Something pulled me out of my dream. A voice, a hand on my shoulder. “Sharon, I think she’s going.” I slipped my bathrobe on and, barefoot, hurried down the short hallway to Mom’s bedroom. In front of the mirror above the chest of drawers, a candle flickered. Jen must have brought it. I searched Mom’s face. She looked the same as she had two hours ago—sunken cheeks, pale—but there was no more of that irregular noisy breathing. Bent over, stroking her thick white hair, I waited for a breath. No. No more breaths.
I looked at Jen. “She’s gone.”
Jen nodded and left the room. I squeezed onto the bed and wrapped my arm around Mom’s body, so small now. So still. “Bye-bye, Mama. I love you. … Daddy’s waiting for you.” Rivulets of hot tears streaked down my cheeks.
I didn’t actually believe Dad was up there, somewhere, waiting for her. Not really. But a few days earlier, I’d walked into her bedroom to find her waving at the ceiling and smiling. It was the first real smile I’d seen on her ninety-six-year-old face in weeks. Maybe her spirit is on its way to him. What do I know? Maybe he was, in some shape and form, waiting to hold her in his arms again. It had been thirty-two years. What a homecoming that would be.
I’d wanted to be holding her hand, or stroking her hair, when she died. That was the plan, my plan. But she’d been declining steadily for several days and I was worn out, had to get some sleep. So Jen, Mom’s daytime caregiver for almost a year, offered to do a few night shifts. Now I wonder if Mom let go when I wasn’t in the room because it was easier that way. I hate saying good-bye to people I love, too—much easier to just sneak out. Or maybe it was chance.
She’d been living with us for eighteen months, following a quick series of mini-strokes that left her with vascular dementia. During the last two months, as she’d become more and more fragile, I sometimes wondered how I’d feel when she died. A retired family therapist, I was schooled in Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief: shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Would I be angry? Depressed? Would I try to make deals with God? Or something else? Would I be overcome with guilt over those times when I was irritable and impatient?
No. What I felt when she died was, for the most part, relief. Relief that she would no longer be caught in a massive web of suffering. No more confusion, no more despair, no more humiliation. Still, I half-expected that, at some point soon, when I least expected it, I’d be thrown into a deep dark pit of grief. It didn’t happen that way, though. Now, over a year and a half later, I understand why: by the time Mom took her last breath, we’d both been grieving for a long time, her grief and mine entwining like the wild morning glory vines on our back fence when I was a kid. Love and grief, together, inseparable.
Psychologists call the grief that happens when death is imminent ‘anticipatory.’ Usually, though, death does not drag its heavy feet for a year and a half. Or, sometimes, with dementia, for years on end. This extended version of grief requires a different name, one that acknowledges the myriad of losses that pile up along the way like corpses on a battlefield.
Until just days before she died, one part of Mom’s brain remained lucid. I called that part her ‘witness.’ One day, as we stood side by side in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom, she pointed to her reflection and said, “See that old girl? I used to know her.”
I wondered if she was being metaphorical. “Who is that old girl, Mama?”
She shook her head. “I have no idea … but I think I should know.”
What must that be like?
As the months passed, the witness—and I—watched as Mom lost her ability to plan, to recognize night and day, to dress herself, to feed herself, to go the bathroom by herself. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” “I’m lost.” “This is no way to live.”
She’d been a nurse all her life, and didn’t take well to being the patient. Caregiving was in her blood. She’d looked after her father, suffering from the effects of being gassed in World War 1, when she was twelve, watching over him as he died. Later, at twenty-two, during nursing training at Regina General Hospital, she took care of young soldiers coming back from the war with lost limbs and nightmares. Her old albums are full of black and white photos of that year. In spite of being surrounded by trauma and by loss, she looks happy. There’s also a picture of her as a young nurse surrounded by small children at Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, where she worked for a short time after graduating. She told me it was too hard though, witnessing those sick kids who might not live. So she took a position at St. Vincent’s Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity, working on Men’s Medical, and that’s where she stayed, for twenty-some years. She watched men heal and she watched them die. Then, after retiring at fifty-five to keep her husband company—he was ten years older—she became a nurse again, unpaid this time, when Dad contracted leukemia. More grief. But at that point her brain had not forsaken her. She could process feelings, talk things through, come out the other side.
Grief. I never knew when it would sneak up and grip me in its tentacles. One afternoon Mom was sitting in her favorite yellow armchair gazing out the window of our twenty-second-floor apartment. I got her attention and said, “Want to watch some curling on your tablet, with your earphones?” Born on the prairies, she and Dad used to curl together, and watching bonspiels was one of the few pleasures she had left.
“Yes, please.” She smiled.
“Okay. Let’s take your hearing aids out first.” She looked up at me, perplexed, as if wanting to say something, then touched her ears. Then she abandoned her ears and took her eyeglasses off, and put them on her lap. I looked at her, a curious look on my face, I’m sure. Then she took her dentures out, bottoms and tops, and handed them to me, a frightened look on her face. It was just too much to make sense of—earphones, hearing aids, glasses, dentures. Too many things to put on and take off, put in and take out. Tears filling her blue-grey eyes, she said, “I’m so stupid now.” My heart broke.
The truth is that my heart broke regularly as the losses, relentless, continued to accumulate. By winter of 2020 Mom was toddler-like, unsteady on her feet, needing food cut into small pieces, in need of constant attention and supervision—and masses of love. My personal losses—of our privacy, of my freedom—were temporary, I knew that. And I had the luxury of crying in the shower, unloading to friends, finding relief in my baby grandson. Mom’s grief remained raw, un-spilled.
Early on, when I started reading books about caregiving, I kept coming back to How Can I Help? by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman (Knopf, 2005). The authors recommended letting go, as much as possible, of the role of helper, with its inherent power imbalance and divisiveness. I tried. It was easiest in the early mornings when Mom and I sat on the edge of her bed, our arms around each other as she patted my back and told me, over and over, that she loved me.
“I love you, too, Mama, so much.”
I miss those mornings.
Sometimes I tried to step out of the role of daughter, too. But it was hard. I’d been Mom’s “darling daughter” for sixty-eight years. Still, as she began to refer to me as “they” or sometimes as “the kids” or sometimes as “my wife,” I undertook to see her as my beloved friend. Through those eyes, unclouded by history and expectation, I could be with her in a different way, one where we were simply two people who loved each other, who were helping each other on the long walk home. I was helping her cope with her disintegrating life; she was helping me delve down deeper, to discover my limits but also my capacity to persist and to love.
Tennessee Williams wrote that life is a “perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love….” Mom was good at love, much better than me, and always had been. Even when she didn’t know her name or mine, when language had forsaken her, when delusion and paranoia were regular visitors, the love between us held fast, an indestructible vine winding its way around and through us.
And now, on one shelf of the tall white bookcase beside my bed, her body, heavy white ash, rests in a lovely cremation vase created by my closest friend, a potter who turns the clay of the earth into beautiful things. Mom’s picture stands next to it. Sometimes, before I go to bed, I gaze into her eyes. Mine invariably fill with tears. But I’m glad she’s no longer suffering. And I continue to hope that she and Dad are happily wrapped up in each other’s arms again, maybe dancing, like they did the first night they met.
Sharon McInnes, a retired family therapist, a novelist, and an award-winning short-story writer, is currently writing a memoir about her caregiving journey with her mother, who died in June 2020. Sharon lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where she spends her days writing and hanging out with her adorable two-year-old grandson. Read more at sharonmcinnes.com.