Isn't Babs just gorgeous here? I love this picture of my Mom. I can see myself in her in this picture.
True Confession: I have been trying to write this post about the day my Mom died for over a year, and I have, until now, been unable to do it. Every time I've tried to sit down and write about this, I've found that it was all just a little . . .well, too much. It was too fresh, too raw, too sad, too personal, too weird, too off-topic. . .too. . .too. . .much. However, I woke up this morning and realized it was time. For those of you who don't know, my Mom died of ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease. She was only 66 years old. When she was first diagnosed with the disease, I wrote a post called "Feeding my Soul," but when I went back to look for the link to that post, I realized I had originally called it "Eating is Overrated." Ha! Probably, NOT the message a self-professed Foodie should be uttering out loud. I was editing myself for you, even back then. Well, not today, my friends. Today, you get Foodie raw, emotional and uncensored. Bear with me. It will be worth it. I promise.
If you have not lost either of your parents, then you simply don't know. It is THE hardest thing in the world. You, unavoidably, and without your consent, end up feeling like an orphan. Abandoned. Yet, this is a story about how on the day my Mom died, I was not alone. Yes, I was lucky enough to have people around to comfort me on that day, and, yes, I had phone calls & texts from all my loving friends . . .but even more importantly, before the sun set on that day, I had my Mom with me in a very profound and unexpected way, and I want to share that story with you.
Where to begin? Well, January 20th, 2011, the day before Mom died, had been a pretty great day for her, all things considered. My brother, Chris, and his wife, Andrea, had come over to visit with their two babies earlier that day. Mom loved her kids and was crazy about her grand-kids. She always looked forward to a visit from her grand-babies.
A nurse, who came to check-in on Mom at home, had asked Mom if she might be interested in having a Minister come and visit her. Mom said she did, so, that afternoon we arranged to have a Minister (that my Mom had never met) come to pay her a visit. None of us kids were home when he came to pray with Mom, so we will never know what was said, but clearly, unbeknownst to any of us, Mom was already preparing to leave us, even then.
I was also in Tulsa on that day. I had been visiting Tulsa at least twice a month, to help my brother care for my Mom, and to host my underground supperclub called the Test Kitchen. The night Mom passed away, I was hosting my 3rd, and most important dinner, in Tulsa. As I was setting up all day, I kept thinking I should swing by to say "Hi" to my Mom, but as the day went on, and the dinner hour approached, I knew I wouldn't have enough time to get over to see her. It is a decision I will always regret. It would have been my last chance to see my Mom alive.
I had been staying with my Mom, up until the last few months of her life, when I would come to Tulsa to visit. When it was time to hire 24-hour care for my Mom, and the night nurses began staying over, I started sleeping over at a friend's apartment to give them the extra bedroom, as it was closer to my Mom's room. It was a natural progression of a relationship I was having with a man in Tulsa, who we will call "The Mayor," and my time spent with him and my son, Tastie, were the only bright spots in a terrible year filled with death and divorce for me.
Mom went to bed early. She would watch TV for a few hours, and then fall asleep, leaving the night nurses to shut off her TV, after she had dozed off. Mom could no longer work her fingers enough to use the remote by herself, and it drove her crazy. She had the type of ALS that affected her upper body and her throat and voice. Which meant that although my Mom could, thankfully, still walk at the time of her death, she could not speak very well or use her arms or hands in any capacity. She could no longer hug any of us, and her warm hugs were the best. To adapt, we realized Mom could whip her wrist up and give us a love pat on our bottoms with her hand, so that became her way of hugging us. We would all laugh every time she did that. I would be saying goodbye to Mom, putting my arms around her, and I would feel her hand whip up and tap my bum. I knew what it meant.
The other thing Mom did as soon as her voice started to give from the weakening of the muscles in her throat, was she would say "I love you" compulsively and at the most interesting times. She kept telling us she knew one day she would not be able to say those words, so anytime it crossed her mind to say it, she would blurt them out. Hundreds of times a day, she would say those three little words to us. Sometimes the "I love you's" came 5 minutes apart, as her dementia that came with her ALS began to play tricks with her memory. Sometimes they came when she had soiled herself, and we were bent down trying to clean her up. Even at times when I was frustrated with her or her disease, my response was always the same, "I love you too, Momma."
