Posted by: jevcat | March 25, 2011

The Long Goodbye

My mother’s dying was, for me, a time apart, separate from what came before and what has come after.  Apart, but not alone.

For two and a half years, my mother had been living with a steadily deteriorating heart, her survival baffling doctors (and delighting everyone else).  But she began having pain in her side that removing her gall bladder (and its stones) did not ease.

So back we went to the hospital, this time for a sonogram:  Mom, my brother Rick, and me, and a long day of medical hurry-up-and-wait, amid water and bathroom jokes (the family sense of humor being what it is).  Between two aging parents, we were used to this routine by now – but not to the sudden solemnity of the technicians when the sonogram finally occurred, or the hushed but audible word “mass”, followed by a communications lockdown and instructions to proceed directly to our family doctor’s office.  There, we waited once more, first in the room officially designated for that purpose, then in an examining room.

The news, when it finally arrived, was worse even than what the air of ritualistic medical mystery had led us to suspect:  lung cancer, metastasized throughout the abdominal cavity, all major arteries blocked and advancing on the spine and kidney.  Chances of successful treatment:  nil; life expectancy:  six months.

And so began the long process of saying goodbye.

Mom wished to die at home.  Living next door, a good portion of her care fell to me.  My brother, who lived the length of the city away, came over some evenings, many Saturdays, and every Sunday, including visits with Dad, whose own worsening condition had already necessitated his residency in what is called these days a “nursing facility”.

Of course one of the first things I had done when we got the news was call my closest friend – more of a sister, really.  We are the third generation of our families to be close friends, although she had moved from New York to Houston years before, with her parents moving to Houston some years later, following her as my own had followed me the shorter distance from Manhattan to Staten Island.  Throughout the years, the joke had been that our mothers carried friendship too far:  when one had a dental problem or fell and sprained her ankle, it always seemed within a few days or a week, the other did, as well.  Now, her mother’s health was reaching a final, critical stage, too, and throughout the time that followed, we kept frequent touch, each longing to be with the other to help, each tied to her own place by even more pressing obligations.  It was the first major crisis of our lives we had not faced side-by-side, and we felt the loss.  We kept saying to each other, “You know I would come to you if I could.”

As weeks went by, the familiar bedroom oxygen tank was joined by a hospital bed, displacing the double bed Mom had shared with Dad.  There was a wonderful aide from the hospice on weekdays, and always visits from medical types, clergy, and a steady parade of friends.

After five months, we were told it was “any day”, but for another month Mom continued, drifting more and more, sometimes coming back to us unexpectedly, with an almost audible snap – even toward the end, when she seemed absent more than she was “home” to herself or us.  Word came from Houston that my “other mother” was also in home hospice care.

A Friday morning came when I thought she was finally slipping past us.  I called work and called my brother.  When the aide arrived, Rick and I went to the funeral home to make arrangements with a kind but entirely humorless man who did not seem to see anything remotely amusing in caskets with names of early 60s cars; we settled on a “Silver Falcon”. Back in my car, we laughed till we cried, or maybe we laughed and cried.

A priest friend came with Last Rites.  From time to time friends called.  My brother and I kept watch.  Friday evening my Texas friend called.  Her mother had just died, and she and her father would be bringing the body back to New York for burial in the family plot.  She told me, “If you think it’s appropriate, tell your mother Mama’s waiting for her.”  I did, though I was never sure she understood.  Mom mostly slept, the cat curled up beside her.  Friday bled into Saturday which merged with Sunday.

The weekend of quiet, almost peaceful waiting ended Sunday evening, with the realization that “death rattle” is not a metaphor.  Mom was awake again, and struggling, the popping syncopation of her breathing the constant backbeat to our efforts at comfort.  She prayed:  for us, for Dad, to be taken.  Sometimes she dozed.  She made us promise to take care of each other.  Exhausted, we began to spell each other, one at a time retreating to the living room to nibble on warmed-over pizza.  My brother wrote often in his journal, carrying it back and forth between rooms; I hadn’t the strength.  At some point, Mom threw both of us out of her room in hopes we would rest, and we lay down in the living room.

Monday morning I woke around six.  My brother was still asleep in the recliner, and I lay on the couch, trying to get the courage to walk into Mom’s room, not because I was afraid she was dead, but because I was afraid she was still alive.  I finally went and stood in the doorway, saw the rise and fall of her chest, heard the clatter of her breathing.  Rick, wakened, came and stood beside me.

She woke, then, we sat next to her again, and I took her hand.  She asked my brother to read what he’d been writing.  He protested that it was only his journal, but she was insistent.  After a paragraph or so, she made him stop and give the notebook to me to continue.  I felt as though it was a violation, reading his account of what we were living – who wants their private journal read aloud? – but I did as she wanted, pausing periodically to ask if I should continue, and the answer was always yes.  Finally, I got to the end – literally:  the next-to-last page of the notebook itself – and said “That’s it.  That’s the end, all there is.”

As I closed the book, I realized that a slow exhale had been followed by silence.  Absolute silence.  Rick and I turned to each other; I grabbed his hand tight, and said, “Yes!  Yes!”, a sense of triumph for her, after all the pain and the last grueling hours, bursting over me, as did sobs, and I put my head on his shoulder.  But then she drew another breath, and, after a moment, a much smaller one.  As we watched, her mouth made a small, searching movement, like a baby at breast.  Eyes half closed, she made a couple of soft, cooing noises, like a comforted infant, and was gone.

Three days later, we buried my mother and her friend on the same day, in separate New York cemeteries, the services arranged sequentially, our families, by grace, allowed to share even now.



Marie Anselm, March 22, 1996

Jeanne Vetter, March 25, 1996


  1. My parents live with me and I am the only child hence the sole caretaker. They are both 88. They take care of themselves and can get around but I do all the driving and cooking. This story of yours will stay in my memory now. My turn will come. I have to get ready. And it will be worse when one passes and the other remains for the rest of his/her time. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Carl. It is hard — my dad followed my mom by about nine months (I posted about Dad’s passing on the anniversary in January). I still miss them both — which isn’t to say they weren’t aggravating at times 🙂

    • Oh, and Carl: no how much you get ready, you’re never really ready.

  2. Janet…you have such a way…what a gift you share, as you write about your parents, your beloved, your cats…

    I feel honored to have read such a beautiful post this morning.

    • Thank you, Jane. My Texas friend rang shortly after the post went up, and I apologized for making her cry, but she said it was good, in spite of that — we both still miss our mothers: our own and each other’s.

  3. This was simply amazing, and moving…thank you so much for sharing. Makes me feel fortunate that both my parents are still around and in good health. Sounds like your mom was well loved and cared for.

  4. Wow. I’ve heard you (and your brother) talk about the “long goodbye” but it makes very powerful reading, too. You look so much like your mother! I think you’re like her in more important (inner beauty) ways as well.

  5. What a beautiful post, jevcat. Gosh. It made me tear up.
    Thank you for sharing such a personal journey – and how amazing that your mom and her friend died just three days apart. Quite a friendship they must have had.
    Sunshine xx

    • Thanks, Sunshine. And, yes it was. I confess I teared up a little re-reading what I’d written, and my Texas friend called me right after I posted it, saying “You got me.” But it was an extraordinary time. Truth really can be stranger than fiction.

  6. Thank you Janet. Very moving. More than genuine. And, very generous.

    • Thanks so much, Robin. I know you’ve had a loss much more recent than mine.

  7. I know how hard it was for you. It was very hard for me.

    Love, norma

    • Thanks, Norma. Hugs!

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