On Saturday, May 9, 1987, I was in Phoenix, Arizona sitting at the kitchen table discussing with my Uncle and Brother what we were going to next when the doorbell rang, and I answered the door. There stood a man smiling at me with a floral arrangement. It was the florist delivering flowers for my mother. I had ordered them the previous Monday for Mother’s day. I took them to the kitchen with tears running down my cheeks and asked my Uncle and Brother, “What am I going to do with these?” You see, my mother had just passed away an hour before. My Uncle said, “Well, you can enjoy them, you are a Mother.”
It had been a horrible three days, and I knew there were more horrible days ahead. It was funny how fast live could change in less than a week. Last Monday, I ordered the flowers never knowing my Mom would never see them. On Wednesday, it was a beautiful day in Illinois. I was trying to start a home based business. I was out delivering flyers for my business. I was enjoying being outside on such a beautiful day and feeling good and excited about my business venture. That evening, my husband, kids, and I went out to dinner. When we came home there was a phone message from my brother. He said, “When you get this message call me.” I could tell by his voice that something was wrong. I returned his call and he told me that my mother had collapsed that afternoon, and it was serious. I didn’t know how serious. What exactly did he mean by serious. Serious like she will die, or it’s serious and she has a chance. I didn’t want to ask. So I said, “Do you think, I should come down there?” He said, “Yes please!” At that point I knew it was bad. I got off the phone and tried to tell my husband, but the words were hard to get out. My kids were little. How do I tell them about their Grandmother? She had just moved to Phoenix the previous year. Until she moved, she lived nearby and my kids spent a lot of time at Grandma’s and were very close to her. I went outside and sat on the front steps, I felt like I was dreaming. My husband came out and sat next to me. We talked and cried. There was a lot to be done, and I knew I would not sleep. I thought about the day she moved. We were at her house the night before. I didn’t want her to go. I sat in her house wishing this night would last forever. I didn’t want to go home. I now knew what a broken heart felt like. I felt like my heart was breaking. I even thought I might have a heart attack. I never showed it, and I never said anything to her about it. I don’t remember the reason I did not go over there the next day when she left for Phoenix. At first we called each other all the time, but the phone calls were expensive and neither of us had a lot of money. So we had to cut down on our phone calls. We went down to visit her for two weeks that summer and she came up for Christmas. She went back after New Year’s and my oldest son’s birthday. When it was time for her to board the plane, she started to cry. I thought then this is the last time I’m going to see you, and I believe she was thinking the same thing. That was the last time, I saw her alive and well. The last time I talked to her on the phone was Easter. I was saving my next phone call for Mother’s Day. I spent the rest of Wednesday night making plane reservations, washing clothes to take to Phoenix, and making plans for the kids and my husband. I got on the plane the next morning for Phoenix. On the plane, people are talking, laughing, and having a good time. I listened to conversations about vacations. I wished I was going there for a vacation, and I wished my husband was sitting next to me instead of some stranger. All I wanted to do was cry, and I was holding it back. I didn’t want to cry in front of strangers. I also felt sick to my stomach. I was hoping I really wouldn’t be sick. It was the longest four hours of my life. My brother and Uncle met me at the airport. They wanted to know if I wanted to go to their house or the hospital. I said, “Is she going to make it?” They didn’t know, but said she had not regained consciousness and she was attached up to all kinds of machines. I then said, “To the hospital.” I could not believe my eyes when I saw her. She was pale and she had all kinds of tubes attached to her, I took her hand and talked to her. I didn’t know if she could hear me or not, but I hoped she could. Then the doctor came in to talk to us. He said that she had a brain aneurysm and she was brain dead. He showed us her chart with a straight flat line. He said, “She is being kept alive on machines. You will need to make a decision whether to take her off of the machines or not. She is not going to get better. If she lives, she will be a vegetable for the rest of her life. I’ll leave you alone to discuss it.” All three of knew what had to be done. We didn’t want to do it, but we had too. I remember before my mother left for Phoenix she had told me, “If anything happens to me, I do not want to be kept alive on a machine.” I tried to make light of it because I didn’t want to talk about it. She said, “’I’m serious.” So I knew that this is what she would want. When the doctor came back into the room, we told him to go ahead and remove the machines. He said, “We will do it slowly, and wean her off the machines. We will remove one at a time.” We went back to the hospital later, and her breathing was harder.
