My Amazing Mother

by Marianne Richmond on October 28, 2008

October 27, 2006

October 27, 2006

Today would have been my mom’s 96th birthday. She passed away in May, a week after Mother’s Day,  so it is really with this birthday that the circle of firsts begin.

The first October 27th when we are not celebrating her birthday; the first Thanksgiving without her, the first Christmas without her and then the first Mother’s Day without her and finally, the first anniversary of her death.

This blog post though, is also a first…the first time I am going to try and put all of of my pent up raw feelings into the words that I hope will honor her memory and serve as a reminder to all to tell our loved ones not only that we love them, but even more…what they mean to our lives.

One day, they will simply not be there… and they will not be back for us to add a few thoughts or ask a few more questions. Inevitably some things will be overlooked…maybe not even thought of until it is too late.

There are thousands of search results to questions like, “what would you do if you only had a day, a week to live.” I couldn’t really find anything for “what would you do, ask or say if you know your loved one had only a short time to live”. So maybe ask yourself that kind of question…and then share the eulogy with the eulogized. Amazing things could be said.

My Dad had a heart attack and died shortly after my college graduation. There were no goodbyes….here one day, gone the next. As a child, I adored him…he was larger than life and there was nothing he couldn’t do from my perspective.  As a disdainful adolescent, I was pretty sure there was nothing that he could do right.

At 22, to quote Mark Twain, I was just beginning to realize {again} that “My father was an amazing man. The older I got, the smarter he got.”

When I found myself suddenly without him, I was not only devastated by the suddenness of the loss but I wished that I had had just one last moment to tell him that I loved him and how proud of him I was and how much I looked up to him… and I could only hope that somehow he knew that all along.

With my mom, I had another 35 years and so we survived my nasty teenage years and my wild twenties and then had loads of grown up good times together. She visited me frequently when I lived in Boston and NYC and we had a ball….we cruised the Caribbean and vacationed in London and she shared my successes with pride. I know this. She told me. She told others who told me.

And I did tell her that I loved her. But by the time that I told her that I thought she had been the best mother in the world… I am not certain that she was able to actually hear me. There definitely wasn’t time to tell her why I thought that, in the instant that I blurted it out.  In fact, although I had long understood what an amazing person she was, I didn’t really get how amazing a mother she had been until after she was gone.

So even though she was 95, and had quite a few dances with death, the final pas de deux had an abrupt, surprise ending. Each day of her last week was much like an act in a ballet or a 9 act play, an entity unto itself that was surreal both in real time and upon reflection; but then we didn’t know it WAS her last week. And I didn’t know her last morning on earth was her last morning on earth,…until it was.

She had enough medical issues in the second half of her life to have stopped most people in their tracks. She was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis) when she was 50 but for a long time she seemed to ignore it and just kept on going.

Until well into her 80’s none of it really kept her from doing the thing she loved to do….get out of the house and meet her millions of friends for bridge, lunch and drinks. She never told anyone but family that she had MS and let people think what they wanted about the frequent falls, broken limbs and constant tiredness.

Sea Island, Georgia

Sea Island, Georgia October 27, 1992

When my second son was born in February 1993, she was 81 but flew down to Orlando for the occasion and then came back again in April. This was her last trip. When she got back home she fell and broke her hip and because she was insistent that she would stay in her own home until she was carried out to a nursing home,  she had a hip replacement and insisted upon going right back home.

Unfortunately, the spirit was willing but the body would not cooperate. She fell again and re-injured her hip and thus began the second to last era of her life, the institution years. Without a discernible look backwards she sold her beloved home and gave me the keys to her equally beloved Mercedes. Giving up the latter was not about the car, it was about freedom and loss of independence.

But she and her trusty scooter persevered….for the next 10 years or so she was able to play bridge, go shopping and out to lunch and dinner with her friends. But over the course of those years she was diagnosed with cancer and had a kidney removed, then breast cancer. She developed a hand tremor that eventually made it impossible for her to feed herself, and was allowed to fall so many times in both of the assisted living facilities – which were outrageously well compensated to care for her but didn’t – that she lost the ability to transfer on her own.

And as an aside, I agree with the point of view being expressed by Dr Cherryl Woodson and others on Jane Gross’ blog (if you have an elderly parent, read this blog!)  that assisted living is a myth that over promises and under delivers.

