Mother’s Day without my mother

My mother was a kind, loving, gentle, appreciative woman. Not everybody gets that kind of mother. I was lucky. She used to tell me “Natalie, you picked your family in Heaven in the pre-existence,” and I remember thinking “what kind of crazy BS is this?” but if I picked her to be my mom, then it certainly was not BS. Don’t worry. I won’t be getting rebaptized, but she was a keeper. If you don’t understand this “pre-existence” stuff, don’t worry too much about that, either. It’s a Mormon thing. If you’re that curious, the missionaries will drop by.

I was raised a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My mother was a convert to that church, and yet she lived the exemplary tenets of it every single day of her life.

There is much about Mormonism that is good, and much that is hogwash, and lucky for me, my mother mostly listened to the good stuff and the other stuff she just ignored. I guess. We didn’t have those kinds of conversations.

Now my dad, he and I had many of those, and they never, ever ended well. They still don’t. So rather than argue, I leave. These days, I understand why my dad clings to his religious beliefs.

But back to my mom. She loved to sing, and she was always being asked to sing solos in church. You can imagine the embarassment this brought up on me, her teenage, non-believing daughter. The last thing a teenager wants is a parent who is actually VISIBLE, SPEAKS, and has the nerve to be NOTICEABLE in any venue. Lucky for me, my mom had five kids and so as the second-to-the-oldest I was the least of her concern. They came to a lot of my dance functions and what-not, but she was pretty busy, working (because my dad was a school-teacher) trying to keep our house clean, and making sure her children stayed alive and didn’t fall out of the nest.

One of my mother’s strongest memories of me is my desire to be alone and get away. This is true. As one of five kids, there was not much alone time, so I locked myself in the bathroom A LOT. Another place I hid was under the bed. This, actually, was a good place to hide, because there was a heater vent, and I was always cold. My third hiding place was the closet floor. I think the reasoning behind this was my need for the absence of mind clutter and noise. I read as a child, and I read a lot. This was an escape for me as well. I read a lot of Harlequin romances because my older sister bought them, and they were available. They probably wouldn’t have been my first choice, but beggars cannot be choosers. I learned early on that men act like they don’t like you; appear to be poor and timid; then get jealous when you find someone else; rescue you from the someone-else who turns out to be evil; and are really an Army Seal, and quite wealthy after they created some amazing invention. Oh, and then they fall madly in love with you and carry you off into the sunset.

Side Note Number One: My first attempt at writing was a romance. I failed. People kept dying. Men do not carry you off into the sunset, and Harlequin did not imprint well on me, I guess. 

But I also devoured the books at school that other students moaned about “having to read.” The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Flies, Watership Down... These were my escapes in high school, along with the romances, because I read fast.

My mother only read Church books, and Church-approved books, but she was a good reader and writer. She wrote “road shows” (Mormon plays) and productions. Other than that, she had no time to read. Working full-time, too many kids, etc.

Her other memories of me–along with seeking time alone–were of leaving. I left home as soon as I graduated from high school because my father said if I was going to live in his house I was going to go to the Mormon Church. As I had no intention of doing that, the option was leave, so I did.

I never cut ties with my family. Every Mother’s Day I bought my mother something I knew she would never buy for herself.  I spent Christmas with them. I married, had children, and did family activities. But mom always remembered that I had left. It seemed, in her mind, that I got younger and younger until I moved away from home at age 12. Okay, not exactly, but it did seem that way to her. How do you talk to a daughter who doesn’t believe what you believe, and who wants to be alone and reading when the whole family is watching television?

I had many adventures in the years that followed, met and married some of the wrong guys, at the wrong time, and when I found myself facing divorce with an ex who wouldn’t pay a dime and I had nowhere to live with my two children, I returned “home.” This was not that many years back. And I lived with my parents and my two daughters for three years. And never once did my mother say, “GET OUT.”

There were the “I am so mad at your dog” days, when I would come home from work to discover Stormy had snuck into their bedroom (you couldn’t leave the door open even a smidgen or he was in there) and he would jump on their bed and have a heyday, tearing it to pieces (not literally, but unmaking what she had made up so nicely), rolling around and enjoying their smells, and then she had to take it all apart and wash the sheets because my dad was OCD.

