By Karla Wheeler
If you did a double-take when you saw the word “cheerful” in the headline above, you’re not alone. I did the same thing when I began to proofread the first draft of this Mother’s Day article.
I realize “cheerful” doesn’t seem like an appropriate adjective for describing someone’s dying days, not unless that person was a positive thinker who always saw the glass as half full – to overflowing – rather than half empty.
That was my mother.
There she lay during her last weeks of life, bedridden from the rapid advance of lung cancer, dependent on the nursing home staff for almost everything, and aware that her days were numbered – yet she greeted me each time with her usual bright affection.
“How’s my snooky-boo today?” came the girlish voice that defined Mother’s 80 years. As she planted wet smooches on my cheek, her vivid blue eyes twinkled, and her soft silvery curls tickled my face.
During that last month, Mother never allowed herself to show self-pity. Oh, sure, she’d occasionally wish aloud that she could walk again and go home to her cats and to the life of total independence she had enjoyed just weeks before.
But she’d immediately snap her attention outward, tuning in to the person who stood or sat before her, wanting to know how that person was at that very moment. Her interest in others was genuine. It embraced everyone who came within talking distance, whether the visitor was a beloved daughter, a nursing aide, or the maintenance man adjusting the air-conditioning.
Mother kept a small notebook on her bedside table to help her keep track of the many caregivers and visitors who shared her last weeks. “Pretty blonde nurse, expecting first child,” one entry said. “Night aide. Son wants to join Marines,” read another. Occasionally she’d record information about her medications and illness, but most of the jottings reflected her joyful enthusiasm for connecting with others.
It was this dedicated cheerfulness that helped my sister and me to endure the horror of seeing our precious mama forced to live the end of her life in a nursing home, where staffing shortages and worker burnout often translated into rushed, undignified care.
“Aren’t you cute!” Mother exclaimed to a harried aide one morning as he bustled through the unpleasant task of changing her soiled bedding. “Cute? Me?” the Haitian worker looked up incredulously. Mother nodded. Her infectious grin captivated him, and he smiled sheepishly. Like a blossoming flower, the young man began to open up, telling Mother tidbits of his life. He had been working extra shifts to save money so his mother could come to live in America. “I hope by Mother’s Day,” he beamed, which our own mama dutifully recorded in her notebook.
Mother’s cheerfulness also helped our family to plan for the inevitable – her funeral. “I want you to keep my memorial service short, happy, and cheerful,” she stated out of the blue one day while devouring nothing but the dessert on her food tray. Between chocolatey bites, she sang me the hymns she liked, telling me those she disliked, so my sister and I would choose wisely for her service.
“Can’t stand ‘Amazing Grace’ and those other Catholic hymns you girls were forced to sing,” she stated matter-of-factly. Mother was a protestant who married a Catholic in 1945, back when protestants had to promise to raise their children Catholic, or the wedding was off. Obviously, for more than half a century, Mother harbored feelings of resentment about our religious upbringing. Now that she was failing fast, she seemed at peace about venting such emotions.
Mother went on to talk about the little sandwiches she’d like us to serve at the reception following her funeral service. “Make sure you cut the crusts off,” she frowned as she lifted into the air a ham sandwich from her food tray, complete with crusts. “No lilies,” she added. “You know I still can’t stand the smell of lilies, ever since I was a little girl kneeling beside my Daddy’s coffin.”
I interrupted her monologue long enough to ask, “But Mother, why can’t we have lilies? You won’t be there at the service to notice.” She didn’t miss a beat.
“You never know… you never know,” she grinned sheepishly. Then she continued to think out loud about a number of other memorial service arrangements. She seemed intent on covering all the bases so that when the time came, my sister and I wouldn’t have to agonize about such details.
That bittersweet time came much sooner than the doctors expected, but my sister and I knew when Mother’s death was imminent, as did some of the nursing home staff. Three days before she died, I bent down to give Mother a hug and a kiss in greeting and asked how she was feeling. I waited for her to pepper me with cheery questions about myself, my husband, and our 11-year-old daughter, whom she adored.
Her pale lips hardly moved as she glanced at me tenderly. The brilliance of her eyes had dimmed, but the depth of her love shone as brightly as ever. Then, “Water,” she whispered. I gave her frequent small sips. “Turn on the TV – the travel channel,” she murmured. We spent the afternoon in silence, staring at the screen across the room. Nurses and aides came and went, but Mother never once tried to connect with them.
As his shift ended that day, the aide from Haiti stopped by to visit Mother. “Bye, bye, Marie. I’m off for a few days now.” Mother answered softly, “Bye-bye.” Tears welled in the man’s dark eyes as he left the room. Clearly, he was going to miss the cheerful chatter of the dying woman in room 103, who was probably the first – and last – patient ever to call him “cute.”
Because hospice care had enabled our grandmother and father to experience a pain-free death years before, my sister and I advocated for Mother to be transferred to a bed in the hospice wing of the facility. What a blessing to have her cared for during her final 24 hours by nurses and doctors who took the time to care for her every need in the most professional, compassionate way possible. Mother died peacefully with a hospice nurse by her side, giving her permission to go. The nurse later told us she reassured Mother, “Your girls will be just fine, Marie. It’s okay to go now.”
This will be the fifth Mother’s Day since my cherished mama died, and I’ll try to honor the tears that will inevitably come. Inspired by my mother’s legacy, I will do my best to rise above any feelings of self-pity. If my mother could remain cheerful during her dying days, surely I can find ways to celebrate her love and life in meaningful ways on Mother’s Day.
Hmmm… I wonder if the young Haitian aide still works at the nursing home. Maybe I’ll stop by to see him. I can’t wait to find out if his mother arrived in time for Mother’s Day five years ago. And I will have one very important question to ask him: “Are you cute?”
Copyright 2009 by Karla Wheeler. All rights reserved. May be reprinted with proper attribution and copyright.
Karla Wheeler is the founder of Quality of Life Publishing Co. (www.QoLpublishing.com), an independent firm dedicated to helping patients and families served by hospice. She is the author of several gentle grief support books.Tags: grief, hope