As my Test Kitchen dinner ended in Tulsa that night, was probably about the time my Mom would have been dozing off to sleep. The Mayor came to help me load up all of my gear after the dinner was over, and I followed him back to his apartment. I was excited that the dinner had gone so well, and so many influential people had been in attendance. I was finally getting some traction in Tulsa. Then, as we crawled into bed that night, we whispered excitedly in the dark about our plans for the morning, as we had purchased tickets months earlier, to visit Los Angeles to see The Mayor's family. It had been a long time since I had been to Los Angeles. I was looking forward to this time away from reality.
As I drifted off to sleep on The Mayor's shoulder, it was the wee hours of the morning, January 21st, 2011.
Across town, Mom was also in her bed, sleeping peacefully. Juanita, her night nurse, had heard Mom stir and she went in and sat at her bedside to check on her. Juanita told us that Mom's breathing had suddenly started to become erratic. As she spoke softly to my Mom, telling her to take it easy, and calm her breathing . . .she said Mom never woke up or opened her eyes, but instead she took one last raggedy gasp of air, into her already deteriorating lungs, and left us, and the terrible disease she had been suffering with, behind.
Juanita called my brother first, and he called the paramedics. With my brother being a fireman in Tulsa, they were over at my Mom's house with lighting speed. My brother, Chris, along with Juanita had checked my Mom's vitals and they knew she was already gone. My brother has seen enough death in his line of work, to know that this was real. He felt so relived that Mom was gone before the disease could do any more damage to her quality of living. He whispered his own good-byes to Mom, and then allowed her body to be removed by the medial team that had stepped out of the room to give him some privacy.
Across town, The Mayor and I are fresh from the shower and zipping up our suitcases to head to the airport. We are running a little behind, and I am walking out the the door of his apartment when my brother calls me. A call I had not thought I would ever receive. I thought I would be there when my Mom left the earth. I had assumed when Mom died she would be in the hospital, surrounded by all of her kids, with each of us getting a chance to say good-bye. You know, exactly like it is in the movies. As, I am riding down the elevator with my suitcase, I can feel The Mayor reading my face and body language as I am trying to digest the words my brother was saying on the phone. Quietly, The Mayor began to take his coat off and lay it over his suitcase. He understood what was happening to me, before I did. My Mom is gone, and I never got a chance to say good-bye. "There is nothing you can do here," my brother said to me firmly over the phone, "you should go to Los Angeles." When I protested just as firmly about staying to help him with Mom's final preparations, he said: "Jenny, you might as well go. Take the time off. There is nothing more you can do for Mom here, she is gone." So, much to The Mayor's surprise, I told him we needed to get to the airport. We were going to Los Angeles. I think I was in shock. I just did what my brother had told me to do.
As you can imagine, I cried quietly on The Mayor's shoulder on and off again on the plane ride to Los Angeles. At times, I was relived and elated she was no longer suffering, but then the feelings of guilt and loss would creep in and I would feel sad all over again. When we made our tranfers, I would check my phone, Twitter and Facebook feeds out of habit . . .only to find wonderful words of love and support from friends, family and followers. You can't imagine how much I needed those words of encouragement and care. They were priceless to me. It made me feel less alone, somehow.
When we arrived in Los Angeles, we had a bite of lunch, and then we went to the Santa Monica Pier. I asked The Mayor if he would take me someplace where I could cry alone, with my memories of my Mom, and by the ocean seemed like a good place to do it. He left me on a bench, at my request, at the end of the pier. The sun was setting and the water sparkled like diamonds from the sun reflecting off of it's every surface.
As I sat there waiting for the tears to come, I was looking out at this vast body of water, I thought about how glad I was that Mom was finally free. Free of the pain, the disease . . .her soul was also free. Free to experience other things outside of her body, that had failed her in the end. Free like the waves of the ocean or the birds flying overhead. And as I let the tears flow down my face, I whispered to my Mom how much I loved her and how much I would miss her and how glad I was that her spirit was finally, finally free.
I was not alone on the Santa Monica Pier that day. Hundred of people milled about. Children ran across the boardwalk with ice creams in their hands, men were fishing below me, and a guitar player suddenly began to sing "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton. I laughed out loud when he started singing because I thought . . .OF COURSE, while I am sitting here with hundreds of strangers all around me, thousands of miles from home, mourning the loss of my Mom, this guy would start singing THIS song.