I really tried not to laugh. It got to the point I knew what I was going to hear when I walked through the door. I could sense those days. I’d walk through the door, a chuckle waiting in my throat. I would shake the can filled with pennies at the dog who would run away and hide, and make sure he knew grandma’s room was a no no. (We always took him INTO the room first, so he knew why he was in trouble.) But I knew why he did it. He loved them. They took him in, too, when we were ousted from our lives, and had nowhere to go. And when he somehow managed to eat an entire pack of gum, minus the wrappers, and we had to take him to the ER vet, my dad was the one who paid the bill–even though that dog took every chance he had to roll around in their bed, and luxiuriate in their scents. Even now, we have to cover our pillows or the damn dog is up there doing a roll around.

But that is “my” memory of my mother. She remembers me “leaving” and I remember “I am so mad at your dog.” Because it made me laugh every single time she said it.

Those last three years I lived with them did not undo the years I was “away,” not really a member of the family because I did not believe the way they did. It stuck with her, and even when I lived with them she repeatedly told me she was getting a second chance, because I left home so early, so young.

When she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and put on oxygen, the doctor told her to move to sea level. She didn’t want to do that, but she compromised with St. George. But my dad was ailing and had Parkinson’s, and she feared she could not care for him on her own, and so she cried to me, telling me her fears, and she asked me if we would move, too.

And because I could no longer work outside the home, and Birdman was forced to take a disability retirement from the USPS (thankfully BEFORE he went postal), we made the choice to move to the southern end of the state.

It was the right thing to do. I enjoyed some precious time with my mother, one-on-one, that no one else got. Ever. They all lived hundreds of miles away. I got that second chance that people don’t always get. Mine was a second chance to know someone who was always busy with something else. Not her fault. Just the way it was.

They had a tiny little stick home in a retirement community, but they sold their house up north and built a new home. Talk about stress.

When it was finally done, and they had moved in, we all relaxed. We shouldn’t have.

On July 25, 2012, just a few weeks after they moved in, my father had a massive coronary and they told him he would not make it through the day without surgery. And possibly even with surgery. Birdman and I were here, and had been here throughout the entire time, helping, but this time it was a really good thing. We called the others to come because the doctors would not promise he would live, and I stayed at the hospital because my mother was not strong enough. I took the call when they put him on bypass and my brother, who had just arrived, took the call telling us his heart was hooked back up and working. He had a quintuple bypass.

My mother went to the hospital every day, but we never let her stay long. She was too weak and tired. PF is a nasty disease, like lung cancer, and she had very little lung function.

After three weeks, my father came home and I moved in for a while, to help them both. But something was wrong. I knew it. She kept complaining she couldn’t breathe. We took Mom to the cardiac doctor, who said she was just hyperventilating because of Dad’s situation. We took mom to the pulmonary doctor who concurred. They gave her Xanax, and she acted like a drunken sailor, and refused to take it anymore. And then five days after my dad returned home, I watched my mother’s lips go blue as she tried to open a can of enchilada sauce.

I told her I was taking her to the hospital RIGHT THEN, but she refused. I forced her to the couch, and made the meal my dad requested whether he liked it or not. He was very partial to my mother doing things for him.

Everyone agreed her lips looked fine, but I knew what I had seen. She went to lay down, after eating a little of the lunch I made, and a few hours later I heard the bell ringing. We had put the bell in their bedroom because sometimes I slept heavy and didn’t hear them call me. Because of Dad’s “sternal precautions” things had to be done a certain way. They did, after all, cut his sternum apart to get to his heart.

I ran out and told dad to stay in his chair. My mother was trying to get up and go to the bathroom. She couldn’t walk. She could barely speak. I carried her to the bathroom and told my dad to call 911. He had disobeyed me (hah) and gotten out of his chair, and he said “I don’t know how.” Now at this point I must tell you that my father is a smart man and he knows how to dial 911, but this was his wife, he had just endured massive surgery (they cut your sternum open, stop your heart, remove it, all kinds of crap) and so I said, “YOU WATCH HER.” I pushed her onto the bed so she couldn’t roll off and I ran for my phone. I came back and I called 911 and the paramedics and fire department responded, and they told us that her oxygen stats were at 60. This was with her oxygen turned up to the highest level.

I rode in the ambulance, as Birdman, who I had summoned with an “I NEED YOU” text, drove my dad. In the emergency room, they put her on monitors, and an oxygen bag and she was breathing better because of a breathing treatment in the ambulance, but her heart was in atrial fibrillation. I had Birdman take Dad home, because they told us she would most definitely be admitted and he had just left the hospital. I stayed with her as they shocked her heart, trying to get it into a normal rhythm. (They put her out and made me leave the room.) It didn’t work. After three tries, they stopped.

