This has always been a hard week for me every year for the past 40 years….. my sisters too. My Mum died unexpectedly on September 24, 1975 from a sudden stroke caused by a brain aneurysm. She was 45 years old. It was the end of the world as we knew it: in one single instant, I went from the happiest I’d ever been in my life to the deepest, extreme sadness that I never knew existed.
In mid-August 1975, I had just given birth to my first baby when I was 22 years old. I was absolutely ecstatic, over-the-moon, with a joy that I’d never experienced before. My Mum was very pleased to have a new grandson to go along with her one year old granddaughter. I was living in a city an hour away but managed to come home to see my family every weekend. One Sunday afternoon in early September, we were busy taking photos with our Polaroid instant camera outside with the grandbabies on the lawn swing when my Mum decided it was too cold for my newborn and we should go inside. So we went indoors because Gramma knows best. She said that there would be lots of chances to get more pictures anyway. Sadly, there wasn’t and I never got one single picture of my Mum holding my baby.
I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing when I got that phone call from my sister – I was walking through the dining area of our apartment in the married students’ residence at the University. She told me first not to worry but that Mum had been in the hospital for the past few days. Mum had asked her not to tell me because I had a new baby to look after and didn’t need to worry. She had been experiencing headaches for the past year and her Doctor didn’t know why. She’d had a complete physical the week before and everything seemed okay except for a urinary tract infection. I remember that because I drove her downtown to pick up her prescription the week before. The night she went to the hospital, my sister Faye found her lying on the floor in the hall while she was talking to my other sister Betty on the phone – she talked incoherently. She was first admitted with possible ‘psychological’ problems – which WE knew was wrong. Three days after that, doctors diagnosed a brain aneurysm. That’s when I got the call.
Doctors put her on medication and assured us that it would heal itself even though it was inoperable. I came to stay and help my sisters with my Mum while she was in the hospital. We planned how we would all take turns looking after her when she got home. I had a nursing newborn who wasn’t allowed into the hospital with me while I visited my Mum so I had to leave him with my wonderful in-laws at times for a few hours. I remember vividly when we washed my Mum’s hair for her and she kept saying how thankful she was to have us. We honestly believed the Doctors and expected her to return home soon. The next week, I went back home for some rest and to get more clothes as I anticipated taking care of my Mum at her home in the next couple of days. Instead, I got a frantic call from my sister to come right away because something happened and Mum was in the ICU. I finally arrived in the middle of the night. My beautiful, sweet Mum was laying there with a respirator breathing for her. I just stared. Watching her chest go up and down. Her eyes were opened slightly with little slits. Her forehead looked bruised and swollen. Hot tears slowly streamed down my cheeks – I was paralyzed with grief. I stroked her arm, now hooked up to an I.V. Someone said that her brain aneurysm had burst inside her head.
We were told to come back at ten o’clock the next morning – after they’d had a chance to do a brain scan. We sat there solemnly, wringing our hands: Dad, my sisters and I and probably spouses. I was looking at the floor when the two Doctors told us that my Mum was brain-dead. Dead. I felt like I couldn’t breath and I was going to pass out. My chest hurt, my heart hurt – it really hurt, like it was being ripped into a million pieces. The respirator was still breathing for her and keeping her heart pumping – she looked alive. What were they talking about? As I sat there frozen, shocked, and numb, they started asking us about organ donation – they wanted to know if we would consent to donating my Mum’s kidneys. To this day, I cannot believe that we agreed so quickly. But we knew that Mum would want to give this last gift.
Years later, with all the experience and knowledge I now have, I still feel guilty that I didn’t question the Doctors or ask to see these results or tell them “no” they have to keep her going on the respirator for however long it takes for her brain to heal or………
It wasn’t over. We had to make “the call” down home to my Grandparents which we did right there from the hospital. Several relatives had wanted to come up the week before but we assured them that it would be best to wait until she got home from the hospital when they could help out. Instead of good news, we had to tell them she was gone. I heard my Grandmother was de-feathering freshly killed chickens when she got the news – she could never, ever do that again as long as she lived. They made plans to come up for the funeral.
I had never been to a funeral or seen a dead person before. It was surreal going to the funeral home just up the street from our house – I’d passed it almost every day when I went to high school. Walking through the ‘coffin room’, deciding on a casket, planning the visitation and funeral was numbing. I cried all the time. I cried myself to sleep. I cried while nursing my month old baby. I cried every day for a year. So many people loved my Mum. There were so many flowers and meals brought to the house. I especially remember my Godmother with her hand on my shoulder, steadying me – she walked me back to the house during afternoon visitation because I was convinced I saw my Mum breathing. But in fact her skin was cold and hard – not warm and soft like I remembered. Even the make-up couldn’t entirely disguise the bruises on her forehead. I even got scolded from one aunt for bringing my nursing newborn to the funeral home’s family room during one of the afternoon visitations.
The funeral itself was held at the church my Mum went to and it was packed. At the graveside, my Godfather held me steady. Back at the house, I was horrified when relatives started going through her closet and taking ‘souvenirs’. Down in the basement, I was upset again to find the men drinking. My Godmother told me that people have different ways of coping and expressing their grief. I couldn’t understand then but I do now that I’m older.
I think of my Mum every day. I think of all the times I needed her and she wasn’t there to talk to. I grieve that she didn’t see my other children and share in their growing up. I really wish they had a chance to know what a kind, sweet person she was but then I remind myself that she lives in each one of them.
Writing this blog post has been cathartic for me. I’m grateful to finally write down, for the first time, about my Mum’s last days which have shaped the rest of my life.