On March 7, 2006, my father died. Only weeks before, amidst the deep throbbing pain of colorectal cancer, his mind wracked with morphine-induced hallucinations, and his voice raspy, Dad dictated a note to my next older sister, Janet.
The message was eloquent in its simplicity: “We promise to take care of Mom in the manner in which Dad would have done.” Following the brief sentence was space for each of us to sign: Anne, Janet, Patricia, Bruce, Robert, the order only significant when one considered our chronological age or when our parents wanted our attention. Then, it was a mish-mash of run-together words, “annejanetpattybrucerobbie.”
This was the mantle that our father wanted, frantically, to pass on to us. We each solemnly signed the note, yet did Dad realize what he was asking of us? Or was the pain medication taking him back to the childhood days of three towheaded girls, giggling, dancing, and twirling, in close synchronicity; and later the boys, fraternal twins who abhorred the assumption of oneness, running, jumping, and grabbing toys? We definitely hadn’t shared that closeness for many, many years.
We five might go for months, even years, without seeing one another. We relied on our parents to make the connections, to soothe the perceived slights, to pass along news. Like the children’s game where one person whispers in the ear of another, around the circle, until the last person says aloud what she heard, often a gross distortion of the initial whisper, our stories changed in the telling. The alterations may have been intentional: “I got you” moments; hurt childhood feelings spilling over into adulthood; tests of who remembered best the details of some long ago adventure. Maybe the misunderstandings were normal, nothing sinister or ill-toward intended, inadvertent. The key was appreciating the nuances, which we didn’t necessarily do well.
I thought about the differences that now disconnected us from the intimacy of childhood. I could argue nature versus nurture, epigenetics, birth order (the oldest, the middle girl among three girls, the true middle child, the youngest child, who was also a twin), or individual choices made. Although I struggled to find the similarities among the five of us, I could see the reflections of our parents: my father’s love of teaching, even the tenor of his voice, in Bruce, the pragmatic one; my mother’s organization skills in Janet, the one in charge; Dad’s humbleness and kindness in Robert, the widower; Mom’s insecurities, even for all her accomplishments, in Anne, the oldest; and my father’s strong belief that women could achieve as much or more than men, no matter the difficulty, in me, the “smart one.”
Ultimately, I put aside this line of questioning to focus on Dad’s needs. I joined my sisters and brothers in assuring Dad that we could do this; after all, there were five of us, only one mother. We would lovingly care for Mom, despite knowing that independent, opinionated, and strong, she would not heed our advice or tolerate our hovering easily when the time came.
For the next eight years, Mom bicycled and played bridge, attended concerts and plays at the local college, volunteered at church, traveled to the northernmost Norwegian Islands, attended grandchildren’s college graduations. She was indefatigable, smart, admired, always planning her next journey.
We each spent alone time with Mom, no family reunions for us. The activities matched our personalities, our closeness to her, our ability to withstand her sometimes-harsh opinions without a quick, but hurtful retort, and our sense of adventure. And then in May 2014, a change in Mom’s health, slow at first but soon precipitous, affected how we sisters and brothers related to one another and to our mother.
Mom fell off her chair while watching her nightly dose of Jeopardy! She waited two days to call Janet, by then desperate with pain. My sister quickly threw clothes into a bag, drove the five hours to Mom’s house, and accompanied her to the hospital’s emergency room. The physician on duty noted cracked ribs and, from the x-ray, a large lump on Mom’s lung. Oh, no, had her several-years-in-remission colon cancer returned, perhaps spread to her lungs, metastasized?
Janet instantly took charge, trying to understand Mom’s medical conditions, her daily needs, how she would manage in her condo, alone. Our mother was certain that her setback was temporary: she didn’t want to be coddled; she didn’t want a stranger coming into her home; her nurse friend could take her to the doctor. None of us lived in town. Keeping watch over Mom would not be easy. How would we manage her needs from afar?
My sister started the daily emails about this time, easier to reach all of us without the heart-wrenching oral repetition of reporting on Mom’s health and prognosis (let alone her actual diagnosis). The subject line wasn’t so much intentional as practical: “Team Mom Update.”
June 9, 2014, 7:00 a.m. (Janet):
“Today we wait for confirmation of appt. with pulmonologist and the next procedure, hoping for some relief in breathing. I’ll renew her pain meds later today, get balls to put on the bottom of the walker so it doesn’t scrape (Bruce, I could of [sic] used some old racquet balls but none handy) and a couple dowels so we can safely open windows at night.
Do encourage the kids, and friends to send cheery notes or cards. She doesn’t have much stamina to talk on the phone right now, and tires easily but her mind is sharp. Her eyes are giving her fits but that’s for another day.”
