Goodbye, Mom

So strange, to feel sad and yet to find a bit of gladness at the same time.

Last Saturday I took Eldest Daughter Kate to Lewiston for a visit with Mom. We arrived at the midday meal time. The first thing that struck me as I walked in and looked across the room was how very much she resembled her own mother, my Grandma Humphrey, with her hair now snow white.

Mom slumped, birdlike or perhaps mouselike, at the dining room table, nibbling sporadically at half a roll smeared with jam. A full plate—chicken drumstick, roasted baby red potatoes, steamed orange and yellow carrots—had been pushed aside, as had small plastic glasses of water and pink lemonade.

As always, she brightened when we greeted her but didn’t really know who we were. We settled in, one on either side of her, resting our hands on her shoulders and talking gently. At one point she laughed merrily, sounding so much like her old self that I put my head down and cried.

Kate encouraged her to eat some of her other foods but Mom wasn’t interested. She finished the roll—a 40-minute task after we arrived plus who knows how long before we got there to eat the first half.

For some time Mom’s speech has been a garbled mix of English and Klingon (or perhaps something less guttural than Klingon). She’ll start a sentence with a few words of English and segue without a hiccup into a waterfall of speechlike sounds: all the intonations and accompanying facial expressions of a sentence and none of the meaning.

We’ve learned to respond to her tone of voice and non-verbal language for an interaction that seems to satisfy her. Amazing how far an “Oh, really?” or “I see what you mean” can carry a “conversation.”

She came across loud and clear with “Don’t push me!” as Kate and I tried to maneuver her from dining room chair to walker to upholstered chair in the main seating area. That made us laugh because she communicated quite clearly in that moment.

With the aide’s help we got there at last and nestled in, talking and giving her some loving human touch with pats and hugs. She told us quite a bit, most of it in words we couldn't understand.

But at one point she said "Jan," my older sister's name, very clearly in the middle of a sentence. We loved hearing that because Jan has been the one on the front lines with both Dad and Mom for at least a decade and it felt as if this still registered with Mom. She also said "Bill" a couple of times--my dad's name and we think she meant him, in whatever mash-up she was sharing.

At one point Kate, trying to reach Mom with who we were, leaned in and said, “This is your daughter, Barb—Barbara,” pointing to me, “and I’m her daughter, your granddaughter.”

Mom looked right at me and said quite clearly, “You have the world. Bless you! You’re mine.” I burst into tears. It felt so strange and wonderful to have her say something that made some kind of sense. When she said, “You have the world. Bless you!” I felt as if she were responding to Kate’s identification of herself as my daughter because all Mom’s life being a wife and mother meant more than anything to her. “You’re mine” meant she knew I was her daughter.

I don’t know if any of that is true. Life is what you make of it and that will be my truth for this visit.

We hugged and kissed Mom and told her we love her, then headed back to Spokane.

There I helped Kate move and did a thousand other things for the next 3 days: worked on presentations for the conference I was to attend later in the week, rode my bike officially and unofficially, went to meetings and events, smelled the lilacs in Manito Park, ate ice cream at The Scoop, spent time with friends, and drove back across the state to Grand Mound, near Olympia.

All of this hurly-burly explains why I didn’t look at personal email until late Tuesday night. That’s when I discovered that Sunday night Mom’s hip broke and she fell. She was in the hospital and failing fast.

Operating on a 92-year-old woman with dementia who’s on blood thinners and who doesn’t understand what’s happening didn’t make sense.

We were waiting for the end and she would spend the rest of her life—however long it lasted—in bed on pain medication. I felt angry that we treat our animals better than we treat humans when it comes to the end of life.

Wednesday morning my brother Don called, sobbing, to tell me she had died peacefully in her sleep during the night. I called my younger sister and couldn’t reach her so I had to leave a message. There’s no harder voice mail to leave in the world but who would want to learn this from an email rather than a human voice? I knew we’d start planning the service via email and she would see that; with 6 siblings we carry on a lot of family business that way.

I’m so sad. I’m sad that my parents didn’t have the old age they deserved. I’m sad that Dad lost his loving companion of so many years and had only her shell there with him. I’m sad that when he died just after Thanksgiving in 2012 we couldn’t tell her. She wouldn’t understand, if she did it would cause her pain, and then she would forget but have a lingering sadness, so why do that to her?

I’m sad that a woman who was a storyteller all her life and kept all the family memories in circulation had to lose her memory. I’m sad that the woman who made sure she never missed a birthday card to anyone couldn’t tell you how old she was or how many children she had. I’m sad that she suffered pain and had to go to the hospital.

And yet I’m glad. I’m so glad that Kate and I had that last sweet visit. I’m glad Mom laughed and that my laugh sounds a lot like hers. I’m glad we hugged her and kissed her and told her we love her. I’m glad Mom spoke so clearly and said something I can treasure. I’m glad that at the end she didn’t have to suffer long and she went to sleep.

My older sister Jan wrote a beautiful obituary that tells you more about her life.

Goodbye, Mom.


  1. Hugs to one and all. A loving goodbye.

  2. Our family memorial service on Friday, May 23 was so wonderful.

    All 6 siblings were there (quite a trick since brother Jim had to come from Sudan, his current posting in his State Department job) along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, lots of cousins, aunts (who all outlived the uncles) and family friends.

    The service reminded us all of how wonderful Mom was--the real Mom, not the confused and broken woman at the end.

    Some of the things that made her a great mother:

    - incredibly creative handmade Halloween costumes

    - her skill as a decorator of fancy wedding cakes and baker of flaky pie crusts and, as my nephew Gaetan said in his tribute read during the service, "The cookies. My God, the cookies."

    - hostess skills beyond compare, from her preparations as "Hors d'oeuvres Queen" to her warm hospitality and always-open door with enough food for another chair to be pulled up to the table.

    - artistic skills ranging from Christmas scenes painted on the window to posters for school events to watercolors

    - kindness, kindness, kindness

    - a beautiful smile on display far more than her occasional frown

    - love for her husband of 68 years, children, and grandchildren

    - warm acceptance of every partner her children brought home (almost all of us managed more than one along the way....)

    That list could keep going. I'm so lucky to have had her for a mother.


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