For A Dying Woman, My Mother Sure Knew Something Important About Living
The last time I saw my mom, she was standing on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building, waving as my husband and I drove away.
We had stopped for a brief visit with her on our final trip out of my hometown of Rochester, NY, as we made our way to our new life in Washington, DC. I was rushed and grumpy, using those attitudes as shields to conceal the guilt I felt leaving her behind with only a few friends and no family in the area.
"Don't be ridiculous. Life is to live," said my mom, using her standard catchphrase that I later learned was originally said by Eleanor Roosevelt, when I last broached my trepidation about moving so far from her. "I want you to love every minute of it."
As we drove away, I flipped the passenger side sun visor down and watched her figure grow smaller and smaller. For some reason, the waving annoyed me.
"Geez, enough," I griped to my husband. "She needs to go back inside, already. We'll be back in a month. And she'll be fine."
I believed it. She always made me believe it. Even when it wasn't true.
When I was in kindergarten, I didn't know what a pulmonary embolism was, of course; I just knew that my mom was taken out of our house on a stretcher by men who arrived in an ambulance, and then I couldn't see her.
I was playing with a doll in a small waiting area in the hospital. My dad warned me to stay right there. Don't move. He would be right back with a surprise.
A few minutes later I looked up, and there was my mom. She looked pale and weak in her long green robe, but I can still picture the way she smiled. It sounds silly, but even at that young age I felt enveloped in love. I showed her my doll and tried to tell her all I could about it and our family dog and my schoolmates.
That was the first time I was aware of her saying, "Life is to live." She said it in response to my dad who had sneaked her down to see me, but was worried she was taxing herself with a long visit. I remember her hugging me for a long, long time, before she stood, kissed me on the head and let my dad lead her to the elevator. She smiled at me as the door closed.
"My mom has been sick as long as I've been alive" became my catchphrase whenever people would remark on her many hospitalizations or doctors' visits.
But really, I didn't believe that.
If you knew my mom starting a few years after her recovery from that life-threatening illness, you wouldn't have believed it either. As time progressed, the emergencies grew fewer and she grew stronger. If she wasn't tending her rose bushes, she was planning an elaborate dinner party or grocery shopping, or sitting on a lawn chair in the sun, reading a book.
Things became so normal at our house—no midnight calls for the ambulance, no long hospital stays—that I almost forgot she was chronically ill.
It's more than a bit embarrassing to recall my whiny, self-important high school self, tormented with concerns about boys, school, rumors and proms.
And she was fine with that. "You need to stop worrying," she'd say. "I want you to live your life to its fullest."
Even in my first year of college, when her weight dropped to 90 pounds and she couldn't eat without becoming violently ill, she remained positive and prodded me to live my life.
And after she recovered and then had a cardiac bypass operation, followed by two more, she urged me to concentrate on my career, my friendships, my future. To live life to the fullest.
Those were my thoughts three weeks after we moved into our DC apartment and I sat alone, trying to absorb the news that my mom had died suddenly of a cardiac arrest.
Today I am living life to the fullest and enjoying every minute of it. Just like my mom taught me to do.
Video: Caring for her dying mother, Georgia woman finds hospice, help
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