My mother died 10 years ago this month, and yet she is still very much a presence in my life.
I bought my first house three years ago and decorated it with many of her favorite things, including her antique furniture and a cherished Japanese tea set that belonged to her Irish grandmother.
My mother in the 1940s
Source: Copyright © 2019 by Susan Hooper
Photographs of her—as a young woman, a bride, a wife and mother, and a proud grandmother—are on prominent display in my living room.
In the years since her death, I have come to understand how similar we are—a fact I could not have accepted in my youth.
My mother left her Vermont hometown at 21 and never returned there to live. She was afflicted with wanderlust; she lived in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. During World War II, she served with the American Red Cross in Canada.
When she married my father, who was from Boston, they settled in Pennsylvania—400 miles from their families.
I inherited her restless soul. I left Pennsylvania for college at 17 and collected addresses in Washington, D.C., Buffalo, Brooklyn, Manhattan, New Jersey and Honolulu—where I lived for nearly 15 years.
My mother had an uneasy relationship with her own mother, who could be sharp-tongued and critical. In the classic Irish way, my grandmother adored her eldest child, a handsome son, but was less openly supportive of the three beautiful daughters who followed.
My mother also had a sharp tongue and a critical eye. I knew she loved me, but during my teenage years I became wary of her criticism and fearful of her occasional displays of anger.
Leaving home for college and returning only for visits after that seemed the best approach. Besides, I wanted to see the world, just as my mother had.
My wanderings came to an end in late 2002, four years after my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
By 2002 my mother was in an assisted-living facility. My brother and I had helped her move there in 2001 from the apartment she had rented in 1984, after my father died, and tastefully decorated with her beloved New England antiques.
She hated leaving her apartment, but she needed help, especially with the Parkinson’s medication she was taking several times a day. By late 2002, however, my mother’s worsening condition meant she needed more nursing care than the assisted-living staff could provide.
To help my mother and brother, I quit my job as a journalist in Honolulu and moved back to Pennsylvania, not far from the town I had fled from as a teenager.
My brother and I visited nine nursing homes before selecting a sparkling clean, welcoming place with staff who seemed genuinely compassionate and well-equipped to care for our mother.
In her new home, my mother and I forged a new relationship.
I visited her on weekends and called her during the week. My mother loved being outside, so whenever possible I would push her wheelchair along the landscaped walkways beside her nursing home or down the paved paths of the verdant park next door.
On other visits I would bring lunch, and we would sit by ourselves in a nursing home lounge while I helped her eat. Sometimes she reminisced about her Vermont childhood or her travels before she married and settled down.
Each week I collected her laundry, returning the following week with fresh tops and skirts so she would look stylish, as she always had before her illness. My brother and I met regularly with the nursing staff to make sure she was receiving proper care.
On my visits, I was humbled by my mother’s determination as she faced the cruel progression of Parkinson’s disease. I never heard her complain, even as she lost more of her abilities: to walk a few steps; to lift herself out of her wheelchair; to write legibly; to shower, dress and use the bathroom without the help of a care aide.
During these years, my fear of her dissolved, replaced by sympathy for her suffering and admiration for her courage and dignity. I wanted her to know that, in her struggle against the implacable foe of Parkinson’s, I would be her faithful ally.
When she died, on a bright morning in September 2009, I was by her bedside, as I had been throughout the night.
She was on morphine, and not conscious, so there was no chance for last words between us. But I talked to her anyway. As she slept, I let her know when the sun rose and the birds she loved started chattering outside her window. I watched her take her last breath.
When the head nurse came in a few moments later, she knelt beside my mother, felt for a pulse, and then turned to me, her eyes streaming with tears, and whispered, “You were a good daughter.”
Ten years later, I still wonder if those words were true. Except for periodic visits, I was physically absent from my mother’s life for 30 years—although I kept in close touch with weekly phone calls, cards and letters. For nearly 15 of those years, my home was a continent and an ocean away.
In a sympathy card, a friend wrote, “You were there for your mother when she needed you the most.” But could my nearly seven years of end-of-life devotion compensate for my three-decade absence?
For an answer, I look to my memories of my mother. It was never easy for her to say, “I love you,” yet I know she was profoundly grateful when I returned home to help her. One Sunday afternoon a few years before she died, as we were preparing for another outdoor excursion, she suddenly said, “God bless you, darling, for everything you do.”
Her words were so unexpected I was embarrassed and momentarily speechless. But I recovered enough to say, “God bless you, too, Mom. He is watching over both of us.”
Ten years after her passing, I am trying to replace the guilt I have about my inadequacies as a daughter with reverence for my mother’s life and gratitude for our time together. I only hope she knew what a blessing it was for me to come home and be with her to the end of her days.
Copyright © 2019 by Susan Hooper