Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Long Goodbye

Yesterday, I took my mom to visit her sister Marge. Marge is moving to a nursing home facility in Birmingham today, and we went yesterday to pack her things and say goodbye.

Marge is the oldest of all of my mom's 6 siblings. 15 years older than my mother, Marge was more mom than sister. She never had any children of her own, but she had a very exciting life, traveling the globe with her husband, living in foreign countries for most of their married life, and finally retiring to Florida, where they both enjoyed golf on a daily basis.

I guess it was around 1988 or so that things started to slip for Marge. She was caring for her husband at their home, and becoming more and more reclusive. He and she were inseparable, and when he finally passed away, she was nearly inconsolable. She said over and over that she was supposed to die with him, that her life was caring for him. We all thought that was an initial reaction, that she would get over it in time.

That depression stuck around, and brought some dementia along. Marge began to forget where she was, who we were, what she was doing . . . all signs of Alzheimer's. Over the years, she has gone from living on her own, to living with my Aunt Rita, to living in an assisted living faciliy, to living in a nursing home near my mom. Her progression has been agonizingly slow; she is such a healthy person that her body seems to live on and on and on, but the lights of recognition in her mind have slowly, slowly dimmed, leaving her bedridden, unable to speak or do anything for herself.

Before my dad got sick, my mom went to the nursing home every afternoon to sit with Marge and feed her dinner. I'm not sure that Marge knew who my mother was, but it was a comfort to my mom to hold Marge's hand, comb her hair and to see Marge smile, which she often did. Mama would talk to Marge about Anniston, AL, and there would be flickers of recognition, but none so bright as when Mama would talk about Chet, Marge's husband. Those brought the biggest smiles of all.

Since my dad has been sick, my mom has only occasionally been able to get to the nursing home. Then of course, SHE got sick, and for the past 3 months, she hasn't been able to go at all. I have tried to go as often as I could, mostly to ease my mother's worries about Marge, but I have been too busy to go more than a time or two myself. To their credit, the nursing home has taken excellent care of Marge, and that has been an enormous comfort to my mother through all of the trials of this past year.

My uncle in Florida, my mom's oldest living brother, is the executor of Marge's sizeable estate. For years, he has carefully managed Marge's affairs, paid her bills, and planned her estate so that she would have continual care, and she always has. He and I spoke a couple of months ago, and at that time, I offered to help relocate Marge closer to me, or arrange for Marge to move closer to my mom's sister, Rita (my namesake) in Birmingham. My cousins and my aunt realized pretty quickly that my sister and I had our hands full with Mama and Daddy, so the decision was made that Marge would be transferred to Birmingham, and it has taken about this long to get things organized.

Yesterday, as I packed Marge's clothes, I could see my mother's hand in everything. Every flannel gown had been handpicked by my mother, every little pair of socks had been carefully labelled with Marge's name in my mother's careful print. Every pretty picture, every little bit of cheer in the dismal nursing home room was my mother's attempt to make things nice for Marge.
As I packed, my mom sat beside Marge's bed, holding her hand, sweetly talking to her, encouraging her to wake up. Most of the time, Marge appears to be asleep, although with encouragement, she does "wake up" temporarily, make eye contact and smile.

As she stroked Marge's short silver hair, my mother began to tell me, "You know, when we were growing up, we never celebrated birthdays. There were too many of us, it was the Depression, and we just never had celebrations. But I remember that Marge bought me a pocketbook for my birthday one year. I must have been about 6 or 7, and she made a cake and had a little party for me and the other kids in the neighborhood all came over . . ." She kind of trailed off at that point, and I was biting my lip, still folding clothes silently, not wanting to cry. "You know, there aren't very many happy memories from back then," she continued, "Daddy was a drunk, and Mama was always so sick, we were poor as dirt, but Marge always took such good care of us . . ."

I couldn't even see by then, and I was trying so hard not to sob. I just kept blinking, trying to catch the tears streaming down my face with the tip of my tongue so that she wouldn't spot me wiping them away with my sleeve. I kept folding the little clothes, placing them in the cardboard boxes, and willing the lump in my throat to allow some air through.

It dawned on me that this would likely be the last time my mother ever saw Marge. Birmingham's not far from Atlanta, but as sick as she has been, my mom hasn't felt well enough to travel 20 miles to see Marge, never mind 250.

I finished my task and turned to see my mother quietly sitting alongside Marge's hospital bed, still speaking to her in quiet tones, looking for signs of awakening. Seeing her there, my mother, in pain even then, knowing that she has cancer, and seeing her lovingly stroke Marge's hair, her sister, here but gone, passed away but still alive and breathing, was almost more than I could bear. Finally, my mother stood from her chair, still holding Marge's hand, and leaned over the hospital rails to kiss Marge's cheek. Quietly sobbing herself, my mother seemed so, so, frail to me, and it was the most heartbreaking and most loving sight I think I have ever seen.

"I guess this is goodbye," my mother said quietly as she laid Marge's hand back onto the bedcovers, stepping away, wiping away tears. She was so small as I held her there, quietly sobbing. She has lost so much weight, she feels like a child in my arms now. I wanted to just hold her there, and I did, wanting to protect her from the pain, from losing Marge, from the cancer, from her fear, from it all.

And I can't.

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