Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A death in the family

For various reasons, I've put off writing the final chapter of my bike trip. I'm back in Thailand now but I had a wonderful visit in Vienna and Helga, my hostess, besides being a super good cook and tour guide, was a wealth of information about Vienna and its history. But that post will have to wait yet a little while longer. This post is mostly for family and friends who knew my mother when she was still alive.

I've written here about my mother, her good energy, her excellent health and her strong drive to continue living despite the fact that her body was wearing out. Although we all thought she'd live to be a hundred, her time finally came this June. Our beloved Mother passed from this life with grace and courage on June 14th with her dear daughter Sandy beside her. She had lived a long and productive life and almost made it to her 98th birthday this November. She had experienced several medical setbacks during the preceding year that left her weak and barely able to walk. Most of our immediate family came to Buffalo for a visit in May and she enjoyed those gatherings, especially because my daughter Carin and her family were there from North Carolina, and also her grandson Tuli, whom he hadn't seen for years, and his son Harper, from Oregon. I encouraged this meeting in Buffalo because I believed she was failing and that this might be their last chance to see her — and so it was.

Family photo, four generations — May 27, 2014

Mom with grandchildren Tuli & Carin and their children, Harper & Kaiyah

Not long after these photographs were taken, mom fell and fractured her wrist. She was in considerable pain afterward and couldn't endure using her walker — she was forced into a wheelchair until her bones could heal. Her knees were already worn out by arthritis and old age. Even before her fall she could barely walk without assistance, which is something she always did with a passion. And her eyes were bad. She loved reading but macular degeneration had long been eating away at her vision. She used a TV camera, the Video Eye, connected to a huge TV to help her read for years. She never complained about any of this. She merely accepted the hand she was dealt and soldiered on with a smile on her face. But now, even the faithful Video Eye was failing her. She could no longer see well enough to read.

Cutting out coupons using the Video Eye (1995)
After our week together, we went our separate ways. I returned to Alaska, Tuli and Harper to Eugene, Carin and her crew to Kernersville, leaving my sister Sandy, brother Dale and nephew Jason in Buffalo to care for mom although truthfully the bulk of the care, and the constant worry, fell squarely on Sandy's shoulders.

Sandy and I talked frequently by phone over the next couple of weeks until one day when she told me I might want to start looking around for a flight back to Buffalo. Mom, she said, had told her she didn't care if she ever got out of bed again. The pain in her knees was too great. And she wasn't interested in food or eating. I tried talking with her on the phone. I asked how she was doing, but she couldn't hear me well. Her last words to me were, Nothing's any good anymore, David.

Just as I began making arrangements to return to Buffalo, Sandy called back to tell me our mother was gone.

Mom never wanted to be a burden on anyone. Even now, in perhaps her last conscious act, she had somehow managed to leave this life without inconveniencing any of us further. Especially me, the one who left home at age 19 and never looked back. I was glad to be out of Buffalo and made no bones about it. I signed myself "Your wayward son" in my letters home during my early years in Alaska. By most standards I reckon I wasn't a very good son to her because I haven't been around much since college but if she ever had any thoughts along those lines she never mentioned them to anybody. That's just the way she was.

Mom at home in 2008
The death of my mother has put new thoughts about my own demise into everyday consciousness. I suppose it's inevitable that the older one becomes, the more one thinks about death —  about when and how it will begin, how it will play out, how one will deal with it when it becomes unavoidable. My mother's death has left me in a blue funk — I'm feeling rootless and plagued with many questions. I've had my kids and passed my genes along to future generations. Of what value is my selfish pursuit of a better tennis game and more traveling in the overall scheme of things, of life? Why wasn't I a better father to my older children? Why wasn't I there to help my mother when she was failing? I sincerely hope that when my time comes I will face up to it and be able to accept my end the way she did.

The large family in which I grew up shrinks every year. My aunt Marion, my father's only sibling, is the last one left alive of my mother's generation and she's 95 and increasingly frail. All mom's sisters and brothers, the aunts and uncles of my childhood, some older cousins, even our neighbors from Lackawanna Avenue, are gone now. As I look through our photo albums of all those picnics and parties, Christmases, birthdays and vacations, I notice this one and that one; there's my father with aunt Betty & uncle Bill, and aunt Mart, Gert & Stan and aunt Evvie from across the street, and Phyllis & Jake from "down home" in Allentown. They're all gone. It's at times like this that the weight of my 70 years press most heavily. But this year my brother and nephew, my daughter and sons, my sister, especially my sister, all of us who remain, have suffered an especially traumatic blow, a cataclysmic event. Something's missing from our lives that can never be brought back or ever repaired.

We miss our mom, our grandmother, her indomitable will, her unfailing cheer, her enduring love. She was always a fighter, always a joy to be around, and always a caring mother. We will mourn her passing and celebrate her vibrant spirit for the rest of our days.