My Mom died Wednesday, November 30, 2016. She was 77. Eight years prior, she had a debilitating stroke, lost the ability to control her speech, and the reliable use of her right hand. She was right handed. Linda Ellen Sellards Austin Stafford had been a painter, seamstress and excellent cook. The stroke took most of that away as well as her neuropathy, neck and back pain, decades of resentment and the migraine headaches that had plagued her since her twenties. The last eight years of her life she needed a walker, a lot of help from my nearby sister and brother-in-law, and the extended help of my two brothers and sister-in-law who lived a few hours away. With that support, she was able to live in her own apartment with her insane cat. From my perspective, she had a thing for crazies.
What she did not lose was her sense of humor, love of shopping, depression, green thumb, social anxiety, colitis, or appetite. She accepted her lot in life, once again, and plugged away meal after meal, television show after television show, phone call after phone call, doctor visit after hospital stay, and fall after fall. She was a good sport, especially for a woman who fell a lot. The falls scared us. Would she have to go back to the nursing home where she had rehab after the stroke? Her quality of life had been almost unbearable at the nursing home.
So Mom fell and got a black eye. Or she fell and cut her head bad enough to require staples. The last time I visited her, in February of 2016, she took a fall that landed her in the bathtub, where she spent most of the night blanketed by the bent shower rod and curtain. When I returned to her apartment mid-morning (I’d spent one night, just that night, with my sister) and knocked on the locked door, she yelled, “Help! Help me!” and began to whimper and cry, then wail.
I shriveled; plummeted into my eight-year old self, frightened and adrenalized. My mother was in distress and I did not have a house key! I stood in the hallway, trying to assess the situation just like I had as a child, at her bedroom door listening for clues.
“I’m getting help, Mom! We’re coming, Mom,” I yelled as I called my brother-in-law and texted my sister who was at work. Laura and Johnny would have the keys. I stood in the hallway of my Mom’s senior living apartment building, alone and small, filled with guilt and shame. The exact nature of my wrongs flooded me: I was bad, I had been wrong not to spend the night with Mom and prevent this crisis, I had once again failed my mother and would never be able to make things okay for her.
It was one of the saddest moments of my life. That it has become one of the sweetest memories I have of spending time with my Mom and sister is the miracle.
Outside that locked door my spiritual practice of recovery kicked in. I was given courage and strength, not to save the day, but to be in that moment, exactly as it was, without making it worse with a shame spiral and distorted thinking. I could be right where I was under some very lousy circumstances and not wither. There was nothing wrong with me or with anybody else, and we would do our best to take care of each other.
I did the next right thing, one next-right-thing at a time. I talked to Mom through the door, calmly, and gently. What I had to offer was a loving, concerned voice. Laura and Johnny got there in less than 10 minutes, and when the three of us could not get Mom out of the tub without hurting her further or wrenching our own backs, we called the paramedics. They came directly from helping another elderly woman out of her tub. Why our mother did not press the Medical Alert button she wore remains unknown.
Mom was exhausted and demoralized, but not so hurt that she or the paramedics thought she needed the Emergency Room.
My sister and I got her cleaned up, dressed her in warm clothes and had her eat a bite so she could take her medicine. We cooed and fussed over her, and somehow found something to laugh about. We talked about how awful that must have been and my Mom cried on my shoulder. After a nap, we took her to the Doctor’s for an appointment that just happened to be scheduled for that very afternoon.
It was a somber Doctor’s visit.
Afterwards, we went to Mom’s favorite restaurant to get pie, and the three of us ended up eating an early dinner. I’m pretty sure we had solidarity cheeseburgers and onion rings. We were so tender and sweet with each other. Rueful. There could not have been a better outcome to the day.
Mom fell again, and again. I was not there to catch her but my sister and brothers were. Not for a second do I believe my Mom thought badly of me, or that I had failed her. Even if she did, I’ve learned that’s not my business. What’s most important is that I know I did not fail her. We adored each other, trusted each other to the lives we had chosen, and there wasn’t one unspoken word between us. I will miss the sound of her panting as she carried the phone into the bedroom to talk, incapable of figuring out the remote and its mysterious volume button. I will miss her silliness, the way she’d say “Oh crap,” to get a laugh, when she got tangled up in her words. I will miss her warm and cushy embrace, the Mom-smell on her neck, and her big emphatic eyes. I will miss taking her to the DQ for peanut buster cups and WalMart for a haircut. But a weight has been lifted, and even though it left a hole, I feel grateful she will never be scared or lonely again, and there will be no more falls. Rest in peace, Mom. You deserve it.