family, grief, mom, reflection

On The Day My Mother Died



Today is the day my mother died.

The date has loomed on the calendar like the storm clouds of an impending storm, much like they did last year. The only difference between this year and last is knowing when the rain would fall and hearts would be shattered.

Several times in this year of mourning, I have tried to write about my mom’s final days and it’s been tough. Really tough. The emotions leave me raw and vulnerable, sometimes even rendering me speechless with no words to share.

But we all must learn to let go. We can’t keep hanging on to the past, no matter how we might try to change those events now frozen in time.

Today is the day my mother died.

__________________________________

One year ago today I awoke with a start, a panic of unknown proportions as I saw that I had missed several text messages from my mom’s husband, Bob, urging me to come to the hospital as quickly as I could.

I threw on jeans and a shirt, slid my feet into a pair of flip-flops and raced out the front door.

No makeup.

No contact lenses.

I didn’t even brush my hair.

See, when death taunts you each and every day, you must always be ready for the call. What I looked like didn’t matter a bit. There was a very real possibility my mom would be gone before I could make it to her bedside.

I drove to the hospital with tears flowing, knowing in my heart this was it. This was the day my mother would die. All the words had been spoken. All the love had been shared. It was time to say my final goodbye.

I was a wreck.

When I arrived, there was an empty parking space right at the entrance to the hospital. I parked and raced inside. It was truly like a scene from a movie: my long hair flowing behind me, my flip-flops flapping with each step as I ran with all my might. People walking in the halls stepped to the side, my path completely cleared like the parting of the seas.

I ran like I had never run before. I took the stairs so I didn’t have to wait on the elevator. I threw open doors and ran down the third floor, not caring for a moment who stared at me as I flew by.

Her door was partially shut. I literally slid into her room as I rounded the corner, completely out of breath and terrified at what I would discover.

She was there.

Sitting up in the bed.

Smiling.

My first words to my mother on the day of her death were, “What the hell, mom?!?”

Yes. You read that right. I actually cursed at my mother on the last day she was here.

Her laughter was priceless.

__________________________

 

I sat on the side of her bed and hugged her, telling her how happy I was to see her.

She was alive.

I made it.

She didn’t die without me.

We knew. Oh, how we knew. Today was the day.

May 4th.

May the 4th be with you.

 

_______________________

The night before, we had signed the hospice papers. I was packing up my things to watch my daughter’s final tennis match when Bob called me out of my mom’s room to add my signature to the page we had fought so hard to have. She would be removed from heart rate monitors and other unnecessary medical equipment so we could focus on easing her pain instead of monitoring her health.

As I crossed the Ts in my first and last name, the hospice nurse touched my arm. “Now that your mom is under our care I need to tell you… she doesn’t have much time.”

Shock.

Bewilderment.

“Excuse me… what?”

Not much time.

Death was already marching down the hall.

_________________________
Bob and I decided we would not stay the night. We wanted to give her the opportunity to pass away alone, should that be her choice. We knew of others who waited until that exact moment when everyone left the room to slip away; we didn’t want her to linger a moment longer than necessary.
My mom was in pain.
Her body was no longer working the way it should.
It was time to start letting go.
___________________________

On the day my mother died, she texted Bob at 3:58 AM. She had already lost the dexterity to hold a pen or cup and yet… in the wee hours of the night, she was able to locate her phone, unlock the passcode, open her text messages and tell Bob that she loved him.

This was his sign to come.

 

____________________________
The hospice nurse told us the night before that if we had family members that wanted to see my mom, they needed to come soon, preferably in the morning. So that’s what we did. We called our closest family members that evening and broke the news of her final demise.
The morning of my mother’s death began with a party.
Because… well, that’s just how we do things in our world.
My Dad and his girlfriend Cindy arrived. As he entered the room, my eyes filled with tears because, see, this is my full circle of life. These two people created me. There is a history between my mom and dad, with many years slashed in red, bound with turmoil, anger, and angst. Yet, with the passage of time, old wounds were healed, past grievances mended, and hearts reconciled.
 
