Mothers Day 2007
Our Last 15 Minutes
by Gene Kramer
My youngest sister, Karen, had been taking care of our mother in New York for many years. Mom was going into the last helpless and heartbreaking stages of Alzheimer’s and Dementia that were, very rapidly and maliciously, stealing away her dignity and her life.
In August 2005, I received a phone call that my sister had passed away. When Karen died, there was no one to take care of mom, except me. My oldest sister lived in Tennessee and was not in good health and my older brother had spent a number of years in a care facility in New York.
I had lived in Nebraska for 20 years and had 2 young children there, ages 6 and 5. My oldest boy, 21, lived in Texas near his mom and was doing well for himself. I am so very proud of them. Whenever I talk about them, the plume of feathers on my chest puffs out with Love and Pride.
My mother had lived in the same house for over 50 years and I didn’t want to attempt moving her to Nebraska. She was 80 years old at the time and I was afraid she wouldn’t survive the move. I had to make a decision, that I had no idea how to make. Do I move to New York and take care of my mother? Do I take care of her until the horrific diseases had stolen every ounce of spirit from her? Or, do I stay in Nebraska and be with my younger children, raising them, molding and shaping them for their future.
I instinctively knew that I should move to New York and take care of my mom. After all, she had taken care of me and made great sacrifices for many years. Yes. I had an obligation to move to New York, because I knew that was the right thing to do and it made sense to me.
I also instinctively knew that I should stay in Nebraska and be with my children. That’s what good parents do. Were there for our children when they need us and were also there when they don’t need us, just in case they do. I also had an obligation to be with them, to raise them as my mother had done for me, because I knew that was the right thing to do and it made sense to me.
My father had passed away from lung cancer in 1966. He was 42 and I was 7. My mother worked, kept the house and raised 4 children by herself in the 1960s. If anyone were to tell me that there’s a better mother anywhere in the world, I wouldn’t believe them.
While trying to make the impossible decision, I would fly or drive up to New York, spend the week taking care of my mom, head back to Nebraska on Friday mornings so I could pick up my children. At that time, I was getting them every weekend and they knew that at 6:00pm Friday night, daddy would be in the driveway to pick them up and I couldn’t disappoint them.
I kept this schedule for about 2 ½ years, but it was too much. I couldn’t work because I never knew where Id be and my health had begun to suffer. I was 49 years old at the time and wasn’t physically as young as I used to be. I knew that the time for the decision, that I still didn’t know how to make, had come.
Mom had become almost catatonic in the last year or so. She mostly stayed in her bed with the TV on, but just stared right through it. Her face was expressionless and she rarely spoke. The few times she did say anything, she asked me if we had enough toilet paper. Every time she asked, I would go to the store, pick some up and bring it back, showing her that we had enough. The bathroom in her bedroom had 100′s of rolls of toilet paper stacked up to the ceiling. Fortunately, there was another bathroom in the house. Once when she asked, I tried taking a package out of her bathroom and told her I bought it, but she knew. Somehow, she always knew.
On that particular Mothers Day in 2007, I had brought her some flowers, chocolate and a Mothers Day card. I sat next to her on the bed and showed her the flowers. She stared through them. I held them up to her face, hoping against hope, that the scent would trigger something in her. A memory perhaps, but there was no reaction.
I opened the box of chocolates and put a small piece in her mouth. A few seconds later, the chocolate slid slowly from her mouth, aided by the almost, ever present drool. I wiped her mouth with a tissue and opened up her Mothers Day card and read it to her. Still nothing. I couldn’t take it any longer and I started to cry. I lie down, put my arms around her, buried my head in her shoulder, and screamed. Please Mom! Please! I can’t do this alone! I’m not strong enough! I need help! I need you! Please help me Mom! Please! I cried for everything that is, everything that was, and everything that will be. Through my tears I let it all out. The decision I didn’t know how to make, all the deaths in our family. How terribly alone I felt. How much I missed her. I cried for it all. Everyone and everything! I was saying everything I had wanted to say to her since the diseases had put a vice grip on her mind.
