“My mother and I are sort of joined at the hip,” I told the ambulance driver who transported her from Beaumont Hospital to the Angela Hospice Care Center last Thursday.
“I could tell that,” he said, an older gentlemen who let me ride along in the ambulance with them. He smiled kindly at me, obviously knowing what a difficult time I was going through.
He was right.
All winter long, my mother has been preparing me for losing her. Of course I could see her declining rapidly as she continued to lose her mobility, her appetite, and her general interest in living. She began to verbalize these feelings in words I’d never heard from her before: “I’m just tired of living,” she’d say. Or, “This is not living – I can’t do anything I used to do, my friends are all gone, food doesn’t taste good anymore. What’s the point?”
As much as I love her, I couldn’t argue. I knew she was miserable, trying desperately to maintain her independence in the big old house she’d lived in for almost 50 years, finding it more and more difficult to get through the necessary steps of everyday life.
“I’m not afraid to die,” she said many times. “I just hate to leave you.”
We haven’t left each other much, that’s for sure. For most of my 60 years, I’ve lived within a stone’s throw of my mother’s front door. We talked on the phone every day, sometimes more than once. I usually saw her at least four of five times a week. We’d go out to lunch and shopping, run errands, or just sit on her back porch and visit with a glass of iced tea while first Brian and then my dogs played in her back yard.
We’ve done the hard stuff together too – taken care of both my grandparents when they were sick and dying, got through her divorce from my dad, watched Brian move far away from home at age 18 and never return.
But through it all she responded with grace, courage, and generosity of spirit. She always wanted to make life easier for people – family, friends, even strangers. In the hospital recently, she put off calling nurses or aides as long as possible. “I just hate being so much trouble,” she’d say, reluctantly pushing the call button.
She certainly made life easier for me, with everything from cooking meals while I was working, babysitting and dog-sitting, house cleaning and laundry during those busy musical seasons or when I was sick.
But most important of all, she was my best friend, my first call in times of joy and sorrow. She taught me everything I know about love, compassion, empathy, and strength. And those lessons were even more deeply ingrained in the graceful and powerful way she handled herself during the last weeks of her life. They are the lessons that will sustain me as I go through the rest of my own life without her.
Over and over these past few weeks, I’ve heard people say that she was a “remarkable woman,” and that she “made such in impression on their lives.” My mom would laugh about those kinds of comments. “I’m nothing special,” she’s reply puzzled. “I’m just me.”
I realized now that she undervalued herself, and though I never undervalued her gifts to me, I didn’t realize how important she was to the wider world. No, she never did the kinds of things the world rewards us for: she didn’t build bridges or cure disease or design computer software. What she did was treat everyone she met with kindness, fairness, compassion, and generosity. She lived her life, as simple as it was, with dignity and practical perseverance. If everyone on the planet could demonstrate those qualities, the world would be an entirely different and so much better a place.
My mother died yesterday, and although part of me wonders how I’ll ever live the rest of my life without her guidance and comfort and counsel, another part of me knows that she lives in my heart and always will, the lessons she taught me indelibly etched there for as long as I live.
When the doctor spoke with us about her prognosis and brought up the subject of hospice, she immediately agreed with the plan. “That is the best thing to do,” she said. “I know I can’t go on this way, and it isn’t fair to my daughter and her family to put her through this any more.”
The doctor sat down beside her and took her hand. “Mrs. Kachigian,” he said, “I have never seen a woman of your age and circumstance be more gracious.”
That’s my mom, I thought to myself. I’m beyond grateful for the gift of her love and example. I’m so proud of her, and even more proud to be her daughter.