A mother’s death is universal, but it is similar yet different for each of us. For this reason, I want to share the night my mother (age 96) died and what I learned from that loss – with the hope that my reaction strikes a chord, perhaps helping you gain an expanded perspective of yourself and life itself.
Let me set the stage. In a 4-5 month period my mother experienced the following sequence of events. She fell and broke her hip; she needed hip replacement; and then she received 6 weeks of physical rehabilitation care. Once stabilized, she returned home. Within several weeks she fell again, breaking her spine with a compression fracture of L-1. For that injury, at her age, there is no chance for a complete recovery. However, they sent her to another 6 weeks of physical rehabilitation treatment.
Back to a new, lower baseline, she returned home. Once again, she fell. Only this time she suffering a cerebral bleed deep in the brain, compromising her ability to swallow, making it a challenge to drink and eat. Of course, they sent her to another round of physical rehabilitation care. Halfway through her treatment, the facility realized that she was out of Medicare days and promptly discharged her in a mad rush to hospice care.
She returned home, unable to walk, unable to eat, and barely able to drink much of anything except “thickened” water. Within 4 days, despite good quality hospice care, she progressively declined, slipping into deeper states of dehydration with periods of semi-consciousness. In this predicament, as her son, I could do nothing but sit at her bedside, holding her hand, brushing her hair, and squeezing drops of water in her parched mouth.
In the last night it was clear she was going to die. I felt the grief from the loss, but I was also filled with questions. Why had my mother always celebrated July 4th as her wedding day and not told us the truth? Why had she been unwilling to explain how she became pregnant in the fall while dating my father in college and how she was forced to elope to a rushed October marriage? Why was she so afraid of revealing the mistake and discussing it with her son and daughter?
At the same time, I was flooded with larger, more important questions. Why had she always talked about the superficial layers of life? Why had she always focused on her friends’ wealth, jewelry, clothes, and expensive homes? Why had she never focused, or at least discussed, their character, their values, or their priorities for life? Why had she never praised someone for being a good mother instead of raving how they looked in a certain dress? Was she afraid of what she might discover beneath that dress?
Here is my own opinion. I am a lover of the line that it is the cracks in the wall that let in the light; and she was probably a hater of that line. I believe a person’s imperfections make them interesting and appealing. She only wanted perfection for herself and her friends. I remember one line from her high school diary. The line stated that “I will never be beautiful, but I can always dress beautifully.” In short, she spent her whole life trying to look good on the outside, ignoring the possibility of growth on the inside. When life is lived on the inside.
She rarely let down her guard, especially in public. Once, when we were alone, she shared how she and my dad, when dating in college, loved to sleep in his sleeping bag on the golf course. She said they would place the sleeping bag on one of the greens, roll across the slopes, and stare at the stars. To me, that was the type of story for which I yearned. Breaking rules. Making love. Getting pregnant, yes. But still it had grit. Yet, she told me that story once in 96 years.
I will give you one more example. My mother always showed the best of manners in front of others. I remember being constantly scolded for my faulty table miscues. But once, and only once, she shared how she and my dad hosted a dinner party. Apparently, it was a success and everyone stayed late – too late. My mother finally announced that everyone had to leave and she plopped herself down flat on her back on the living room rug, saying she would not get up until everyone was gone. Now, for me, that story was pure gold – in a house where I only saw silver.
So, as my mother was dying, what did I do in those final hours? I prayed, of course. But I also expressed my forgiveness to her for all of her mistakes, all of her faults, and all of her weaknesses. I told her: Who was I to judge? Each person has the right to be themselves. Each person has the right to their values, whether I agree with them or not. Each person has the right to seek their own happiness, even if it was incredibly superficial.
But here was my perspectve. I do not think a person finds real happiness unless they let in the light – unless they share their mistakes, their faults, their blemishes. When you go through life, hidden behind fancy clothes and buried in make-up, you do not give the world the chance to see the real you. And that is what I mourned that night in those final hours. I mourned not that my mother was dying at age 96. I mourned that she had chosen to hide so much.
Life could have been so much more interesting, so much more fun. She could have been so much more than she was, at least to me. She just needed to share the truth and acknowledge those rays of light. So, please, give it a try. Share more and more. Do not let yourself die with your closest friends / family not knowing all of you, and especially not knowing the often hidden parts that can make you so special.
Let the light be part of your legacy …
And then you will share real happiness …