Finally, my tears slowed down and I was able to catch my breath. I sat up, looked at her and still saw no response. I just sighed. It was a sigh borne of hopelessness. A sigh borne of helplessness. And yes, a sigh borne of defeat. It was over. It was all over. I gave up. I had nothing left to give. As I looked at my mom, I prayed to God to take her quickly, as I couldn’t bear to see her suffer anymore. I prayed that if He was going to take her quickly, Id like one last chance to see my real mom. A few minutes. A few seconds. Anything. But, as I looked at her, I didn’t hold much faith of that happening.
I got up, kissed her on the forehead, pulled the covers up so she wouldn’t get cold and, slumping over with my head down, went to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. As I was getting the water, I thought I heard something. I turned the water off and listened. Must have been me. I turned the water back on and I heard it again, this time a little louder and a little clearer. Cant be, I thought to myself. I quickly turned the water off and stood perfectly still. I stood there and listened. 10 seconds passed 20 seconds And then I heard it as clear as day. Geno. There have been only 2 people in my life that I have answered to when called Geno. My father and my mother.
Shaking with anticipation, I slowly walked into her bedroom, sat beside her on the bed and looked at her. She lay there, but the expression on her face had not changed. Her eyes were still glazed over and the drool was sliding down her chin. I wiped her chin and again lie down next to her. I told myself that it must have been my imagination. Things like that just don’t happen in real life. They only happen in the movies. Only in our dreams. Only in the fantasy worlds we create in our mind, to keep the pain somewhat at bay. Fantasy worlds we create out of our own loneliness and despair. Fantasy worlds we create as a defense to preserve our sanity and quite possibly our lives.
I lay there with her, I’m not sure how long, when her breathing changed. I didn’t think too much of it, because it had happened so many times before, mostly because of the medication her doctor had prescribed for her.
Then, I felt a hand rest lightly on the top of my head. I froze solid and held my breath. Very slowly, the hand began to stroke my hair, and in an almost inaudible whisper, I heard my name again. Geno I continued to hold my breath, hoping against hope. Then, Geno. Look at me. And then I knew! I knew! I knew more than anything that I had ever known in my entire life!
I slowly raised my head from her shoulder and said, Mom? And there she was! When I looked into her eyes, the glaze that had covered them for so long had all but disappeared. She looked directly at me. This was not the near-lifeless shell of the woman that had been unresponsive for so long. This was my Mother! This was my Mom! This was my Mommy! Her eyes were focused, piercing and alert.
It had been so long since Id seen my real mom and when I looked into her eyes, I saw the mom I remembered. This was the mom who had raised me. This was the mom who, when we were in a Walk-a Thon to raise money for Cancer Research after my father had died, ran out of our house as the walkers passed by. She was holding a big metal stewpot and spoon. She ran to the front of the pack and started banging them together. She marched with a high-step as she led the parade. This was the mom who had held me and cried with me after my father had died, because I missed my daddy so much. This was really her! I had almost forgotten how beautiful she was. I stared at her and for the briefest moment, I thought I saw a faint, white radiance surround her, but when I shook my head, it was gone. I wasn’t sure if it had ever been there in the first place.
She sat up and opening her mouth to speak, her words began to flow past her lips. It was one of the sweetest sounds I had ever heard. Its right up there with the sound each of my 3 children had made when they were born. It was pure joy to me. It was the clear, confident and wise tone of her voice, as it became stronger with every syllable, with every word and with every sentence. She spoke exactly the way I remembered.
She cleared her throat once, looked directly at me and said, Geno, I’ve always felt bad that you kids had to grow up without your father. It was not the way I thought it would go. But, as I’ve told you on many, many occasions, were Kramers! Were survivors! We stick together and we do the best we can, with what we’ve got, or with what we haven’t got. I opened my mouth to speak, but I could not. There were no words. It was as if I had a mute button somewhere on my body that had been pressed. I looked at her and thought perhaps I was imagining what was taking place, as I wanted so desperately to see and believe. Her gaze went past my eyes and looked deep within my soul and within the very essence of what I am. Everything I felt. Everything I was. Everything I will be.
She continued speaking, Now, you listen to me young man, and it was with those two words, young man that I realized, she was indeed back and anything I would have said or done in question or protest would have been futile. I now knew, beyond any doubt, that this was my Mother! I knew when to shut my mouth and listen. And I did.