When my Dad leaned in close to hug my mom, a part of my heart was healed as well.
_____________________________
My Uncle Buddy and Aunt Kathy arrived as did Bob’s son and we stood around chatting about old times and fun memories that made us laugh. I even had a high school friend whose father was in a room a few doors down pop her head in to say hi and we invited her to stay at our makeshift celebration of life.
My mom was hilarious, cracking one liners like a stand-up comedian on stage. How could she even find the words? How could she even tell the stories?
On the day my mother died, she gave us the gift of  joy.
_______________________________
After about an hour, her energy began to wane, her words began to slur, and her eyes started to shut like all the days before. It was her last hurrah. Each person in the room took their cues like a carefully orchestrated play, the final act halfway through. They hugged my mom, said their goodbyes, and left this space, knowing they would never see my mom again.
Bob and I remained the entire day.
______________________________
In the afternoon, the reverend arrived to check on her as she slept in the bed. He prayed over her, a final blessing bestowed on her frail, weak body.
He knew her time was near.
________________________________
Her favorite oncologist, Dr. K stopped by in the late afternoon, the shock on his face at her quick demise transparent for all to see. My mom loved Dr. K. She begged and begged for him to visit her, to call her, to talk to her, anything at all, but we never heard a response.
Until he showed up at her door.
On the day of her death.
I believe she couldn’t let go until she had one last moment with him as well.
________________________________
The nurses changed shifts. Those that had spent the day with us came back for a final goodbye. My mom adored these nurses. They adored her. They took such amazing care of her during her brief stay. One nurse even brought in her baby boy cradled on her hip:
“I believe when someone dies, a part of their spirit lives on in those who are near. I want my son to soak up her spirit. There is so much love and joy in this room.
 
 ________________________________
When the sun started to set, my cousin Amy arrived and she had an opportunity to say goodbye as well. She stayed for a bit as light turned to darkness, then rain started to fall.
Bob realized the front doors would close at 9:00 PM and we would have to exit the back of the hospital then walk all the way around the perimeter of the facility to get to our cars later. He decided to move his car to the back entrance so we wouldn’t be drenched when it was time to leave.
Somehow we knew we wouldn’t be staying the night.
Somehow we knew we would have to carry all her things home.
Somehow we knew.
_________________________________
A little after 8:00 PM, I was overcome with emotion.
I knew.
 
This was it.
Through my sudden tears, I asked Amy to leave, a rush of apologies and incoherent sentences trying to explain the urgency of the moment. She quickly said goodbye with tears in her eyes and then there were two.
Me.
My mom.
Together.
_________________________________
 
For the first time in her entire 23 month battle with cancer, I told my mother she was not allowed to die.
 “No way did we come THIS far for you to die when Bob is gone.”
“Don’t. You. Dare.”
“You can hold on just a little longer, Mama. C’mon now. Just a few minutes more.”
I stared at the clock above the doorway in complete panic mode, praying desperately that Bob would return before she took her last breath. The minutes ticked by as I held her hand and watched her face, willing her with my mind to hang on until he arrived.
I don’t think I could have survived the guilt had she left this world with me by her side and not him.
__________________________________
When Bob walked through that doorway, I felt such a relief in my soul, that I knew God was with me the entire time. Her time was here, but so were we.
“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
 
__________________________________
 
Nurses arrived again, but this time it was to unhook the high-flow oxygen tube and replace it with an oxygen mask.
We watched the inside of the mask cloud with her breath, then clear when she inhaled.
We kept waiting for the breath we knew would cease to come.
__________________________________
Bob held her right hand.
I held her left.
We sat and waited, both whispering to my mom how much we loved her.
___________________________________
She took a breath.
Exhaled.
Clouded mask.
Nothing more.
____________________________________
9:01 PM.
May 4, 2017
She’s gone.
___________________________________
This year of firsts without my mom has been heartbreaking. We tried our best to make her final days complete with celebrations of love, but there were still so many milestones that carried on without her.
How does one heal a broken heart?
 
By loving those still here every chance they get.
Never miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them. Don’t turn down an offer to connect with an old friend. Live your life to the fullest, embracing each and every moment with the joy and exuberance of childlike wonder.
Make memories. Be silly. Do things that will create funny stories that will be shared for years to come.
Be passionate. Be kind. Be you.
Love yourself.
Love others.
And know that your life has meaning for those around you.
Be the star that sparkles in the darkness.
And when the darkness comes your way?
Shine even brighter.

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grief, mom, reflection

11 Months

 

Today marks 11 months since I sat on my mom’s bedside, held her hand, and watched helplessly as she took her last breath.

11 months since eyes that sparkle,

11 months since squeals of delight;

11 months of silent stillness,

11 months to write.

This time last year was the beginning of the end. My mom was in her final battle of a two-year war with lung cancer, trying desperately to fight with every ounce of strength in her soul. She was taking immunotherapy in a last-ditch effort to minimize the cancerous growth invading her vital organs, but with each treatment she endured, it made her body weaker and harder to breathe.

When my mom had her scheduled appointment in mid-April, the doctor recommended that she go straight to the hospital. “I’m a little concerned about your breathing,” he said. “I think you need to get that checked out right now.”

