One week ago today, April 7, 2017, Mom passed away.
The past week has been a whirlwind of activity. Today is the first time I've had a chance to sit down and process her death. Right now, I would say I'm first starting to feel the effects of truly losing my mom.
I had a pile of dishes to do and I was thinking it would be a perfect time to call her. We could talk and the dishes would fly by as I shared my day with her. I know many of my friends who have lost their mothers have said the same thing; the phone was in their hand and suddenly they remembered, no, I cannot call Mom. The realization cuts like a knife.
Since the last time I wrote on Monday, April 3, Mom was doing very well. We were getting into a routine, she'd been on excursions with us to hardware and grocery stores, greenhouses and hobby shops; we'd even worked a few more kinks out of the alarm system. Her appetite was much improved and she was thrilled to have her pine cones to paint.
I was out in the greenhouse last Thursday, filling flats with soil. Mom was in the house, busily painting. I'd hoped to bring her to the greenhouse with me, but after we discussed the idea, Mom said she'd rather paint. And paint she did. She was sad when she ran out of the first five gallon pail of pine cones and elated when I brought in two more, full to the top.
"Oh! Wonderful! I'd better get busy!" and she quickly selected a new color of paint for her next cone.
I went back out to the greenhouse with a light heart. Peace had descended on me on Thursday; Mom had improved enough to be able to walk behind her transport chair for short trips as long as it was later on in the day after the sleep medication had worn off. Of course, at night I still had to watch her like a hawk, but during the day if she wanted to stand up and even walk a little, she was able to do so. I did run in and check on her every ten minutes or so, though.
When I washed clothes last week, I hauled the laundry baskets up to Mom and put them on top of the five gallon pail of pine cones so she could reach them. Mom sorted out the underwear and socks into orderly piles for me to hang on the wash lines outside while I went down to retrieve another load. She wanted to help me in any way she could.
Carl and I, and even the hospice nurses and counselor all thought she was doing very well, she had regained some of her eyesight and even her appetite had been improving. Every dish I prepared for her was a treat; she would take a little taste and declare, "Delicious, oh, this is marvelous! Where did you learn to cook like this?"
I would smile at her and shake my head, she was so easy to please.
"I learned from the best, Mom. I learned from you!"
"Oh, I never could cook like this," she'd say.
What a sweetheart. Mom's cooking was extraordinary, especially in light of the other work that filled her days...but she would never take any credit or praise for her skills.
On Thursday night, Mom and Carl were seated at the kitchen table, watching 'Hogan's Heroes'. I finished up the supper dishes and when the show was over, walked with Mom to the bathroom to get her ready for bed. We were finally getting the hang of changing her clothes; odd when you haven't dressed anyone for years how difficult it can be to relearn. Mom hadn't had anyone dress her in over ninety years, so we both had more than a few giggles over the process.
Snug in her pajamas, she went to the sink to wash her face while I put toothpaste on her toothbrush. She was so tickled with her toothbrush; I hadn't brought hers from home, so I gave her a brand-new hot pink one from my dentist's office. You would have thought I gave her a precious ruby or something, she was in awe of the humble toothbrush, marveling at it's beauty. This was my sweet mother; she saw beauty in everything.
Mom carefully brushed her dentures, putting them into her little yellow container to soak until morning. Then she carefully dried her hands on the towel and solemnly picked up her old white comb with the missing teeth and combed her hair. Peering into the mirror, she said, "I can't believe that's really me. I look so old! Ok, what's next?" she asked, and I gave her my hands and led her to bed.
I tucked her in and gave her a kiss. "I love you, Mom. If you need anything, please let me know, I'll come right away," I looked at her one last time before I shut her door.
"Thank you, Karen," Mom said, as she said every night. She was always thanking me for every little thing I did; she was extremely grateful to us for taking care of her. "I'm so happy to be here and not in the nursing home."
"I'm happy you're here, too, Mom," I said, through a sudden flood of tears.
I ashamedly admit I did lose my patience with her over the getting out of bed alone thing, but that was all due to the fact we did not want her to fall and break a bone. I did not want her to go to a nursing home; we've been inseparable and with her sweet personality, there was no reason to be parted. If she would have gone to a nursing home, I would have been sitting there every day, and this way, we were both in our element here on the farm.
