Some might call it grief; others might call it recovery. Really, it’s both.
It’s what the caregiver enters when the aging parent dies, as my mother did on June 7. Her death was sweet. My husband and I were with her. The medical staff in the skilled nursing facility where she lived had made her very comfortable, and she slipped away with no struggle and no pain. I had glanced away when suddenly my husband stood up; I looked at my mother and knew she was gone.
She had left her unhappiness behind and entered into the joyous presence of her Savior. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). Our hearts immediately were flooded with a mix of emotions: relief at her release from the frailty and sadness that had defined her final years; hopeful joy at the realization of what she now was experiencing; and sadness that the final good-bye had come.
The first thing I did was call my brother. We cried on the phone together, briefly. My husband and I stayed in her room for a while, adjusting to the reality that she was not there. Once we got home, I called my nephew, my mother’s 100-year-old sister, and her four remaining friends in Texas. The first response from each of her friends was, “Oh. I’m so sorry. But she was so unhappy, and now her unhappiness is over.”
It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was so glad about that. There was nothing really to be done until the next day. The funeral home in Texas was handling everything related to the memorial service and burial there. So we could just be quiet and let it sink in. And we could follow our regular routine to attend the Sunday evening worship service at church. What better time to worship than this, when we were overflowing with gratitude for the salvation that is my mother’s in Christ?
The next morning things kicked into high gear. “Achiever” and “Activator” are number 1 and 3 in my top five “StrengthsFinder 2.0” profile, and when those are in operation it’s amazing what can be accomplished through God’s enabling grace. The first priority was to pack the things in Mother’s room and arrange for the movers. Yes, they could come and move on Tuesday morning. (Hooray!) Next was planning the graveside and memorial services in Texas; all the contacts were made, everything put in motion for Thursday. Travels plans had to be made, and yes, there were enough seats on timely flights for all of us to get there. Then all the financial institutions and other necessary parties had to be notified. I was glad I had written her obituary before she died, as my brain could not have done it as well afterward.
In two days her room was vacated with everything delivered to our house or Ditto re-sale shop, all the plans for the services verified, and we were packing for Texas. On Wednesday we arrived in Odessa, took care of everything at the funeral home, and had a three-person wake with my brother, telling stories and remembering my mother. On Thursday we attended the graveside and memorial services; after that all I wanted to be was home. One more day to go. On Friday we met with the financial advisor and headed to the airport. Some of our dear friends picked us up in St. Louis and had us over so that we didn’t have to ask ourselves, “What are we doing for dinner?”
The next morning I woke up and realized that, for the first time in five years, I didn’t have to go anywhere. I didn’t have to put on my make-up. (You Texas girls will understand that statement.) There was time to go through all the boxes we had packed when Mother moved from her home in Texas, then from her assisted living apartment and skilled nursing room here in St. Louis. I could not believe the treasures I found:
Here were all the contents of her recipe drawer from her Texas kitchen including those for her homemade egg noodles, cabbage rolls, and pecan pralines that she recorded by following her mother around the kitchen in the 1940’s. There were clippings from magazines marked “Delicious!” or “Gene (my dad) loves!”
There was the christening gown and cap she had worn as a baby, photos of my young parents with my brother when he was little, Christmas cards they had sent through the years…
And then, this: a scrapbook I did not know existed. Looking back at me from the first page were my parents in a photo from their wedding that I had never seen. On the following pages were more photos of that day in 1943 and of their early marriage. There were the newspaper clippings from when the Phillips 66ers, the industrial league basketball team on which my dad played forward, won the National AAU Championship. There were the papers from his enlistment into the navy. He did his officer training near New York City, and there were programs from Broadway shows and menus from Manhattan restaurants (“Stuffed Flounder….75 cents”). There were mementos from their time in training in Jacksonville, Florida.
Then a wedding anniversary card as Daddy was about to sail for the South Pacific: “Darling, Am in my tent at Mira Loma and my heart is breaking over the thought of leaving sweet you. When you find this I will probably be far away—but my heart is always with you. I’m only living until I can hold you once more. Do take good care of yourself and remember that I love you all the worlds full. Gene.” And the long-awaited telegram at the war’s end: “BETTER FILL THE ICE BOX WILL BE IN WEDNESDAY VIA KANSAS CITY DON’T KNOW EXACT TIME LOVE = GENE”
My husband and I wept like children. Here on these pages were the tall, beautiful, smiling, courageous people that we missed, the two that had given us so much, and that we loved so deeply. God had given us the gift of looking back, beyond the years of heart attacks and failing memories and fear, to the years of faith and strength and industry and joy.
So now we grieve, but it is with hope and with sweet tears. We adjust to the new schedule that does not include a visit to the nursing home every day and all the other things that caregivers must do. We read and re-read the mountain of thoughtful cards and notes that have come. There is an estate to settle, but even in that there is opportunity to appreciate my father’s detailed, loving care for us. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” What I realize now is that all of these are simultaneous when God relieves the aging parent from her suffering and the caregiver from her post.