June 16, 2014: 6:00 a.m. (Patricia):
“[Janet and I] had conversations with [Mom] about a myriad of topics, including the assisted living apartments, having the home health care assessment on Monday (Robert, you'll be here but Janet is willing to help with plan), staying in condo with assistance, all sorts of things.
She so wants to stay here, so we are being informative and gentle, no pushing, as she internally processes so much stuff. It's her decision and financially she is able to stay here, just need to make sure the services are appropriate and comfortable for her.”
A pattern emerged to the messages, each taking on the personality and focus of the sibling at our mother’s side, bathing her, cooking her meals, reading her letters, driving her to one of her numerous doctors’ appointments, sleeping on the tiny couch in her office, organizing appointments and medications, sitting quietly with her in the late afternoon sun on her small porch, just being with her as she became more internal, shutting off communication with friends and extended family.
June 28, 2014, 9:07 p.m. (Robert):
“My heart aches, because Mom, I’m sure, feels like a bouncing ball being passed from one player to another. But still, we’re a team, and without player support, Mom will never make it to the end gracefully.”
July 1, 2014, 8:00 p.m. (Anne):
“She had her breakfast - took a shower - then her short morning nap - I got the kitchen floor washed (J-if mom is adamant about not having a housecleaner - she has got to invest in a regular mop-I did the floor on hands and knees) - got all of the rooms vacuumed - then I got cleaned up and just did little things - she got up at 10 and had an instant breakfast but not excited about any nourishment…”
By early July, Mom’s condition had deteriorated significantly. She slept most of the day. She stopped going outside. She couldn’t see with her left eye, the good one. We agonized over an arrangement for her until Robert agreed to take a leave of absence to be with Mom until she stabilized and could be on her own. This was magical thinking on all our parts.
July 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (Bruce)
"We went to Mr. Ed's for dinner. I had tacos and Mom had pork ribs cutlets, those were so meaty and she had about six, she really liked them and eats them all, she also had a salad. We went out to Klickers and picked up some strawberries. We drove around for a little while and saw the park, Pioneer, then just around for about 15 minutes and she was getting tired.”
July 9, 2014, 3:55 p.m. (Janet):
“Mom is very low today, has been in bed or sleeping on the couch 90% of the day. The eye news has really gotten to her, and her aches throughout the body (shoulder, back, neck, tummy) make her feel this last journey is too slow and making life miserable.
Besides medicine and hating how things are just now, she was/is not wanting visitors. That was instigated when she saw all the various plans we are making to add ourselves onto the calendar… She said if anyone comes to visit, she prefers one day, period. That’s enough.”
July 24, 2014, 10:00 p.m. (Robert):
“It was an all-day elbow day with mom (needed to be steadied all day as she walked to and fro)… Oh, that little lady makes me chuckle! She pushes forward each day and you have to admire that.”
July 27, 2014, 8:08 a.m. (Robert):
“Mom only wants family members (A, J, P, B and F) in the cottage, not spouses. If you're thinking, he/she (Spouse) just wants to be polite and say "Hi Eleanor," DON'T! It's about what Mom wants, not about want we want.”
August 5, 2014, late afternoon (Robert via SMS):
“Mom died a few minutes ago. She gave one last sigh, then was quiet.”
The rest of that day was silent: no telephone calls, no emails, no text messages. During the next two weeks, we divided up various activities and chores as if Mom (although now it was Janet) were directing her quintet: Anne worked with the church to find needy families for most of our mother’s furniture; Janet planned a celebration of life dinner for her children, grandchildren and best friends; Robert cleared away Mom’s most personal items, keenly sensing her need for privacy even after her death; Bruce packed the remaining items from the condo and loaded them onto a U-Haul truck to take back to Colorado; and I met with Mom’s accountant, trustee, and attorney to settle her affairs. And then we dispersed to our own homes and families, resuming life without our mother or father as backstop and facilitators.
I didn’t appreciate the connections among the five of us that might have portended how we rallied together during the last months of our mother’s life. But our father must have instinctively known, even in the moments of his greatest pain, that we five could work together. We could be a team. After all, he’d been a coach; his basketball and tennis teams still fondly recall so many stories of him. He would have relished the symmetry: his five children becoming a team for his beloved Eleanor. It struck me one day then, shortly before Mom died: our promise to our father, in the form of a simple sentence signed eight years before, was his gift to us, not our promise to him.
Today, we five no longer share the intense closeness, the daily communications or the worries about Mom. We do, though, have the bonds nurtured over decades of being siblings, rediscovered during those three months during the summer of 2014 when we realized—and acted upon—how dearly we love one another.