Do I regret scolding her for getting up alone at night? Yes. Yes, I do. Very much, but it was from a place of love and not anger. I wanted her to be safe.
After I shut Mom's bedroom door, I did some work on the computer, tidied up a little and got ready for bed at eleven pm. I checked on Mom with my phone and saw she was sitting up in bed.
"Mom, what's wrong?" I asked.
"It feels like something is standing on my chest," she said, rocking back and forth in the bed.
"Is it your stomach?"
"No, it's higher up, right here," she said as she pressed her chest.
I called hospice and they told me to give her some morphine and anti-anxiety med and see how she responded.
While waiting for the medication to take effect, I went and got the book we'd been reading about the little girl who had lost her mother and Mom was able to lie back for a bit as I read aloud to her. I could tell she was still in pain, though, and called hospice again. They told me to give her morphine every hour until she was at ease.
Mom wanted to sit up in a chair, so I helped her move. She was now very unsteady as the drugs were taking effect. Sadly, the pain was not under control, though. I gently rubbed her back and covered her with blankets and her heating pad. She was still so grateful, thanking me for everything.
We had a long, long night, and I made a few more calls to hospice who assured me our nurse, Cheryl, would be there in the morning. After yet another dose of morphine, Mom wanted to lie down again, so I helped her go from the chair to her bed. She was shocked by her inability to walk a few steps and I carried her the rest of the way. As soon as I had her seated, she was exhausted and then sick to her stomach. As I was cleaning up the bed, there was a knock on the door and Cheryl arrived. It was 7 AM.
The rest of the day was a blur. Ann came over at 9 AM and made dinner for Carl and I. Since it was Friday, Carl was home at twelve thirty. Carl was very worried, too. I'd talked to him when he went to work at 5 AM and he was shocked to see how badly things were going then. He was sorry to hear nothing was improving.
But still, we all clung to hope; this acute bout of pain was the same as the day we had signed on to hospice. Out of nowhere and intense, but she had rallied the last time when no one had held out much hope. Maybe she would this time, too.
Cheryl and I administered every pain medication we could think of, she sent me to the store for Tums in case it was indigestion, we tried so many different things. Even with morphine every hour, Mom was hurting. We moved her to the living room and she sat on the couch with us, rocking to and fro. She did not moan at all, she was very quiet; as always, she was trying not to be a bother or draw attention to herself.
Finally, Mom seemed to be a little more at ease and we moved her carefully into her Lazy Boy. I could tilt the head rest back a little so she could relax. Cheryl took the opportunity to see her other patients, but said she would be back. In the meantime, I was to continue with the morphine every hour as long as Mom was uncomfortable.
As soon as Cheryl left, Mom relaxed a little more than she had; though she seemed calm all the time, I knew her well enough to understand her wish to be alone. We are very much alike. She would try her best to make other people at ease even while suffering.
I gave Mom her last dose of pain medication at 3 PM, and even though she was so heavily medicated, she did her best to take them. I offered her a drink of water and she obediently sipped from her straw. I oh so gently pushed back her hair from her forehead and crooned to her.
I called Cheryl at 3:30 PM and asked her if she could come back because it seemed Mom's tummy was distended. She arrived and we carried Mom to the bedroom. I assisted Cheryl with the catheter, but there was no output. Mom was finally unconscious.
We had taken the hospital bed down less than a week after Mom lived with us; now I asked Joel (who had arrived from work) to help Carl put it back up again. Mom was very uncomfortable lying down and the hospital bed's head could be elevated. The room was rearranged and between Joel, Cheryl and myself we transferred Mom from Joel's old bed to the hospital bed, raising her head. I could hear the death rattle starting, but the nurse said I should get some rest as this could take some time. I told Mom I loved her.
I asked Joel to take me for a ride; it was a gorgeous day and though I could barely see through my tear-swollen eyes, it was wonderful to be out in the fresh air. Though I guess my leaving then seemed odd; many people have told me over the years that their loved ones needed permission to die; that sometimes they hold on for their loved ones. I did not want Mom to die without me being there, but I did not want her to stay to please me.
When we came back home, David was here, so Joel went home. Mom's breathing was now coming in deep, long attempts at inhalation, followed by sudden cessations. I could count up to forty-five seconds at a time between breaths, holding my own to match her. Suddenly, she would exhale and my heart would start again.
