I was standing in my kitchen yesterday when my close friend Liz called. Her mother had died. She was 92-years-old and was in failing health.
My mom died in 1981 when I was 28 and she was 54. She died “young”. I guess you could say that Liz’s mom died “old.”
DOES IT MAKE IT EASIER ON A DAUGHTER (OR SON) IF YOUR MOM DIES AT A RIPE OLD AGE?
OR DOES IT MAKE IT HARDER TO LOSE HER SINCE YOU HAD HER IN YOUR LIFE FOR MANY MORE YEARS?
When I sat down earlier today to write Liz a sympathy note – yes, handwritten, yes on personal stationery, yes, very old-school, just the way my mom taught me to do – I wasn’t sure what to say.
In my head I think Liz was pretty lucky. Her mom lived to see grandchildren. Mine did not. Her mom was around to answer questions in Liz’s young mom days. Mine was not. Her mom was an honored guest at the weddings of two of her grandchildren. Mine never had that chance.
I’m not sure Liz saw it that way. The last few years for her mom were rough ones. No matter the number of calls or visits, and Liz was a most devoted caregiver, her mom was always lonely. Liz was busy, worked hard, had her own life; her mom’s life had narrowed.
Perhaps Liz doesn’t even remember what her mom was like in the prime years of her life.
Whereas that is the only way I can think of mine. Age 54. Active, vibrant, on the go. Back to school to get another master’s degree in education. Volunteering in good causes. Taking on leadership roles in non-profits. Hosting family holidays. Watching my sister and I move through our twenties into grad school, boyfriends, marriages, lives.
THEN ON A RANDOM TUESDAY – POOF – MY MOM WAS THERE ONE NIGHT AND THE NEXT MORNING SHE WAS GONE. I DIDN’T KNOW SHE WAS DYING. SHE DIDN’T EITHER (I HOPE.) AM I JEALOUS THAT LIZ GOT TO BE WITH HER MOM TO EASE HER THROUGH HER LATER YEARS AS BEST SHE COULD? OR AM I SECRETLY HAPPY THAT I DIDN’T HAVE TO BEAR THAT BURDEN OF ELDERLY CARE-GIVING?
Likely I would have had many less than admirable caregiver moments. I can be impatient. I might have thought it a personal imposition to give up my time to meet my aging mother’s needs, to take her to endless doctor’s appointments, to deal with insurance, hospitals and aides. I didn’t have to deal with any of that. As Liz ably did.
What do I write to Liz?
“SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS.”
Ridiculously trite and also untrue because while I am sorry, and it is a loss, her mother is not going to ever be found. She is permanently gone. There is no death lost and found of which I am aware.
“HOPING YOUR MEMORIES WILL BE OF COMFORT.”
This is a phrase I have trotted out before. It is marginally helpful because memories over time do provide some comfort. But then they start to fade. In the first few years after my mom died, she made regular appearances in my dreams. But now I must look at photos to recapture a sense of what she looked and can only guess at what she sounded like.
What I like to do when I write notes of sympathy is to share my own memories of the person who died.
Recalling how Liz’s mom would show up for a visit carrying packages of chicken in her suitcase because the chicken she could buy in New Jersey tasted better than anything you could buy in the DC area.
The time we took Liz’s mom to the beach for the weekend; she loved seeing the ocean again, told me it reminded her of living near the shore when she was raising her family.
WHEN LIZ’S MOM WAS IN THE HOSPITAL, I VISITED HER AND BROUGHT HER SOME CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES. LIZ’S MOM, LIKE LIZ, WAS A CHOCOLATE CONNOISSEUR. AFTER EAGERLY ACCEPTING THE CANDY, SHE PROMPTLY HID THE BOX IN THE TOP DRAWER OF THE TABLE NEXT TO HER HOSPITAL BED. SHE DID NOT WANT TO SHARE HER CHOCOLATES WITH ANYONE. I LIKED THAT ABOUT LIZ’S MOM.
I happened to be in her hospital room that day when a doctor stopped by – and he stood by the door, barely inside her room. He didn’t even greet Liz’s mom, just started to bark out information and orders.
Not on my watch. I spoke right up and urged the doctor to come in, to stand right next to her bed, I told him that Liz’s mom had very poor eyesight and hearing. She couldn’t see or hear him. He needed to walk into the room, all the way, please, and stand by her bed.
The doctor asked me who I was. I admitted I was not a relative. He finally deigned to stroll into the room to stand next to his patient’s bed and talk directly to her – not at her. A small victory.
I didn’t do much for Liz’ s mom over the years. Not as much as I should have or could have. I listened to Liz when she called me, when she was worried about her mom and when she complained about her, too.
I DON’T KNOW THAT I WOULD HAVE DONE AS MUCH AS I SHOULD OR COULD HAVE FOR MY MOM EITHER. HAD SHE LIVED. BUT SHE DIDN’T. LIZ’S MOM DID. AND LIZ NOW HAS HER MEMORIES WHICH I HOPE WILL BE OF COMFORT.