My mom’s dying. Well, she’s been dying for 10 or 15 years, in a dilettantish fashion, saddled with COPD and teasing death with bouts of pneumonia, ICU camp-outs and similar viral adventures. But then last month she received a diagnosis of metastasized lung-cancer, and it’s taken a lot of the guesswork out of the process.
She’d been living in our childhood home in Perrysburg, Ohio, the one my parents built and moved into so proudly in 1961, and heretofore she’s insisted that she was leaving it feet-first. Last spring she had a pneumonia episode that convinced her that, contrary to those assertions, she’d like to “have someone to hug me” when these episodes occur. She’s had great neighbors on both sides who shoveled her walks when it snowed and looked after her and in general were model children, but I guess it started to matter that they weren’t HER children.
So in July we, my two younger brothers and I, began work to move her out of the house and into, eventually, a nice adult independent living facility near my youngest brother in the north Atlanta area.
I moved from northwest Ohio to Seattle in the fall of 1974, not necessarily to sever ties to the place or the people, but to establish my own ecosystem unburdened by expectations and close observation, but I always felt my parents’ place in Perrysburg as an anchorage. Not a place that I would return to live necessarily, even in extremis, but something more archival, a memory that I could always illuminate with a visit or even a phone call.
The physical act of going through the house and saying goodbye to familiar stuff was filled with angst, but not unexpected angst. My mom had resolutely pruned dunes of stuff in the attic and basement. What really drove my emotional response was the fact that Mom and her house was the last link to a geographical and cultural touchstone that five (or more?) generations of my forebears had inhabited. There were fields that my great-grandfather had hunted with my dad, places where my dad found Indian arrowheads and artifacts, generations of headstones with my surname displayed prominently, and the more distinctly-layered experience of my personal recollection - the swimming pool, places where Betsy and I had parked the car for sweet intimacy. And once Mom moved, I’d have no concrete reason to return to northwest Ohio, and that tribal presence, which I still in some way felt after 40 years away, would no longer have its physical anchor.
We did Herculean labor and got the house ready for a furnishing auction and property sale over a 5-day weekend, and my SIL drove my mom south to Atlanta as the rest of us dispersed. The movers arrived in Atlanta with the furniture that Mom had chosen to keep, and her new life of bridge and books and conversation seemed ready to begin.
Then, a couple weeks later, she fell ill, and a trip to a hospital hinted at, then proved, her cancer diagnosis. Since then, we’ve been stepping through this journey of dying. She’s still hanging in her independent living facility, aided by my brother and sister-in-law, hospice angels and home health-care folks.
Betsy and I flew here last month to ostensibly say goodbye, and she was able to walk to the car to go out for dinner and reminisce convivially. It’s not easy to engage in a frank conversation with someone about their certain death, but Mom was kinda philosophical and said, perhaps to reassure me that I could talk about it, that she felt she’s had a good life, and that, in her words, “I’m ready to go.”
I flew to Atlanta today, as she had said she’d like to see me again, and things have deteriorated, as you might expect. She has little energy to engage me, but her mind is as sharp as it was when she was fleecing her friends playing bridge. She sits up for 15 minutes or so and gamely talks sports or whatever, then flags and has to lie down.
This will not be news to many, but it’s the first time I’ve been exposed to this granular process of dying. My youngest brother and his wife will be doing most of the heavy lifting due to their proximity, but I’m glad I decided to allocate one more trip, both to cleave to my mom in her humbling decline and to give my bro and SIL a weekend to hang at their Lake Hartwell redoubt before the harrowing time ahead.