At seven pm, a certified nursing assistant arrived and shortly thereafter, our good friend Briana came with food for us. Briana sat on the bed opposite of Mom with me and gave me strength. When she left, the nurse encouraged me to eat something and to get some sleep. I left Mom in her care and ate a little of the delicious food Briana had brought. I had a headache the likes of which I've never had before, and every time my eyes welled up with tears, the pain was worse.
Finally, at 8:15 PM I decided to go upstairs and try to take a nap. I went and checked on Mom again, nothing was changed. I left the room and had one foot on the stairs when I turned around and went back to her room. Something in me sensed the end was near.
David went with me and we were both on our knees next to Mom's bed. I took her poor, cold, work-worn hand in mine and wept anew when I saw her fingernails were turning blue. She was so cold; but the nurses said it would make her passing more difficult to pile blankets on.
Her breathing was worse now; the gaps in between were longer. I told her how much I loved her, how we all loved her, and that it was okay, oh, Mom, it is okay, you can go. I will be fine, you've been the best Mama anyone could ever ask for, please, please, rest. I'm sorry for losing my patience, I have always, always loved you.....please forgive me.......and I love you....I love you................
And then her breathing stopped. The pulse in her neck beat a few more times, and it was over at 8:30 PM.
David and I clung to each other, sobbing. Carl hugged us both.
96 years of love. Oh....I'm selfish......I wanted even more.
In the hours that followed, things were like a foggy dream. Another nurse arrived to pronounce Mom's death, calls were made to coroner and the funeral home; while this went on, I knelt on the floor next to Mom's bed, holding her hand. Dave stayed with me, hugging me tight.
I will write another post soon about the wonderfully caring friends and family who have supported us through this most difficult time, and yes, that extends to my blog family, too.
I am ending this post with my mother's eulogy. I wrote this eulogy over the course of two nights; burning a lot of midnight oil, because I cannot write much of anything if there is any noise in the room. Writing in solitude from midnight to 3 AM both nights was what I needed.
I did not think I could read the eulogy at Mom's funeral because I was/am a wreck. There was some discussion of having someone else read it, but that didn't pan out. Ann was here both nights and she suggested I try to read it. "It won't be the same coming from someone else."
In the end, I did deliver the speech and made it through with only a few pauses, though I almost broke down entirely when I arrived at the podium. I bit my cheek hard, and plunged in.
Here it is, a woefully incomplete tribute to the Mother I loved so very much...........
I had the privilege to be my mother's best friend for fifty-nine years. Thinking back, I either saw or spoke to her almost every day of my life. We were close. In what is probably a record of some sort between most mothers and daughters, I never had a fight with Mom. We were partners in farming, in life, and at times, in crime.
The last few months of her life were spent with Carl and I at our home. My biggest worry was getting to her in time to assist her when she needed to get up in the middle of the night. However, Mom's biggest concern was not bothering me at all because she wanted me to sleep. Enlisting the help of our sons, Joel and Dave, we had more alarms, cameras, doorbells and whistles on Mom's bedroom than Fort Knox, but she still outfoxed me quite a few times. Luckily, she never fell.
She was the sweetest patient anyone could ask for, thanking me several times a day for taking care of her. Even under the effects of morphine she'd joke when Carl would hold her hands as he walked with her, saying,"One, two, cha, cha, cha." And she marveled at my modest attempts at cooking, declaring each dish a culinary sensation. "This is delicious!"
But Mom had a long life before I came along. She was the youngest of four children born three miles from here on County Highway C on the family farm. Mom's mother, Jessie, was very ill as she had contracted tuberculosis while caring for her mother-in-law. Mom never knew the exact timeline of her mother's illness; Jessie was thirty-three when Mom was born and, sadly, only forty-one when she died. My mother had lost her own mother at the tender age of eight. She had only a few memories of her mother holding her up so she could see the birds outside of the window and of having her hair combed.
Mom's siblings were Clarence, Earl, and Eileen. When their mother passed away, Mom was eight years old. She didn't feel the loss of her mother as keenly as her brothers and sister did since she hadn't known her very well. On the day Jessie died the children were summoned to the doorway of her bedroom to say goodbye. Mom remembered her brother Earl started to cry and she looked up at him in surprise. Not knowing why he was sad, she offered him her handkerchief.
