I have the fondest memories of Christmas, both growing up with four siblings all fairly close in age and in my adult life; often traveling, or taking time to be with an extensive group of loving family members and other relatives. But each year around this time, since the death of my mother which will be almost 10 years ago, this time of year brings back memories of happier times and a special remembrance to her.
Research has shown us that, despite conflicts and complicated emotions, the ties between a mother and her daughter (s) is normally very positive, so strong and enduring that 80-90 percent of women in mid-life say that they have a good relationship with their mother – even though they wish that relationship were better.
According to Karen Fingerman, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State “Women should recognize the strength of their relationships with their mother and appreciate it more.”
We live in a unique era. It is human nature to try to avoid things that we fear and though dying is a natural part of our existence; we tend to view death as an enemy feared, and think that it can be defeated by modern medicine and machines.
When a family member passes away it is as though a piece of one’s self has also faded away. As a child, I looked at my parents as though they were invincible; they kept me safe, warm, fed, loved and secure. However, as an adult, I came to terms with the reality that even my parents were vulnerable; a difficult realization as I thought I had a fairy tale life – we would live forever happily ever after.
Fast forward a few decades: December 30, 1999. It was a typical winter night for Marco Island; cold enough to make Floridians need a heavy jacket and warm enough to lure winter visitors to flock our beaches. I had just settled in bed after a long work day but got a phone call from my dad which was most unusual – it was after midnight. His soft, almost stuttering, hesitant voice was cracking; I was trembling as I listened. I thought something had happened to him, but before I could ask, dad stated “I’m at the emergency room in Naples; I think your mother had a stroke.” (Long pause), I quickly responded, “Dad, I will be right there, everything will be okay.”
I have little recollection of the drive to NCH; the adrenaline was rushing through my body so quickly that my eyes were blurry. Mom had not been ill; at 72 years young she had the normal aches and pains of healthy aging, but a stroke? It couldn’t be!
When I arrived at the hospital, my instincts as a nurse promptly took over. The emergency room is an imposing atmosphere for everyone; for those who are worried and scared, it is darn right horrible. There are bright lights, nurses pushing, pulling emergency carts through the halls, people crying, and often concerned looks on the faces of doctors who scatter from one cubicle to another. Dad was standing in a corner somewhat bewildered, glancing around the E.R., and shaking his head in total disbelief. I ran up to him, threw my arms around him and assured him that everything would be okay.
If only I had the power to make everything okay…
I anxiously went to hug Mom, on a gurney with a tube in her nose, a lightweight vest on to keep her from trying to get out of bed and pulling at her tube and both wrists in soft restraints.
Mom was awake, with slurred garbled, almost inaudible speech and paralyzed on her left side. As an experienced RN who has cared for innumerable stroke victims for decades, I was trying desperately to maintain my composure and reassure her that she would be okay. I kept thinking that with all my training as a health care professional, I am totally helpless. I can only offer my mom comfort and give back to her the genuine love she had always shown me.
With a myriad of hospital specialists tending to Mom, Dad and I stayed close until she was finally assigned a hospital bed in the neurological ICU. I called my brother Steven, and asked him to come to the hospital right away – Moms’ condition was serious. My sister, Jean, also a nurse, came from New England and over the next few days we took shifts in managing the care of mom along with updating our family members who were also arriving from out of town; my youngest sister, Donna was out of the country but we were able to locate her and she made it to the hospital so our family was united.
I was determined to be involved in all aspects of mom’s care; the staff didn’t hamper my efforts or those of my family members. The days passed painfully slow; mom was slipping away and there was nothing we could do. Jean and I gave her baths, changed her linens and we chatted to her about anything and everything. We turned her, combed her hair, fluffed her pillows, wet her lips, and held her hand often laying our heads on the side rail of the hospital bed from physical and emotional exhaustion.
It was shortly after her admission to NICU that mom slipped into a coma. Those last verbal exchanges and laughs in the ER were now ever most precious to my Dad and me. Although at the time her speech was difficult to understand, we knew what she was trying to say. Now she lay lifeless from a hemorrhagic stroke with only occasional involuntary movements.
We knew in our hearts our mother, and Dad’s partner of 50 plus years was not going to live with any quality of life. Dad agreed that Mom never wanted to be on life support so she was moved to a private room outside the NICU. My sister and I continued our nursing rituals but it became more and more difficult now that we were preparing Mom and ourselves for her final journey. Tears of sorrow spilled over into the room between laughter and chaos.
But like strong, courageous eagles, we gathered around telling mom how much we love her, how much she means to us and that we would miss her, dearly. We took turns lying next to her in the bed while stroking her hair, laughing, crying and playing dad’s recorded music (He is a self-taught musician and has an awesome voice), and then telling comical and often embarrassing stories of our youth. We called our family priest, Father Charlie and a few close friends knowing that she would soon be off on an angel’s wing.
I vividly remember as the end was approaching, Jean was on watch. We were all sprawled around the room; Jean shook me awake and said, “I don’t think it will be long, Paula.” I then woke Dad, and the others and we all hovered over mom’s bed. Dad held mom’s hand and just stared at her, holding back tears. It was beautiful, yet heartbreaking. Dad or “Frankie” is a remarkable ma, and to observe him during this time was so disheartening.
Oh, mom, if only….
On the early morning of January 6, 2000, mom spread her wings and we said our final goodbyes.
As a teenager and young adult, we can’t wait for the day to come when we can leave the nest and soar on our own. If only we humans realized at a young age that life passes all too quickly – if only I had more time with mom.
Some of her nicknames were: Grammy Eileen, Gram, “Mother” Mom, and “Roper” from the popular television series, “Three’s Company.” Most endearing was the pet name my dad gave her. He called her “Eileen-a”. She was the peacemaker, Mom of all seasons, friend to all, the frugal shopper, daughters’ best friend, a devoted wife, dads’ cheerleader, and a beautiful, selfless woman. She always put everyone else first and tried to instill that into our family. She was admired and loved by so many and would do anything to help; she was famous for inviting neighbors but more often strangers for dinner because they had nowhere to go, especially during the holidays.
At Christmas and everyday my comfort comes in knowing that mom left a great legacy; her children and grandchildren remain because she lived a blessed life. No one is perfect; we are humans after all, that is part of the gift of wisdom she bestowed upon us all.
Mom I miss you, but know that until we meet again, you are among the angels keeping watch over all of us. And, as your care and comfort guided me to adulthood, I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to care for you in your final hours and in your final journey. And don’t worry; we are keeping an eye on Dad too!
I love you and miss you each and every day Mom, so I just want to say thanks for everything, and Merry Christmas!
Paula Camposano Robinson, RN, is co-founder and owner of Sanitasole Senior Health Services. This is an information-only column and is not intended to replace medical advice from a physician. Email email@example.com or visit Sanitasole.net, or call 239.394.9931 for more information.
This story was adapted from a chapter Paula wrote for the book “Priceless Caregiving – Stories of Elder Care Success, Courage and Strength published in 2009.