Quite frankly I think in the case of Sunrise Senior Living in particular it is an even darker myth….a profitable, exploitive business model preying on the families “wishful thinking” as described by Dr. McNabney. Wishful thinking that the assisted living facility looks and feels and smells more like a hotel than a nursing home but really the “assisted living” designation is an excuse to reduce the quality and quantity of staff versus what would be required for a nursing home or skilled living designation when most of the residents really require trained, degreed and licensed medical staff.

While my mother lived at Sunrise, I lived in close proximity and managed her medication myself. A phone call from her at 3 PM or 3 AM or sometimes both,  and I was there within minutes to witness this appalling situation first hand.

And finally when macular degenereation robbed her of most of her sight she agreed that it was time to come and live with us. So in November of 2007, following her 95th birthday,

October 27, 2007

October 27, 2007

the final era began. My mom moved in with the boys and me.

She would sometimes ask me why did I think that God was keeping her around for so long.  She felt that given her physical condition that she wasn’t really useful. It wasn’t spoken as a complaint; it was an inquiry.

I can only imagine how awful it was for her to have been so active mentally and physically and then with all of her mental facilities intact to loose most of her physical abilities. But yet there were no requests for pity.

Before we got the final diagnosis on May 17th….that she had matastisized cancer everywhere (I later put the pieces together….the breast cancer at 87 which she opted not to treat beyond a lumpectomy) I had begun believing that she was going to make it to 100. But that was my selfish fantasy of wanting her here for me and for my kids….she was ready to go.

My answer to her question about why she was still here was always the same….because I still need you to be, Mom.

And so do my kids. She would be embarrassed but proud I think to know that her grandson, Forrest, wrote his college essay about the six months of his eighteen years that she lived with us.

November 7, 1995

So, if I had been lucky enough to tell her why I thought she was the best mother in the world during that last week of her life, what would i have said? Well first of all she had asked me several times over the course of the last 10 years if I thought she had been a good mother.

She had also asked my sister at some point, who apparently gave her less than a stellar performance review. That bothered my mom and that sort of surprised me…i had never really thought of my mom as trying to win the mom of the year award. She had her own life and she had her life with my Dad and her life didn’t really seem to be all about her kids.

She kept us in line and she didn’t indulge; she did not want to be our friend….when she said “no” she meant “no”. We had strict bedtimes, curfews and we were never late for school…or anything else for that matter.We grew up with our parents telling us that they had money to put us through college and after that, we were on our own. No move backs. No hand outs. I took them at their word on this.

But then there were several stand out occasions where in spite of the limit that had been set, it became impossible for me to live within it….so at first there were punishments for that particular transgression and then much to my amazement, the rule would be re-thought and changed. When it happened, I would be astounded at my own good fortune.

I highlight these last two thoughts because, this is where I began to see, as I struggle to raise my own kids, how wise a mother my mom had been….and of course in contrast, how not so wise a mother I could be. I’m pedaling fast to try and fix that.

When my mom lived with us she would say to me frequently, “Marianne, you need to stop grounding the kids, its not working” or “You need to stop taking away their “fill in the blank”….IPod, car, PS3. It’s not working.” I would argue with her and say but I have to do something when they refuse to “fill in the blank.” After she was gone I finally realized what she was getting at…..I remembered how when she realized maybe it wasn’t the kid who was bad but the rule that was bad, she was a big enough person to change the rule and compliment the new cooperation. Bingo! Okay, so I don’t mean my kids are running wild….but lets just say we are using a bit more operant conditioning with more reinforcement and less punishment. I am working on it, Mom.

The other part…”you are on your own”. Well, although I never expected she would help me through life’s twists and turns because I took the “you are on your own after that” thing to heart..,,,she was ALWAYS there to help me. In ways that neither one of us could have probably imagined. And she was right in there helping me until the very end of her life. The lesson for me as a parent? Well my kids always think that I am going to fix their messes. The recent article in the WSJ called “the Trophy Kids Go To Work”? Way too close to home.

I need to change the expectation that I will be flying in on my helicopter every time they have a problem….On this one, I can only say, it’s going to be a long road, Mom…..but I am still hopeful to send two, empathetic, responsible citizens out into the world.

So, this is what I would have said….you were the best mom in the whole world because you set such an awesome example of perseverance, of bravery, steadfastness, integrity and absolute wisdom not only for me, but for my kids. And as it was with my Dad, I can only hope that somehow you knew that all along.

Now, to anyone who is still reading this long, long post…..make sure that your parents, your spouse, your kids and your friends know not only that you love them, but what it is about them that makes your world rock.

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