Birthdays, Chingona, Death, Family, Parents, Strong Women

A Meaningful Life

It’s my mother’s birthday. She’s on the other side of her early 80’s. 

Still a rebel with a cause. A chingona of the first degree, a strong woman.

Loves to eat, tell us stories, have a beer sometimes (only Corona), and laugh. 

We celebrated yesterday at a birthday barbeque in the backyard surrounded by four generations. 

Her favorite menu of carne asada, corn on the cob, chocolate cake with raspberries were among the spread. We forgot her diabetes for one meal. We didn’t want another tussle.

Amidst the talk of another year gone by, she begins counting grandchildren and greatgrandchildren, thirteen in total.  

“Look,” a friend said to mom, “look at all these fires you started.”

Mom leaned back, she looked pleased and nodded.

I heard her whisper, “Maybe my last year.” She’s been saying those words for the last several months. 

She reminds me that she’s glad I wrote down the stories of her childhood four years ago and gave them to my siblings and cousins. 

“It’s a good title, ‘Remembering before I Forget,’ she said, “because I’m really forgetting now.” And that reminds me that I have to revise the stories. Her cousin says that she recalled a few incidents incorrectly.  

She turns melancholy. It’s hard for her being the last sibling alive. We never had grandparents on her side of the family. She was orphaned at a young age. Remembering that she’s the last one alive is hard for me too. Sometimes I feel guilty we still have her and my cousins don’t have their moms and dads anymore. I think about how they feel when they see her.  

Mom looks to a near future of death, preparing for it by making all the arrangements and payments for her plot, selecting her songs, specifying the flowers, writing down her pall bearers (to include her granddaughters), giving me cards for the man who releases the doves. 

“And no crying, celebrate. I want Mariachi’s to play.”

Everytime I hear her say this I choke up. I’m gonna cry. I know it. And I don’t care. Many, many people will cry. And then I’ll remember all the funny stuff she says and does, all the while laughing. We’ll cry and later laugh, loud.  That’s a family thing, we laugh loudly.

We’ll remember her push for college, her feistiness, her marches for justice, persistence, her green thumb, her love of reading, her travels, her stories about her barrio. We’ll remember it all. 

But the time to cry isn’t now. 

We toast to her health and more birthdays to come. 

Coping with Grief, Death, Hospice, Parenting, Wisdom

How Do You Process Dying?

Royalty free

Mom yells a lot lately. This is usual and unusual. Usual because she is hard of hearing so she frequently shouts “What?” Unusual because she’s yelling about who didn’t vacuum the carpet correctly, arguing and then dashing to her room crying.  

She has a reason for anger, frustration and tears. Her oldest sister, who has had dementia for four years, is dying and in hospice care. She is not expected to live past six months. 

Mom was orphaned by age twelve. Both her brothers are gone and her youngest sister died of leukemia six years ago. Although no stranger to grief, this news about her sister is incredibly hard for Mom to process and accept.

Growing up with my single parent mom was a lesson in stoicism. Mom talked about strength, not how she felt about circumstances. 

Instead she silently prayed at the bottom of our staircase where a tiny alcove held a delicate figurine of the Virgin Mary in celestial blue robes and gold stars above her head. Moms fingers could work a rosary like a Swiss watch maker works a tiny tool. 

royalty free

As I grew up I learned to discuss feelings, tiny step by tiny step, by reading self help books, the Bible, and talking to friends, and therapists. Before I talked to my mom about my aunt, I read some articles about end of life and hospice care.This is not an area I know well and I wanted to combat my mom’s usual “Be strong,” phrases. Advice that resonated with me was this:

“Maybe they don’t feel strong and need to feel like they can be afraid. You need to give them the space for their fears.”

Finding out a way to give my mom space for her fears was difficult to initiate. Her defenses are still agile.  

Yesterday, before we went to visit my aunt, Mom and I had a conversation. I didn’t want her to pretend everything was okay and then blow up at someone. We discussed that fear, anger, and grief are absolutely normal. 

“How do you feel about going to see your sister?” I asked when we were on the telephone. She cried-a lot.  

When I picked her up the next day to take her to visit I asked her again how she felt. 

“Everyone will be gone, I’ll be alone, all of them gone…do you have my living trust? I have to update it this week.” she says.

The switch from feelings to action were that sudden. 

So I talked about how I felt.  Although I have a biological father, I don’t know him or have any relationship with him. My stepfather, who was estranged from us for most of our life, died last year. None of my cousins have their parents any more. Mom listened and nodded.

My aunt’s deteriorating health and imminent death brings my mom’s own mortality right up to my face, telling me to look at the inevitable, which is much sooner than I’m ready for, if anyone can be ready. I know Mom sees it too. 

We went to visit my aunt, who looked 200% better than she did in the ICU last week, but my mom was last to hug and talk to her. She made busy conversation with my aunts two daughters. We prodded Mom to talk to my aunt about growing up and the old times. My aunt rarely talks, so my mom didn’t think that was a good idea. “She doesn’t recognize me, she won’t remember.” 

However, my mom took a few stabs at talking to her sister. After an hour or so we said our goodbyes. My aunt looked at my mom leaving and grabbed onto the edge of the dining table, pushing herself in her wheelchair after my mom. It was heartbreaking. 

“Mom,” I said as I pushed my aunt’s wheelchair towards Mom. I wanted her to turn around and she finally did. 

“Don’t go,” my aunt said. 

It was then that Mom let tears come into her eyes and felt her feelings, just for a brief minute. All the way home she kept in the tears and talked about visiting again. 

There will be no escaping death. Things won’t get easier, they’ll get hardier. We’ll process it and support our cousins and my mother through this time. And I’m grateful that we have family and friends to talk to about dying and death. We won’t be silent about our feelings.