This was one of my Board of Contributor’s columns for The Athens Messenger. It appeared on June 25, 2002.
A beautiful death: a son remembers his mother’s last two months of life
My mother lived in Bellaire, Ohio, all of her life. She died on Oct. 4, 1998, at the age of 81. Within hours of her death, family members began to call her death “beautiful.” If ever a life had closure, Mom’s did. A remarkable series of events in her last two months comforted us immeasurably when she died suddenly.
On the 8th of August that year Mom saw five of her six children and 14 of her 15 grandchildren at a granddaughter’s wedding in Pittsburgh, about an hour’s drive from Bellaire. That week, while many of us were still in the region, we helped Mom move from the home where she and Dad had raised us, where she had lived for 45 years, to a much smaller rental unit across the street. Mom’s brother and his wife had lived there before moving to St. Louis, so Mom was “downsizing” to a familiar house, right in her own neighborhood.
Mom presided over the breakup of our old home, deciding what to take with her and what to give away. My father had died in 1989, so she still had some of his things to give us. By the end of the week of the move, we had unpacked everything in her new place and had put it away. Mom was thrilled with her new “start.”
Until the weekend of her death, Mom maintained an active lifestyle. Still able to drive, she attended daily mass as she had for decades, volunteered at the parochial school cafeteria, and enjoyed visiting and entertaining relatives and friends. On Friday, Sept. 25, just 10 days before she died, Mom went on a week-long car trip. We call it her “farewell tour.”
One of 13 children, Mom was traveling with a brother, his wife, and a sister to visit her only other living sister in Nazareth, Kentucky, and her only other living brother and his wife (in St. Louis). My aunt in Kentucky, a retired nun, was in a nursing home. After seeing so many incapacitated people there, Mom reportedly said aloud, “Dear God, don’t let me end up like that!” She returned from the trip on Thursday, Oct. 1.
On the morning of Friday, Oct. 2, Mom attended mass, then volunteered at the cafeteria. In mid-afternoon her landlady, a longtime family friend, asked Mom if she needed anything from the store, and Mom requested a bag of candy for her bridge club the next week. When the landlady returned about supper time, she found Mom on the floor of the living room, nearly incoherent. Not long after the emergency squad had taken Mom to the hospital, she slipped into a coma. She had suffered a stroke from a massive brain hemorrhage.
My wife, daughter, son, and I were just fifteen minutes away from going out that evening to celebrate my son’s birthday when we got the call about Mom. We quickly packed and headed for the Catholic hospital in Wheeling, West Virginia, arriving around midnight. The doctor told us that Mom had only days or hours to live.
By noon the next day, Saturday, Oct. 3, all six of us children, coming from four cities across Ohio, from Pittsburgh, and from Huntington Beach, CA, had arrived at the hospital to say our goodbyes. When Mom’s condition stabilized that evening, two of my brothers choose to stay at the hospital all night while the rest of us left to get some sleep.
At 5:30 the following morning, Sunday, Oct. 4 , we were called to the hospital. Mom was failing. Those who had arrived by 6:00 a.m. turned on the TV to look for a televised mass, found the channel set to one just starting, and stood beside Mom’s bed holding hands until it ended. They reported that as soon as the priest finished saying, “The mass is ended; go in peace,” Mom breathed her last breath. When I walked into the room, the nurse was taking Mom’s pulse for the last time to confirm that she had just died.
Over 500 people attended Mom’s funeral. She had been the secretary at the parochial grade school for two decades, so many of her “students” were in attendance. If Mom had written a script for how she wanted her life to end, she could hardly have penned it better. The mood at the funeral was more a celebration of Mom’s life than sadness over her death. We knew we would miss her terribly, but we couldn’t grieve over how her life had ended. She died a beautiful death.
In memory of Mary Ellen Glaser Robinson, 1917-1998