It was the whistle of the kettle that pulled me from my reverie. Dazed, I looked around, searching for clues to bring me back to the present. Once I came to, the realization left me all at once lonely and sad.
The whistling continued. I shook the feelings away, turned off the burner, and poured the steaming water into our favorite mugs, each holding a bag of chamomile tea and a touch of honey.
I carried the two mugs to the spare room we set up for my mother’s hospice care. She lay there, sleeping, as I expected. She couldn’t drink the tea even if she was awake and wanted to due to her drooping mouth, a result of the stroke she suffered three weeks ago, but I made her a cup each day anyway.
My mother, 82, suffered from a long list of medical conditions, asthma, atrial fibrillation, and osteoporosis, to name just a few. Three weeks ago, she had a stroke while pulling weeds in her garden. The stroke caused her to fall, resulting in a broken left hip. A neighbor found her, but no one knew how long she had been lying there unconscious. Needless to say, her prognosis was not good.
She was brought to the hospital and underwent surgery to repair her hip. Her stroke symptoms, namely paralysis along the right side of her body, would prevent her from participating in physical therapy. This left my mother unable to move or speak coherently, and at serious risk for other complications such as pneumonia and blood clots.
She stayed in the hospital for several days. Once they determined that there was nothing more they could do for her and the initial risk of infection had passed, they sat my brother and me down to discuss our options.
This was not a life our mother would want to live, though neither of us was willing to take any extreme measures. We agreed that she could be kept as comfortable as possible with hospice care, and we would take things one day at a time.
My husband and I set up a spare room in our home for her with a hospital bed. We brought plants and photos, pillows, and blankets from her house and strategically placed them within her line of sight. Her hospice care team completed the room’s transformation with beeping monitors, IV stands, fluids, and medications.
Day by day, she withered before our eyes. She was a vision of frailty and weakness, with glassy, red-tinged eyes and her drooping mouth set below her now hollow cheeks. She developed bedsores even though we rotated her weak, limp body as much and as often as possible. We knew the end was coming and gathered the family to say their goodbyes.
In the early morning hours, while my brother and I slept in chairs by her side, she passed away, announced to us by the long, steady beep of the heart monitor. As her heart gave up, mine broke into a million pieces.
All at once, I felt overwhelmed; I didn’t know how I could go on without my mom. She was my rock, my best friend, my moral compass. She was my mother. What would I do without her? I cried, inconsolable, for hours. My brother would have to be the strong one now.
He and my husband took over the planning and preparation I had already begun for her funeral. A few days later, family and friends from all over were there to celebrate her. It was a beautiful, clear day. The sun shined, and the flowers we transplanted into pots from her garden were gorgeous, bright pinks and purples, white and yellow. And she looked lovely, peaceful, in her favorite sapphire blue dress. She would have been pleased.
***ONE WEEK LATER***
The pots of flowers from my mom’s garden still sit in my backyard, waiting to be planted into the space I’ve designated for my remembrance garden. My husband keeps reminding me that I must get the plants out of the pots and into the ground before they die. Each time he mentions it, I cry. Once I yelled at him and then burst into tears as he wrapped me in his arms, comforting me as best he could.
The next day he took my hand and led me to the garden space in the backyard. He had laid out everything we would need to plant the flowers and surprised me with two beautiful wooden bird houses. My mom loved to watch the birds in her garden. It was a sweet and thoughtful addition to this spot.
***TWO MONTHS LATER***
Happy Birthday, Mom! I know you are up in Heaven celebrating a fun birthday like 16 or 21 with dancing, singing, and lots of cake. I love you so much and miss you like crazy.
Your flowers are still doing great and there are birds and butterflies in the garden all the time. We found a nest in one of the bird houses. That will be exciting to see baby birds hatching and learning to fly. I know you would love that.
***SIX MONTHS LATER***
I settled into the chair on the back porch with my mug of hot tea. The colorful blooms of the flowers we planted months ago had since been traded for the changing autumn leaves. I thought back to my childhood when my mom would rake up the fallen leaves into huge piles for my brother and me to jump into. Somewhere I think there is a photo of the three of us taken by my dad. I should try to find it.
The bright red of a cardinal catches my eye. He lands on one of the bird houses, looks around, and flies off again. A tear trails down my cheek. “Hi, mom!” I speak into the cool fall air.
***ONE YEAR LATER***
Today is not just any day to mark off on a calendar; a big black “X” on the square representing May 1st. It is a day filled with conflicting emotions and memories, both happy and sad, a day of grief and emptiness. Today is the first anniversary of my mom’s passing.
Not a day has gone by without thinking of and missing her incredibly. The grieving process has been a tricky thing. Grief is like an umbrella word, encompassing the many feelings one will experience during an undetermined amount of time. According to my counselor, its actual dictionary definition is “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.”
I was warned that I would go through several stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What I don’t recall is anyone mentioning that there is no set schedule, no rhyme or reason, to how one actually moves through these elusive phases. It’s not a one-and-done process. Revisiting different stages at any point in time has been inevitable. And waking up on any given day with the black cloud of those first few phases happens more frequently than I could have ever expected.
One might conclude that the final stage of acceptance probably hasn’t been achieved if you are muddling through life with the first four stages occurring on a semi-regular basis. Or have you conquered all five steps but merely feel sad on those black cloud days? I think it’s safe to say that there is no exact science to the grieving process. I just miss my mom.
As I gaze out the window to the garden full of my mom’s favorite flowers, I hear the whistle of the kettle and prepare two cups of chamomile tea. One for me and one in honor of my loving mother.