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My First Mother’s Day Without My Mom

Char and Ellie

Mom & I at Listen To Your Mother, 2015.

Last year, I knew it would be my last Mother’s Day with my mom. She had been going down hill for a couple years with a myriad of diseases and ailments…cancer, kidney failure, depression, back pain, a couple episodes of gout, you name it, she was dealing with it. And at the age of 91, she was done fighting. We talked openly about the end of her life, and she told us how grateful she was to have lived a full, happy life until she lost her independence and health. We didn’t want her to suffer anymore, physically or mentally, and she worried everyday that she was a burden to me. It was cathartic for me to write her eulogy a few days before she died. I wrote a lot about my mom over the years, and many of the stories appear in my book Mishegas of Motherhood. Where do you think I got the mishegas from? This piece was the most recent one I wrote about my mom, when her lymphoma came back on my 50th bday. I guess you could say I was prepared to lose my mom, my best friend. And then again, I wasn’t.

ellie and char at book signing 2011

Book signing, 2012.

We had a wonderful hospice nurse to guide us every step of the way for the last six months during my mom’s terminal illness, but still there’s no getting around the fact that dying is a slow, laborious process. Unless Jack Kevorkian is by your side, the body decides when it’s time to go. In the end, even though the patient might not be in pain, the exhausted loved ones sitting a bedside vigil suffer plenty. Thank God for morphine. You can interpret that anyway you want.

Being there for my mom until the very end was a gift. On the day she died, I gently held her frail hand dotted with brown spots, stroked her champagne colored hair tinged with gray, and wiped her mouth with a damp washcloth. With every passing hour, I felt her body temperature drop and her skin turn a bluish color. She couldn’t speak a word, but I knew she could hear me. All the while I told her she had been a wonderful mom and grandma. I told her that I would miss her, but that I would be okay without her. Through her ups and downs in life, my mom taught me how to be a survivor. I told her when she was ready….let go. But first, I had one last request, and that was for her to watch over my family and I. Finally, I told her to go be with my dad in heaven, the one and only man she ever loved, who died 38 years ago. I knew he was waiting for her. I just knew.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

And when she finally took her last breath, and her eyes popped wide open, it took my breath away too. It was over. I experienced something that is hard to explain, like a swishing sensation.  Someone, something, came to lift her away and I heard, felt a whisper, “Let’s Go!” And then I cried and cried. The tears poured from my eyes like water from a rubber hose that had been tied in a knot for so long and finally untangled with a gush of emotions. (That analogy needs some editing, but it will have to do for now).

What followed in the next several hours was surreal, orderly, calm, and seemed routine as the medical examiner showed up to confirm the time of death. Don’t remember if she officially checked for a pulse or not. And then, like clockwork, someone knocked on the door. Standing there were two tall men wearing black trench coats. What else would they be wearing? Like a scene from a Hollywood movie, the strangers from the funeral home offered their condolences and got right to work. Was this really happening? Somebody, I think the hospice aid, took off my mom’s sleeveless cotton pajamas while respecting her privacy, and dressed her in a turquoise muu-muu that I picked out for her “going away outfit.” Seriously, was this happening? I thought my mom should look nice on her way to the morgue. The men lifted her on a stretcher and covered her body and head with a brown quilt. I debated whether to peek down the hallway and watch them carry my mom away. I decided to watch, I needed to, because my mom was waiting for this moment. She was ready to leave this world and be at peace. And even though I was utterly sad and devastated, I actually smiled, and said out loud to nobody listening, “Charlotte has left the building.”

From then on, everything went into motion…the funeral, sitting Shiva, talking with the Rabbis, trying my best to stumble through the Mourner’s Kaddish. Yisgadal v’yiskadash shame rabbaw… The yahrzeit candle that burned for seven days and the glowing flame that somehow brought me comfort. The family and friends who visited and brought deli trays, mounds of tuna salad, creamed cheese and bagels, trays of cookies, cupcakes, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate. There were sympathy cards to read, thank you notes to write.  Pink roses and white lilies filled a beautiful floral centerpiece on my dining room table. I went to the phone to call my mom and tell her how the pretty flowers smelled so wonderful, when it hit me that I could never pick up the phone and call her again. Within a few days, we went through my mom’s stuff, her clothes, shoes, purses, jewelry, toiletries, towels, kitchen utensils, glass candy dishes, her handwritten address book that had everyone’s birthday and anniversary documented. We decided who got what, the furniture, artwork, lamps, photo albums, TV. The process was methodical, without much emotion, except for a few times when I broke down in her closet and sniffed her Chico’s blouses. I grabbed hangers full of capris pants, tank tops, sweaters, jackets, and sweatshirts that she collected as souvenirs from all her trips. I felt my mom was watching over me the entire time I was at her place. She didn’t want me to rush through my grief, nor did she want me to dilly dally there too long. She wanted me to get on with my life, and I did.

So, my mom died on February 15, the day after Valentine’s Day.  She waited until after the holiday so that the special day wouldn’t be marred by a sad memory. I really didn’t intend to get into all the sad details of the very end of her life, and there are a lot more things that I could share, but for now that’s enough. I just wanted to put into words what this first Mother’s Day without her means to me. I am not motherless. I was blessed with a mom, for 51 years of my life, who was caring, generous, loving, and proud  (albeit critical when my hair looked flat, or I smacked my gum, or I didn’t force my kids to clean their rooms). I am so lucky. My mom was there when I graduated high school and college. We traveled together from Broadway shows in New York City to the beaches in Sarasota and cruises in the Carribean. My mom was there when I walked down the isle in my ivory wedding dress, and she was front and center in the hospital delivery room (serving kamish bread to the doctor and nurses) when I gave birth to my children. My mom taught me how to mound sticky date nut cookies on parchment paper, and a whole lot more. I cherish her recipe box filled with handwritten index cards.

My mom proudly attended my book signings, speaking events, and she wanted to buy me a new outfit every time. Towards the end, she was content to sit on my patio in the backyard and sip Pepsi from a  a bendable straw. My mom always noticed the newest blooms popping up, including purple creeping phlox and primrose that spread on the ground, and she especially admired the lilac bush that my husband planted just for her. In the springtime, the fragrance grew sweeter with every gentle breeze. My mom also liked playing Rummy Q with her grandkids but got really aggravated when they cheated.

So, on this Mother’s Day, I will think of the happy times with my mom, and my heart will be full. And I will think of her the next day and the next. On this Mother’s Day, the first one without her, maybe I will stop by the cemetery. It’s tradition to place a few pebbles on the grave to symbolize I was there, even though her name is not yet engraved in the marble. Also, on this Mother’s Day, I will get a massage. I will power walk the neighborhood nature trail. I will go out to dinner with my family and eat ice cream cake for dessert. I will celebrate being a mom. I will  buy myself a floating gardenia, my mom’s favorite flower, and soak up the aroma that fills the room.  I will do a load of laundry. My kids will be nice to me all day, or else.

My mom wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mom and family-Mother's Day 2010

My family with Grandma Char, 2012.


Mom & I, 2010.

mom in Chicago, 1990 full size-1

Enjoying her favorite old-fashioned ice cream soda, 1990.