So my mom dutifully followed the doctor’s orders, her husband, Bob, driving her directly to the hospital following the appointment. Everyone expected her to have a breathing treatment or two, then to be released and go about her way.

My mom never returned home.

I started to write about our journey, even as death was slowly slipping from possibility to reality. It was a story told with words and photographs, capturing the turmoil of “not so great news” mingled with kindness, love, and memories.

As one week in the hospital lapsed into two, and my mom’s condition diminished from bad to worse, I took photos. Lots and lots of photos. I wanted to capture every memory possible.

I took photos as friends and family visited with my mom. I took photos of flowers delivered to her room. I took photos of her so I could hold on to one more smile, one more moment of joy. I took photos of us together.

On Monday of her final week, my mom suffered unimaginable pain. Her throat was closing in, every swallow “like rubbing alcohol poured over an open wound.” Those were the doctor’s words because at that point, my mom couldn’t speak.

Actually, she couldn’t do much at all as her movements were hindered from the pain medicine and her lucid moments were becoming nonsensical. She had lost the dexterity to hold a cup in her hands so we were feeding her tiny ice cubes from Sonic and hoping she wouldn’t choke in the process. We finally had to resort to swabbing the inside of her mouth with a small sponge soaked in water.

The evening before, I asked if she wanted me to sing to her, reaching for an old hymnal I had used in my days of singing with a church choir. She closed her eyes and nodded, so I sang. By the time I finished the second verse of Amazing Grace, she had fallen back to sleep.
It was the first and last time I ever sang to my mother, just me and her. It’s a memory I will never forget.

That Monday was a horrible, horrendous day. The doctors told us there wasn’t much more they could do, but hospice couldn’t take over until we agreed to have my mom moved to another facility for care. We were at a crossroads, an impasse. My mom was on high flow oxygen, maxed out to the greatest level she could endure. To remove her from this machine for transport would most likely end in fatality. They wanted us to make the final decision.

We were caught in the quagmire of one department committed to helping people heal and renew with the other committed to helping people die with dignity. All the while, my mom suffered in the bed before our eyes. It was by far one of the most excruciating days I have experienced as a child caring for a parent.

That evening, as I was about to leave for the night, not knowing if I would ever see my mom again, she sat up in bed as if struck by a bolt of lightning. She opened her eyes and lifted her shaking hand, pointing at the notepad and pen lying on the table near her bed.

My mom was always a note taker. As a secretary, she had taken countless notes of tasks to complete, documents to preserve, and general notes of this and that. She loved little spiral journals with colorful pens that could easily glide across the paper. She was extremely proud of her meticulous handwriting.

Over the years I’ve received several letters from my mom. Some were penned in anger and frustration; others filled with passionate perspectives she needed to share.

But my mom couldn’t write anymore. She couldn’t even hold a pen.

And yet… there she was. Sitting straight up in bed, pointing to her pen and paper. I opened the journal to a blank page and uncapped a pen. She grasped it, her hands continuing to shake as she scrawled lines across the page.

I leaned over to catch a glimpse of what she was writing, still in shock and amazement that she was sitting up with the pen in her hand, when I realized she was actually writing words. They were disjointed and repeated, the pain meds and cancer-ridden body struggling to get the thoughts on paper, but they were there.

Words.

Real words.

With real purpose.

My mom was writing one final letter to me.

 

 

 

 
“I love you more than anything, if these are my last words. Love, your Mama.”
 
This is when I broke.
I hugged her and thanked her for being my mom and choosing to bring me into this world so many years ago. She whispered three simple words as I took another selfie with her. My heart was paradoxically broken and complete.
These were the last words my mom ever wrote on paper.
 
Three days later she was gone.
 
Today, as I mark the milestone of 11 months on the calendar, I remember the power of words and the incredible gift of photos to capture all of life’s moments for generations to come.
Never underestimate the gifts you have to share with your loved ones and the world around you.
Take your photos.
Write your letters.
Make sure people know they are loved.
For these are the moments that matter.
 
These are the moments that live on.

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grief, kindness, reflection

I Can

Today was a difficult day.

I arrived at school, the hearts of gratitude created by our students still sparkling on my table, their endearing messages and sweet sentiments reminding me of our kindness lesson the day before.
 
Before.
Students entered the building and several peeked in the Innovation Lab, seeking me out, smiles and open arms reaching for the hugs they receive each day on the way to class.
To an observer, it was a typical day.
To an educator, it was anything but.
My heart is heavy.
I feel guilty that I could tuck my kids into bed last night when others faced empty bedrooms.
I am heartbroken that there are students in this world who feel so unloved, filled with so much pain, tortured by so much hate, that taking the lives of others is acceptable in their minds.
Today I looked around at the students entrusted to my care and made a point to show them respect.
Show them patience.
 