Her sister, Eileen, was thirteen years old and tried her best to keep the household running which included assigning Mom chores to do. Mom, disliking having her older sister boss her around, would always hightail it out to the outhouse whenever there were dishes to dry. Sadly, that tactic didn't work very well because the dishes were always there awaiting her return. Mom felt badly about giving Eileen a hard time in later years, "After all, she was just a kid, too."
When her father decided to sell the farm and move to Seymour after his wife passed away, Mom and Eileen were sent to live with neighbors. Mom often spoke of all the different places she lived, washing dishes for a lady who made wedding cakes in her home (Oh! The dishes! Mountains of them!) Then she was sent to wash milk cans and scrub floors at another farm which also included babysitting for scores of unruly children.
When they lived in the country, Mom walked three miles to school one way. In the winter, farmers would take turns hitching up a horse-drawn sleigh and put warm bricks on the floorboards. The kids would cover up in straw and ride to and from school, jumping off at their houses along the way.
After the family moved to Seymour, the walk to school was about the same. Since there were no school lunch programs back then and no mother at home to prepare anything, her father used to give her a nickel and tell her to buy something to eat. A nickel, in those days, bought a lot of candy. Mom said she was popular with all of her friends as she would spread the wealth around.
After graduating from the eighth grade, as was customary at the time, Mom decided against going to high school. She stayed home for a year, but being bored, went back to school and graduated in 1940.
Sometime around 1939, a farmer named Joe Van Wyk met Mom at the gas station across the street from her home. He took to driving her home from school in his Model T. Dad was eight years older than Mom, twenty-five to her seventeen, which was quite a stretch, but they started dating casually.
After graduation in 1940, her home economics teacher asked Mom if she would be interested in taking a class she was teaching. Mom fibbed and said she was hoping to get a job in Milwaukee instead. The teacher said she just happened to know of a couple looking for a nanny for their five year old girl in Milwaukee. Mom didn't really want to take the job, but felt she had no choice.
Milwaukee was a nightmare for her as she was very homesick. The little girl she had to care for was spoiled, and would defy Mom at every turn. She didn't want to eat the food that was prepared for her, and she screamed whenever Mom tried to brush her hair. Finally, the child's mother stepped in and laid down the law and from that point on, the child behaved somewhat better.
In due time, Mom met a guy named Harold in Milwaukee and went to a movie with him. Mom wasn't impressed with Harold, but being lonely, agreed to a second date. Apparently, being a fast operator, Harold felt the second date was an appropriate time to push his luck. Mom did not agree and the relationship ended.
However, word got back to Seymour from far away Milwaukee that Mom was dating someone. Apparently, what Mom thought had been a casual relationship meant more to my father then she thought. She was shocked when she was in bed one night and her employer came up to tell her Joe was there to see her. Dad had milked cows earlier that night and jumped into his Model T to drive to Milwaukee and propose marriage. Mom accepted. It was by now 2 AM and my father had a one hundred mile drive ahead of him. After a grand total of two hundred miles and five flat tires, Dad arrived home just in time for morning milking.
Mom spent the rest of the summer in Milwaukee and arrived back home in Seymour in the fall. On December 20, 1941, Mom and Dad were married at her sister Eileen's house.
Mom's new home was on my Dad's family farm in a four bedroom, two-story house. Grandma Maggie and Grandpa Jake lived downstairs and Mom and Dad took residence upstairs. Mom's first duty as a new bride was to put sheets on the bed.
"It was late and I was tired and cold, and the last thing I wanted to do was make a bed."
The next morning Dad was jostling her, "I've already milked the cows and you're still sleeping. Are you going to make some breakfast today?"
That was the last time she slept in for over forty years.
Sadly, Mom's first son, Joey, died at birth. In 1945, her son, Robert was born, bringing her great joy.
For the next ten years, Mom lived above her in-laws with no running water and no indoor plumbing. Every ounce of water she needed to cook and wash with had to be carried up two flights of stairs and back down again to be disposed of.