She continued, Your place is with your children. You know that. You’ve always known that. I will not allow you to be apart from them, even for a little while. You need them, as much as they need you. Now, I want you to do two things for me. First, please don’t let them put me away. I couldn’t bear being taken away from my home. When its my time to die, I want to die in my own bed, in my own home. I told her, I’ll try my best mom. She stopped and her gaze wandered briefly. For a few seconds, her eyes glazed over, but then were clear again.
She turned her head back toward me, looked into my eyes, and she smiled. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. It was an angels smile. A smile that said that she knew, she had finally earned her wings to fly home. She had finally earned the right to live out eternity with those that had passed before her. My father, grandfather, grandmother, nephew, youngest sister, oldest sister, niece, aunt, cousin, granddaughter and very soon, herself. My mother. She knew that very soon, she would be freed of the bondage and the torture of the diseases that had relentlessly ravaged her mind and body for so many years. She knew that she would soon be at peace.
I wrapped my arms around her, hugged her tight and said, Mom, you said there were 2 things you wanted me to do. What was the second? She squeezed me tighter, kissed me and whispered in my ear, Next time, don’t be so stingy with the chocolate. We both laughed. We shared our last laugh together. We shared our last 15 minutes together. She gave me one last hug and lie back down on her bed. I laid down next to her with my head back on her shoulder, and she continued stroking my hair.
Then, as before, her breathing once again changed. Her hand stopped moving and lay still on my head for a moment. Then, I felt it fall listlessly to the bed. I knew what had happened, but I wanted to hold her and remember her from the last few minutes we had together, for just a little bit longer. Eventually, I sat up and looked at her. Her eyes had glazed over for, most likely, the last time. I slowly leaned over her, kissed her gently on the lips and whispered in her ear, Thank you Mom. You did it right. I love you.
I stood up, pulled her covers up so she wouldn’t get cold, brushed the hair from her eyes and went into the living room. I lay down on the couch and started crying again. But, these tears were not for the almost empty shell that had once been my mother. It wasn’t for her dignity that had been stripped viciously away. I had cried enough of those tears. These tears were for being so grateful, for being so blessed, for having been given the opportunity to see, hear and be with my real mom, one last time.
That was the last time I ever saw or heard from my real mother. The mother that I remembered. The mother that I loved as much as anyone I had ever loved. The mother I respected. The mother that, as her final duty as a parent requires, showed me, rather than told me, that the greatest gift that a parent can give to their children, is the gift of Unconditional Love.
A short time after that, I was with my children in Nebraska, when I received the phone call. My mother had gone into cardiac arrest the night before and had died in her sleep.
The last few minutes we spent together that day, mean as much to me, as anything in my life has ever meant. She had earned her wings and got permission to fly home. She was once again surrounded by family and loved ones, in a place where there is no pain, no suffering, no sadness or grief. There is only love.
When her heart finally gave out, she died in her own bed, in her own home. While that doesn’t make her death any less sad or painful, I take some comfort in the knowledge, that I had something to do with that. However, that was not the last gift I gave to my mother.
At the cemetery, we all stood around her coffin, which would soon be lowered into the grave plot next to my father. They were right next to each other. They could finally play footsies for all eternity. They were finally close enough to hold hands once again, as when they first met, as when they took their solemn vows to love and honor each other, as when their first child was born and each of the three successive children after that. It had finally come around full-circle.
As they were preparing to lower her body into the ground, I walked over to the priest that had performed the burial ceremony, opened a paper bag I was holding, took something out of it and asked him to bless it.
When he handed it back to me, I walked up to my mothers coffin, opened the cover an inch or so, slid something inside and, closing it for the last time, lay my head down and whispered, I didn’t forget, mom. I Love you. Thank you for being my mom and for doing it right.
I stood up, walked around and thanked everyone for being there. I walked away with my head held high, looking the world straight in the eye, once again secure with the quiet knowledge, that everything was going to be okay.
What did I put in her coffin? Come on! You know! Of course you know! It was the biggest and chocolates chocolate bar I could find. It seemed the right thing to do.