My mother died 23 years ago today. Most of the people in my circle know the cause of her death – a brain aneurysm – but they don’t know all of the circumstances surrounding her passing because I simply couldn’t bring myself to reveal them.
Every year around this time I re-live the experience, with varying levels of intensity. But I have never really made peace with it. This year marks no particular round-number anniversary of her passing. Telling the story may help me take a step in that direction.
Like many other mother-daughter relationships, mine with my mother was complicated, despite how much I loved her. In December of 1990 I was contemplating not visiting my parents in Miami during the Christmas holidays. This would be the first time I’d not be there. As the date drew nearer, though, guilt and my sense of daughterly duty won out, and I made travel plans.
Changes in my mother were immediately visible upon my arrival. She had lost a good deal of weight. At 5’3″, she was always diminutive, but now she appeared thin and pale. She had also moved from coffee to tea, was not drinking, and was hardly smoking at all — this in someone with a three-pack-a-day habit. Her appetite had diminished as well.
On the Saturday after Christmas, I decided to visit Miami Beach for a while. She heartily encouraged me to go, as she always did when any social excursion was in the offing. I left around 10 in the morning and returned home shortly before 3 in the afternoon.
Upon entering the house, my father told me that my mother was ill with a horrible head ache, had been taking large quantities of aspirin, and even ingesting vaporizing rub to battle the pain. She’d refused to let him take her to the hospital.
When I approached her, she said it was one of the worst head aches she’d ever experienced. I begged her to let us take her to the hospital, but she angrily refused. She made it clear she would not go. I knew this behavior well , having developed long ago the habit of backing off in such situations, to prevent the tension from escalating.
As the evening wore on, I followed her, sat with her, and offered everything I could imagine. She was clear-headed, but quiet.
She went to bed around 10 pm. As she lay down, she assured me she would feel better in the morning. I lay down on the other side of the bed, having decided to stayed awake and monitor her. I remained awake all night.
At 7am she was still asleep. I checked on her again at 8am and found her still asleep. This was unusual, because she had always been an early riser. I tried to wake her. When I did, she opened her eyes — they were dark and mottled, not recognizing me. She sat up abruptly, and rose from the bed with my help. She was disoriented, walking aimlessly as I grabbed her hand and wrapped my other arm around her waist. I managed to get her to a chair in the living room, Her eyes were closed and her head drooped toward her chest — two symptoms I would later learn were the effects of a stroke.
As my panic set in, I shrieked to my father that we had to get her to the hospital. He pulled the car up onto the lawn, as close to the front door as possible. I gathered her in my arms, stunned at how light she was, trying cradle her head against my chest. We placed her on the front seat between us.
After admitting her to the emergency room, we sat silently in the waiting room. A doctor came out a few minutes later, and the look on his face spoke volumes. He inquired about how she fell ill, and we told him everything, including her refusal to go to the emergency room. “I think she’s had a bleed,” he stated. He would need to confirm this with tests.
We would learn a short time later that she had an aneurysm — a blood vessel with a weakened wall — that had burst deep inside her brain. The prognosis for survival was 50%.
I was horrified. What was I thinking? How could I have allowed my mother to stay at home, only to lapse into a coma during the night? How could I have backed off like that? I was sick to my stomach.
Later that day I telephoned my brothers and sisters to inform them of her illness. Two were local, and the rest were in other parts of the country. One lived in Sweden. They began arriving, one by one, over the next 24 hours.
Despite the prognosis, we all seemed to hang on to the possibility that she would recover. The doctor said there was no way to predict an outcome, and that she would have to be monitored very carefully. Given this information, my brother in Sweden was advised to wait a day or two to make flight reservations.
I walked around in a fog, visiting the ICU daily, obsessively replaying the events from the other day in my mind. On one visit, during the second day after she’d been admitted, she actually awakened, looked at me briefly, and said, “I’ll be alright.” A flicker of hope. A flicker of redemption.
The next day, though, she had a stroke. Her health deteriorated rapidly from there, and we were told that her passing was a matter of time.
She died that Friday morning, six days after falling ill. My brother was in transit from Sweden, never having a chance to see her while she was alive.
I sang her funeral two days later. It was the only thing I could give at that point. I’m still not sure how I got through it. I was a mess.
A few months ago at mass, I listened to the homily by a priest who was here during his regular summer visit from Africa. He was describing some terrible experiences he’d had prior to his departure — a fire that had destroyed a section of a school he’d been building, the deaths of two children in his village who’d been poisoned after eating un-ripened fruit, his luggage having been stolen from his car. He said that he shared these events was not to express his own sadness or frustration, or even to elicit sympathy — but to find meaning in the experiences. He suggested that this is our life’s work: to find meaning in our experiences.
After all these years, I still feel badly about how my mother died, and never thought that I would be with her when she fell ill. I wish I’d known more about aneurysms and stroke symptoms, and maybe I would have acted differently. Two years ago a sister suffered an aneurysm (they’re often inherited), but made it to the hospital in time and recovered completely. She is a walking miracle to me.
So I’m trying to take some meaning from this experience, even after so many years. My mother’s death has had a firm hold on me all this time. I just want to loosen the grip. I’m trying to think about the power of patterns in relationships, and to see the value of risk-taking when the dynamics take over: to resist the urge to tread the familiar, cautious route — to take the hit of tension that comes when you confront what doesn’t feel right. That’s the greater good.
Had my mother agreed to go the hospital that night, she still may not have survived. I have been told this repeatedly by siblings, both in their genuine belief and in an effort to comfort me. My nagging thought has always been, though, that perhaps I could have spared her some suffering.
We like to think that we have control over things. There is precious little in our control, of course. But we do have some control over how we respond to our experiences. That’s the kicker. And that takes one hell of an effort. I want to put more energy into living my life that way.
My mother would probably tell me that all is well and there is nothing to more to fret about, and nothing to forgive.
Maybe it’s time to forgive myself.