Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Remembering My Mother's Death One Year Later

Today is the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. She died much as she lived – quietly, avoiding the spotlight, and without fanfare.

My father, in contrast, was a noisy person, always striving to be at the center of attention. He couldn’t even sit still – sitting in a chair, he would constantly shift position, fidget with objects, sigh or whistle or say something, even when alone, so that being in the same room with him one could not help but pay attention to him. Even when he was in his study praying or reading, he did so noisily. Reading his Bible or the many biblical commentaries in his library, he would constantly remark aloud on things he saw in the text. And when he prayed, he prayed aloud, sometimes muttering under his breath, sometimes shouting quite loudly. If he was home, he was making sounds, so that you knew it.

And his death was no different. In the hospital, five days before his ninety-second birthday, as I sat waiting for the end, his breathing changed dramatically, and he began to struggle for breath. I called in a nurse, and each of us held one of his hands. I told her something of his life story – how he had lost his first wife in an automobile accident, his first daughter at birth, and how my mother and I nearly died when I was born. I told her of the poverty he endured as a child, one of fourteen children of a mentally unbalanced father whose erratic actions kept the family impoverished. I told her of his religious journey as a fundamentalist minister.

I also told her of his stubbornness. Once, while home at Thanksgiving, as I was preparing to drive my parents down to the Ozarks for the family Thanksgiving dinner, a neighbor’s cat for whom my mother would leave out food was on the carport, rubbing up against my legs and purring. My father, who walked with a cane by that time as a result of strokes, came out to join us, and fell, with his cane going through the window of the screen door, shattering the glass. After my mother and I got him in and settled in his recliner, I put on gloves to pick up the glass, first throwing the cat into our car so he wouldn’t get hurt. But my father, rather than being content with resting comfortably after his fall, insisted on driving himself to some automotive store, after the cat had been liberated, of course, and taking me with him, as if to prove that he could still drive.

Similarly, I told her how, after his doctor told me he had six to twelve months to live, he lived eighteen months – largely, I suspect, to prove him wrong. He drew a breath, and then was silent, and she said, “That was his last breath.” And then he drew what was actually his last breath, and I looked at her and said, with a twinkle in my eye, “You had to issue him a challenge, didn’t you?”

My mother, on the other hand, was quiet. When she was home, her presence did not intrude on my consciousness as my father’s did, and we could inhabit the same space comfortably. She would speak her mind when she thought it necessary, but those times were few and rather far between.

While my father would get restless and get out and drive around town, stopping to gab with his friends in various places, my mother was fairly content to stay home, and she never obtained a driver’s license. (She also never got her ears pierced, and never wore pants.) Once they were in the nursing home, my father would spend as much time in the common areas as possible, having the aides wheel him there. My mother, in contrast, would hide out in her room, refusing the coaxing of the staff to come join in activities.

The night she died, friends of theirs, although my age, took me out to eat. My mother had been unconscious for several days. He was a Southern Baptist minister, and she had been a close friend of my mother’s, both of them regarding my parents as mentors and, in some ways, surrogate parents. We returned to the room, and he prayed with us, and they left. I sat down next to her bed, watching television, and about fifteen minutes after they left, noticed that she wasn’t breathing, and so I called in the nurses to confirm her death. There was no immediate change before she stopped breathing – indeed, although she had stopped not too long before I noticed, I don’t know how quickly I noticed after her last breath. She just slipped away quietly. I remember looking out the window and seeing one of the most spectacular sunsets I had ever seen, with the sky full of pinks, and reds, and oranges.

My Christian faith assures me that she is at peace.

Mary Coldwell Cravens, January 24, 1925 – June 28, 2010

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