Back at her house, I looked around and saw her everywhere I looked. Her glasses lying out and things she had been in the process of doing when this happened. I asked my brother and uncle if she complained of headaches or anything and they said, “No”. That morning she mentioned that she felt like she had a hangover although she didn’t have anything to drink. She went to sit outside. The dogs started barking and looking out the window. My brother looked out to see what they were barking at and saw her lying on the ground with lawn chair tipped over. He went out there and tried to talk to her and she said, “Where’s my pillow?” And that was the last thing she said. They called 911 and she was taken to one hospital, but then air vaced to another hospital that specialized in neurology.
We went back on Friday she was still alive, and her breathing even more labored. Some friends of my mother and uncle came by the hospital and then invited us over to their house. It was a pleasant relief. It helped to take my mind off of my mother dying. They were telling stories about my mom and about life in Phoenix. Then on Saturday morning we went to hospital again. Her breathing now was really hard. I thought each breath was her last. Her chest would rise up and then nothing and then after what seemed like minutes, but probably just seconds, she would let the breath out and her chest would sink back down. And then this would repeat. I held her hand and talked as if she could hear me. I told her how much I loved her and how much the grandchildren loved her. How my husband had said she was a great mother-in-law. I told her she was a great mother and my uncle added “and sister”. My brother said, “I guess were not going to make it to Vegas”. My Uncle said, “Next time”. We decided to leave, go get something to eat and come back later. So we went to a restaurant and then back to the house. We were only home a few minutes when the call came that she had passed. Later that afternoon we went back to the hospital to sign papers and make arrangements for her. We decided that she had more family and friends in Illinois so we would have her cremated in Phoenix and her ashes sent to the cemetery in Illinois. We would have a memorial service in Illinois. I had to get back to Illinois because my husband was taking time off of work to stay home with the kids. I made plane reservations for my brother and me to fly back to Illinois on Monday. My Uncle came later in the week. He could fly for free as he was retired from the airlines. Later in the week we had the memorial service to have our final good-bye to Mom. It was a horrible Mother’s Day that I will never forget, and I still don’t like Mother’s Day. I don’t like celebrating it. I felt like I didn’t have time to mourn her back then. My brother had no family so I felt bad for him. I tried not to let my kids see me break down. I had made all the arrangements so I was busy. My brother and I were now orphan’s. My Brother, Uncle and I were the only ones left from our original family. In the seven years preceding my mother’s death, I lost both my grandparents, and father. My husband had lost his mother and a brother. So we were feeling pretty lonely especially on holidays. Recently, a friend who lost her father asked, “Does it ever get any better?” The answer is, “sort of”. I don’t think about it every day, but there are days when I want my mother. I would love to be able to talk to her. When I have had problems over the years, I wish I could ask her advice. I have felt so alone at times. That’s why I say it “sort of” gets better. I have moments when I regret that I wasn’t with her at the end holding her hand. Why did we leave her? I don’t remember what our thinking was that day. I feel guilty that we said remove the machines. I think about the “what ifs”. What if the doctor was wrong? What if she wasn’t brain dead? I know this is wrong to think about the “What ifs” and most of the time I think we did the right thing. Life does go on and my brother and I often talk about our childhood memories with Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa and our Aunts and Uncles. We have many good and wonderful memories of them all. This Sunday is Mother’s Day so once again my thoughts are on that Mother’s Day thirty-two years ago. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you!
Side Note: I originally wrote this in 2013 and since then my brother has passed away and my uncle passed away in 2011. Now I am the only one surviving from my family of origin.
Copyright © 2013 Gail Grunst