of worship, regularly attending Trinity Episcopal and Holy Apostles Episcopal in Fort Worth, Texas.
Beyond her professional pursuits, Barbara had a passion for various hobbies. She relished long walks, cherished family game nights, and immersed herself in the world of literature. Barbara’s creativity shone through in the imaginative cakes she lovingly crafted for her children. She also found joy in knitting, bridge, and attending opera performances. Barbara approached life with a genuine zest, treasuring every opportunity to meet new people.
Her passing was expected. Early last month, my sisters called to say that she was going into hospice care, and that her caregivers did not expect her to make it to November. (She didn’t.) My wife found me a plane ticket that got me into Bryan, Texas two days later, and I got to spend a few days visiting with her.
When I saw Mom, I was pretty sure I was visiting her for the last time. It helped me pay attention. To ask the questions I wanted to ask, and to say the things I wanted to say. We talked about her family growing up, and what it was like for her to raise us. We joked and laughed and had long comfortable pauses. Mom was tired and slept a lot. She was best in the mornings, when you could catch her awake and mostly alert for 2-3 hours. Come mid-to-late afternoon, she would be worn out and a two-hour visit might yield 10-15 minutes of conversation, with the rest of the time spent with her dozing as I would hold her hand. Even those times felt like something I needed to burn into my memory. I knew the time was coming fast when I wouldn’t be able to do it again, and I needed to pay attention in the moment
A story illustrates something about how those final visits went. You need some background context for the story to make sense. My sisters in Bryan, and in particular my sister Marianne, shouldered the burden of taking care of Mom in her final years. Before she fell and had to be in a facility, Mom lived with Marianne’s family in a special part of the house that Mom had designed and paid for. But there were many, many things to do for her. She had a heart condition and many foods and items were off-limits. But Mom was stubborn. She resisted eating as much as she should and eating the right foods. She gravitated towards food and drink that was bad for her.
Once in hospice, all the rules went out the window. The nice thing about a decision that it’s a matter of time before you die, is that you stop worrying about doing the annoying or painful things you have to do to stay alive.
So one day I was at Mom’s bedside and she said she wanted a Coke. OK, I said. What kind? Diet? Caffeine free? Nope, a regular Coke. OK. I guess you’re entitled. I’ll see if I can find someone to get you one. I walked around looking for her nurse and could not find her. (It did not seem urgent enough to press a button to call someone.) I came back and said I had not found anyone but would look again in a couple of minutes. She said: “There’s a machine in the courtyard.” Oh. OK. I’ll go there. I went to the courtyard, and sure enough: Coke machine. I got her a regular Coke and she starting sipping it from a bendy straw. She was happy. She said: “Marianne is going to kill us when she finds out.” I said I doubted that. That was the point of hospice. She gets what she wants.
Later, my sister Holly joined us, and texted Marianne that Mom was drinking a regular Coke. Marianne texted back: “Tell her to enjoy.” We told Mom. See? I said. Marianne is not upset. She made a face. I asked: Does that make it less fun somehow, because you’re not getting away with something? She chuckled with a trace of guilt and nodded her head.
That’s sort of how things went. It wasn’t gloom and doom. My mom had a sense of humor. Since she passed my sisters and I have found old voicemails from her and traded them. It made me realize how funny she could be, even just leaving a voice mail.
I sent one to my daughter and son. We agreed that there is something about pulling up a voicemail from someone who has died that hits you pretty hard. The context of listening to a voicemail makes you feel like they just left it. That you can call them right back.
The last words she ever said to me in person were “no weeping.” I was saying my last goodbye to her, and we told each other that we loved each other. But I didn’t want to leave. I knew I had to, because I had to catch my plane. So I would start to leave and then walk back and hug her again. I guess I got emotional and that was when she said those words to me.
The last time I spoke to her on the phone, the night before she passed, she couldn’t talk. She could only listen. She was on heavy morphine to keep her from feeling pain from an infection for which she had refused treatment. I told her I loved her and my sister said her lips moved. Maybe she was trying to say she loved me too. Maybe she was trying to say “no weeping.”
When I visited, we had a party for her at the facility where she was staying. She asked for her favorite foods–scallops, to be somehow wrapped in bacon even though she wanted the bacon crisp (?)–my sister Susan’s famous mac and cheese, and corn on the cob. My sister Marianne arrived with the food and realized she had left the bacon at home. I spoke to one of Mom’s favorite helpers, a wonderful woman named Mimi, and asked her if she could possibly get us some bacon. She literally sprinted away and sprinted back. She was back with it in no time. That’s how most of the people were there. They were very kind.
Turns out, with all of that effort, Mom liked the corn the best.
Here she is after the party.
If you ever get the chance to celebrate someone’s life before they die, take it. I could tell it meant a lot to her.
My sisters were at her side a little over three weeks later, on the day when she passed. My sister Marianne told Mom the last words she probably ever heard in this world: “It’s OK to go, Mom. Dad is waiting for you.” Less than a minute later, she was gone.