We inevitably lose our parents, and perhaps it is fortunate when we lose them before they lose us. My father-in-law lost his daughter, my wife, before he passed away, and I think it really crushed him. So there is a blessing and an initiation when our parents pass. Our grief can bring us into adult, mature and compassionate places that perhaps we never reach without it.
My mother passed away last week, peacefully sleeping for days under hospice care. Having lost my father and two stepfathers, she was my final parent. I’ve been her guardian for eight years, her primary caregiver for some of that time, always the one ultimately responsible for her well-being. Penny has thrived in her memory care unit for six years, held by a remarkably stable and loving group of women caregivers and nurses. It was Alzheimer’s. She stopped recognizing me more than four years ago, and has needed a wheelchair and hospital bed and two people to move her since 2013. She had not spoken in over a year, and rarely responded in any way, or even moved her eyes, when anyone spoke to her. I do not know how much of the woman who raised me and loved me was still there — no way to know — but it was not much.
The last few weeks, she stopped eating, then began sleeping more and more, looking content and peaceful, as you see in the photo. This was a wonderful thing, for I do not believe she found much contentment in her life. In fact, I believe that receiving care for her final years was a wonderful thing. She would always smile when taken outside into the sunshine, sang along with the group, enjoyed being read to.
My experience of her as my mother was completely different, of course. A rampant perfectionist, I rarely heard Penny voice her approval of anything: neither her children nor any of her three husbands, nor the functioning of any employer or political organization. That critical voice is very well internalized for me, and much of my work over the last few decades has been around that. Yet, I remember how she got up at 4am to awaken me, so I could do my paper route at the age of 14. I treasure that. I also remember how she hugged and kissed me when I got on an airplane to go to college 3000 miles away. It was an unfamiliar moment, yet I remember it so vividly, and love her.
So here I am, discharging my final tasks as her dutiful son. One of my friends shared this lovely prose by Henry Scott Holland (27 January 1847 – 17 March 1918), Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford.
I am in the 49-day mourning period, chanting a Tara prayer for her each day. You will find the prayer here on this site if you search for it.
Penny, I am so grateful for all that I received from you.