The only bathroom was the outhouse, so any time they needed to use the toilet, down the stairs they went and out the door in all kinds of weather. Every time I go up to Mom's house, I think of her trudging up those worn wooden stairs day in and day out after a long day of farm work. Could I have done it? I think we know the answer.
But I will always remember Mom telling me about the day when everything had gone wrong and she flung herself down on their bed and gave in to her pent up emotions. "I cried and cried and made such a fool of myself," she said. "I don't know how long my jag lasted, but when I was done, I was ashamed. Crying didn't do anything for me except give me sore eyes. It didn't change a thing. I had to get up and find something to do. Work will never let you down; when you're miserable, find something to do." Words to live by.
The city girl became a farmer overnight. Mom woke up every day of the week at 5AM. She proceeded to the basement where she put on her barn shoes and filled two five gallon stainless steel milk pails with blistering hot water from our kerosene water heater. Carrying the pails, she traipsed up the stairs and trudged out to the barn to rinse the milking machines before the morning milking.
Then, if it was winter, my 5' tall mother climbed one of the 40' silos in the dark to pitch down frozen silage for the 30 cow herd. She had a pickax up in the silo to chop into the frozen feed and a silage fork to throw it down the chute. When she had enough feed for the day, she climbed down the chute again and proceeded to fill a wheelbarrow with silage and wheel the feed to the waiting cows. The trip had to be repeated at least six times per side of the south and north side of the barn. After the silage was fed, she went to the haymow and threw down hay for the day and also slid a 50 lb. bag of ground feed down the loft steps to the feed cart. The cows were then given their grain for the day.
After the feeding was done, she scraped and spread lime on the alley and scraped down the cow's stalls. Next, she brought in the milk cans to the feed room and set up the milk strainer.
We did have an automatic milking machine but my father did not trust a cow was completely 'milked out' by the automatic milkers so after the milker was taken off, both Mom and Dad got their milking stools and sat down to 'strip' each cow by hand. They would invariably get another half-cup or so of milk from each cow after a few minutes of hand stripping.
If you've never milked a cow by hand, I have news for you....it's hard work. My hands would fall asleep after only a few minutes. Mom stripped cows for over 40 years. She would end up having surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome in her 70's. The doctor said it was the worst case he'd ever seen. After the surgery, she did have instant relief from the nightly pain she experienced which was a wonderful thing. I can recall her walking the floors at night because her arms ached so much.
The milk had to be carried by hand to the milk cans in the feed room. We kept two five gallon milk pails in the alley for this purpose so the person carrying the milk would have a balanced load. The milk was dumped into the strainer and when a milk can was full, it was rolled out the door and into the milk-house where we hoisted it into a water tank of cold water for cooling. Then the next can would have the strainer placed on it and so on.
After all the cows were milked, it was time to feed the calves. After that chore was done, my mother would go back to the house to get another two pails of hot water (we didn't have a hot water heater in the barn) and rinse the milking machines. Then the milkers were put in a tank to soak.
Dad would back the old Chevy pickup up to the milk house to load the seven or eight cans of milk in the back and drive the three miles to the cheese factory.
While we were gone, Mom headed to the house one more time (by now, around 7:30-8:00 AM) to make a large breakfast consisting of fried eggs, toast and bacon and cereal. After we ate, she stacked the dishes and headed back to the basement for more water. It was time to wash the milking machines which took at least another hour. Sanitation was very important. When she finished washing the milkers, she threw down straw from the straw mow to get ready for barn cleaning.
However, on Sundays, she left Dad to his own devices with pitching cow manure by hand as she hurried to the house to wash up so she could get ready for late church at 10AM. She would put on a dress and high heels and we'd climb into the old 1964 Buick Special and try not to be noticed when we walked in just a bit late. She did her best.
When we came home from church, I headed out to help Dad clean the barn. Mom would immediately set in to making a huge Sunday dinner, usually roast beef or chicken or scalloped potatoes and ham. She would have it all on the table by noon (don't ask me how) and we would eat a meal fit for a king's table, complete with a homemade cake and cookies. After dinner, she and I washed the breakfast and dinner dishes. By the time the dish washing was done, it was around 2:30 PM.