As I reached inside my purse for a tissue to blow my nose with, a pretty young woman in her early 20's in a white bikini came and sat down next to me on the bench. I finished blowing my nose, unaware of her presence, until she scooted closer to me on the bench leaned in and whispered, "Are you okay?" I jumped a little at the sound of her voice, and immediately apologized for it. I looked over to see her pretty tan legs and white bikini bottoms, and I realized that my crying must have attracted her attention. Without looking her pretty face, (I knew I must look a mess and was embarrassed), I mumbled into my tissue that my Mom had died earlier that day, and I had come here to say good-bye to her. I apologized for making her worry and assured her that I would be okay. She was clearly unconvinced by my words, and she slid closer to me and put her arm around my back squeezing my shoulder tightly as the tears continued to come, although I was trying to will them to stop.
She sat with me for about 5 minutes, her arm strong and tight around my shoulder as I sobbed. When my crying had subsided and she suddenly said: "Would it be all right if I gave you a hug?" Immediately, my inner voice rejected that request. I am not the type of person to accept hugs from strangers on the street with ease. But as I sat there, feeling the acute loss of my Mom, I thought, "What the hell!" So, I said quietly to her, "I would like that. Thank you."
Without hesitation, this beautiful girl put both her arms around me, at the same time I put mine around her, and we sat on that bench and hugged. Her skin felt warm and smooth, and I was in awe of her openness to try to help a stranger heal with a hug. We broke the embrace and I went back staring at my hands in my lap. I mumbled a quiet "thank you" toward her and she whispered back in response, "You are going to be alright, everything is going to be alright," and she leaned over and kissed me on my shoulder, which was something my Mom used to do to me growing up when we would be sitting on the couch watching TV, side by side. Then the girl slowly got up and left me, right where she had found me on that bench at the end of the pier. Suddenly, I felt light. All of the pain and sorrow was gone. I knew she was right, it was going to be okay. That's when I realized that Mom had been HERE with me. She had come to me on this pier in California in the form of this beautiful blonde girl to tell me good-bye, with a hug and a familiar kiss I instantly recognized. I snapped my head up to see where this girl had gone. I wanted to chase after her, to thank her and look her in the face and see if I could feel Mom's spirit around her somehow . . .but she was gone. I stood up on top of my bench to see past the crowds to see if I could spot her, but, literally, like a ghost, she was gone.
When I got back to Tulsa, after my trip, my brother and I went to the funeral home to see my Mom's body before it was cremated. It was the one request my Mom had asked of me over and over as her disease progressed. She insisted that I, as the eldest daughter, come and view her body before it was cremated, just to really make sure she was gone before they cremated her. Mom had many irrational fears as the dementia had taken over, and this seemed like one I could ease her mind by agreeing to. My brother went with me as we walked back to the viewing room to see a frail, thin and freshly showered Mom laying on a table with a sheet draped over most of her body. She was so, so gone. It was like looking at a shell. A vessel that once held the hilarious and loving woman I knew as my Mom.
As we walked back to the funeral directors office to sign the final papers, he produced three letters, one for each of us kids, and handed them to us telling us that they had been part of her final instructions. They were similar we realized on comparison, but she personalized each with a little something. Written in pen at the top of my letter was: "This is for Jenny." She wrote all three of our letters back in 2006, long before she knew of the disease that would end her life.
As, I scanned the pages of my letter, a paragraph jumped out at me from the rest. It read: "Also, on a personal level, I do strongly believe that life continues after death. Our spirits never ever die. I want you to be aware that in whatever way possible, I will try to let you know that I have found eternal happiness . . .look for me, OK?" Look for me, she wrote, and in all cap's...OK? I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me. She had done exactly as she promised, she had come to let me know that she was happy and safe.
We went out to the Tallgrass Prairie in July of last year to scatter my Mom's ashes, as she had requested. My two brother's and I held up the plastic bag, that seemed so heavy in our hands, to let the wind take Mom across the prairie where the buffalo roamed in Oklahoma. It was the beautiful closure that all of us needed. We stood around taking pictures and telling stories about Mom with my Mom's family who had come to Oklahoma to release her ashes with us. I stood on that hillside and told the story of how Mom had to come to say goodbye to me, just as she promised in her letter. There wasn't a dry eye in the group, including mine, when I finished. Mom was truly all around us on that hot July day. We felt her presence and her peace.
This post is in loving memory of my beautiful Mother, Barbara Louise Whittington. I love you, Mom. Then, now and always.
Well, my friends, this post was hugely personal, so I thank you, for allowing me to eat first today, instead of feeding all of you. I, for once, wrote this post to feed myself. Love and light to all of you on this day and everyday.