An hour or so later, I was standing there with her, as she lay in the hospital bed, when suddenly I watched her heart regulate itself. I said, “Mom, I think you just went back into a normal rhythm.” I got the nurse, and I was right. For the first time, I relaxed. Relaxing gets you nowhere.

I had been in touch with my family and they kept saying, “Should I come?” because everyone had just BEEN here, first moving my parents, and then with my dad’s heart attack, and I would ask the doctors “should I be getting my family here?” and they would all say, “Not yet.”

One even said, “I don’t think it’s time to circle the wagons yet.”

So they admitted her, and put her into ICU, and I watched as they tortured her with needles and devices, and arterial lines that wouldn’t work and she said “It’s like a torture chamber in here.” That was my warning. I know that now.

That next morning, my older sister arrived and she relieved me. I went home and got some sleep. She spent the next night. Mom seemed to be stabilizing. After she left, another sister took over.

And then I got the call from my second-to-youngest sister, saying Mom’s heart was back in atrial fibrillation and they had said to call the family.

When you walk into a hospital and are greeted by a social worker, you know it’s not good. Let me just tell you this. They don’t have them on call because they are nice. They are there to tell you the hard truth. It’s the end of the line.

They told us she had pneumonia, and the doctor showed me her CT scan. There was simply no room for her to breathe, with the parts of her lungs that were working wallowing in fluid.

They asked her if she wanted to be put on a vent, but told us all she would not come off it, and it would be an artificial sustainment of life. I am, to this day, glad that she was able to make this choice. She said no.

Throughout the day friends came to visit, and she wrote them notes, because for the most part, she was on a horrible machine called a bipap, which kept her alive until my youngest sister could arrive. It forced air into her lungs, and was uncomfortable and loud.

She had me fix her hair, and clean her up, and she was so kind and concerned to every person that came into that room.

She told me she wasn’t afraid to die, but after we were all there, I saw it. I saw her hesitate when the nurse said, “Are you ready Gladys?” Are you ready for me to remove the only thing that is keeping you here on this earth? Are you ready to die? That is not how she said it, of course, but it was how it was meant. There was fear, people. There was real fear in my mother’s eyes. It is in all of us. We may stand on pulpits and declare we “know” what is next, but the truth is, no one does. We can believe. We can swear to it. But no one really knows.

She hesitated, just a second or two, but then she nodded her head, and they removed the bipap, gave her morphine, and an hour and half later her heart finally stopped.

She had left me. It didn’t seem right. I was usually the one leaving. That was my job. But I didn’t. I stayed by her side during the longest three days of my life, and left only to get enough sleep to get by on. And I had been right there for five years. Five years I got to make up for the time I was “away.”

I was not ready for it. I was not ready for her to leave. How much hurt she must have felt at her memories of me “leaving,” although it was not permanent, like death. As bad as that hurt, Mom, it didn’t hurt like this.

Because you always knew you would see me again.

And therein lies the reason people cling to religion. Because they need to know they will see their loved one again. We are mortally afraid of death. EVERY ONE OF US. Some of us are so afraid that we join religions and live lifestyles that are not logical or healthy, for us or anyone else, because we are afraid if we don’t, one day we will die and there will be….nothing. I am not pointing a finger at religions here, or saying this particular religion, Mormonism, is bad. I am just stating the truth. It’s the reason.

A few months ago my sister lost her husband to cancer. She is in the new stages of grief, and tomorrow she must face her first Mother’s Day without her mother OR her husband. And for me tomorrow will be the first Mother’s Day without my mother. I miss her every single day. I think of her at least once every single day, and usually momentous other times. I have stopped crying every day, but…

I wish her memories of me weren’t of me leaving, but of the time we spent together, because we did spend a lot of time together in the past five years. I can’t change the fact I still laugh everytime I think of my neurotic dog tearing her bed apart and me getting out of my car, wondering if I was going to hear, “I am so mad at your dog.”

I would give a million dollars to hear those words from her again.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You are missed.

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About Natalie R. Collins

Natalie has more than 30 years writing, editing, proofreading and design experience. She has written 20 books (and counting), has worked for the Sundance Film Festival, and as an investigative journalist, editor, and proofreader. She embraces her gypsy-heart and is following her new free-thinking journey through life. Follow her as she starts over and learns a bunch of life's lessons--some the hard way.
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2 Responses to Mother’s Day without my mother

  1. This was a very teary post for me to read, Natalie. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my mother. I’m one of the lucky ones to still have a mother at my age. She’ll be 92 this year. I want to keep her forever. So sorry.


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