Sunday was a set aside as a day of REST. She had no rest coming from me, however, as Sunday afternoon was the one day she set aside to play with me. I was thirteen years younger than my brother and was born when my mother was 38 years old and my father was 45. My mother felt sorry for me as I had no siblings or other kids in the neighborhood to play with, so we had a standing date on Sunday afternoon from 3PM to 4:30PM to have fun. We waded in the creek or sledded down the barnhill or played baseball or hide and seek.
'Baseball' consisted of me standing on the barn hill while Mom tossed me the ball and I hit it, or missed it, more likely. When I missed, the ball rolled back down the hill to Mom who would pitch it back to me. If I got a hit, I was so happy, and would drop the bat and run and get the ball to give it back to Mom. Looking back on those years, I asked Mom if it annoyed her to give up her only free time in the week to play with me. She said, "Oh, no. I enjoyed every minute of it."
By 4:30PM, it was time for her to make supper again so we could eat by 5 and get out to the barn at least by 6PM. The same routine she had followed in the morning with the hot water hauled out to the barn was repeated and all the same steps for the feeding and milking were once again carried out. By 7 or 8PM we would be done with the night chores and after pushing the hay in to the cows, we could bid them a good night until 5AM the next morning.
When she came in at night from milking on Sunday night, we always had popcorn with butter, which was a tradition. We did virtually no field work on Sundays, short of chopping feed for the cows which is a necessity.
On the other six days of the week, Mom's 'down time' between morning milking and evening chores were filled with housework.
On Mondays, she washed clothes with her Speed Queen wringer washer and hung the laundry to dry outside, yes, even in the winter. I can still see all the frozen bib overalls propped up against the heat register. She also did all the firing up of the huge octopus furnace we had in the basement.
On Tuesdays, she baked bread. On Wednesdays, she ironed. On Thursdays, she baked desserts. On Fridays, she bought groceries. On Saturdays, she cleaned house, scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees.
Of course, during the summer, she did all of the above AND had to help with the field work, baling hay, etc.The field work was where I excelled....sad to say, I was not much of a help to my mother in the house, I was a tomboy and my father's right-hand man.
My mother often fell asleep stirring things on the stove. She would lean up against the wall and I saw her slump more than once and catch herself before she fell. She tended a large vegetable garden and canned vegetables, made jelly and jam, raised chickens for meat and cleaned her house without fail every Saturday.
Even with all of the farm work, she managed to keep a beautiful flower bed that ran the length of the driveway and went all the way around the house. I owe my love of gardening to her.
The farming went on until the barn was destroyed by a tornado in 1981 when Mom was in her early sixties. Life was a little easier then, she didn't have to work as hard physically, but that didn't mean she put her feet up. Sadness visited her life once more, when Bob was tragically killed in 1995 at the age of fifty, and again in 2001 with the passing of her husband, Joe, age 88.
She was a devoted grandmother to her grandchildren, first to my brother Bob's daughter, Brenda, and sons, Robert and Neil, and later on to my sons, Joel and David. Mom would get down on the floor and play with her grand and great grandchildren with joy.
She also enjoyed playing Sheepshead and was a savvy player. Just this past Christmas, Mom was the big winner, taking our pennies home with her.
Above all, Mom loved creating art. Though she could sew and dabbled with stained glass and woodworking, her latest and greatest passion in life was painting. She loved to do paint by number kits, but she excelled at free hand painting. Butterflies and flowers, fish and birds, bumblebees and puppy dogs came to life on rain barrels, picket fences, and mailboxes. Concrete and wrought iron statuary were given a makeover with new coats of paint. We were always on the lookout for something new for Mom to paint. Thankfully, friends and family helped by finding things to keep Mom hard at work.
When her health began to fail, she still took comfort in her art, devoting countless hours a day to painting. Her passion for artwork extended until the very last day of her life.
Mom was so pleased with the outpouring of love and concern from family, neighbors and friends who came to visit her. Your kindness will never be forgotten. In closing:
Lucille Vernice Van Wyk
August 21, 1920-April 7, 2017
There were 96 years in between those two dates.
What filled those ninety-six years? Love. Work. Hardship. Heartbreak. Joy. Peace, and an unbreakable spirit and determination to humbly play the hand she was dealt in life as she did in Sheepshead.
Yes, Mom definitely lived a long life.
They say only the good die young, but in her case, I have to disagree; the good die old, too.
Mom, I will always love you.