Show them love.
In times like this, I feel completely overwhelmed and helpless. Who am I to think I can change the world? How could one little act of kindness truly make a dent in all these horror stories that fill each news channel I see?
I can’t fix yesterday.
I can’t bring back lives lost.
I can’t ease the pain of a grieving parent, nor can I mend the broken heart of a family who will never see their dad again.
But instead of focusing on the cant’s and can nots, I will chose to embrace I can.
I can call a student by name with a smile.
I can stop in the hall and listen to a story a child is bursting to tell.
I can remind students that they matter, that I care about them, that they have value and worth in my eyes.
I can choose to believe in the good and the power of positivity.
I can believe my planted seeds of kindness will one day sprout into a heart of compassion and empathy for others.
I can look for the good in others and trust that the ripple effect of your kindness and my kindness and the kindness of many will spread far and wide to make this world a better, safer place to live.
I can.
 
And so can you.

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reflection

My Journey to One Word 2018

The past few days my Twitter feed has been dominated by tweets and links about #oneword2018 resolutions from members in my PLN. Although I’ve only participated in this trend the past two years, I can see its impact on reflection and rejuvenation for purpose and goal-setting. I find that reading other people’s journeys with new year resolutions inspires me to think a bit more about mine.
Like many, I’ve made lists of resolutions and failed miserably. Being a list-maker by nature, this is an ego-blow for sure! Perhaps the goals I set were too lofty in nature or too vast in quantity, either way I never achieved my resolutions with this strategy. I discovered that sharing my goals with others made me more accountable, so in 2015 I tried something new.
I jotted resolutions on a single post-it note (less is more, right?) then blogged about my goals. Throughout the year I was reminded that the whole world had access to my goals which made me try a little harder to make them happen. Somehow I lost the actual post-it note in the midst of my travels, but because I had been sharing my stories online, the resolutions were still vivid in my mind.
Unfortunately, despite my best intentions, I wasn’t 100% successful in what I wanted to achieve which left me feeling a bit deflated by year’s end. In December of 2015, I heard Dean Shareski speak at the VSTE Conference and his message of joy resonated with me so strongly, I knew this word would be my focus for the new year.
No resolutions.
No post-it note.
Just one word.
I carried that one word in my heart all year and it pulled me through some tough times. My mother-in-law passed away in the spring of 2016 after a long, hard-fought battle with colon cancer then my mom had a relapse in her lung cancer treatments later that same year. It was Joy that filled my soul and Joy that reminded me to seek the light on the darkest of days. I was even tapped as an honorary “Joy Ambassador” by Akilah Ellison with Virginia Beach City Public Schools, which was a highlight of my year.
As we rolled into 2017, it was time to choose a new word, a strong word, a word that would buffer my broken heart for events yet to come, yet bolster my spirit in celebrating milestone family events. It would be a year of mountains and valleys and I needed a word that would see me through it all.
Wow – what a self-fulfilling prophecy this word would become. My year was like a raging ocean with waves rising higher and crashing over, the turbulence catching me off-guard and riptides pulling me farther out to sea.
My year of joy quickly transformed into a year of sorrow.
My cousin died.
My uncle died.
My mom died.
Even my cat died.
I watched helplessly as one friend lost a father, another lost a mother; a dear friend lost a husband and another lost a child. I wanted to help with their grief, but was paralyzed by my own. I felt helpless. Overwhelmed. Despondent. Alone.
What helped me bounce back with resilience was support from my family, friends, coworkers, and my beloved Twitter PLN. Many of you reached out with kindness as you offered encouraging words, endless support, and permission to celebrate the beautiful moments in my year like my daughter graduating high school and heading off to college as well as our pre-planned family vacations.
If there’s one lesson I learned in 2017, it’s that life doesn’t stop for grief.
Resilience gave me endurance to create a new website, change my Twitter handle and write on a regular basis about tough topics that spotlighted my vulnerability as an educator, mom, daughter, and friend. I developed new friendships far and wide and felt that twinge of joy once again as I continued sharing acts of kindness with others.
Resilience gave me courage to revamp my instructional strategies as I embraced an innovator’s mindset and completely transformed our school’s traditional computer lab into an Innovation Lab. I enhanced my professional knowledge by reading books and participating in book studies, small group discussions and online MOOCs, inspired by the words of the authors below:
Resilience gave me strength to shine for teachers and students on days I would have rather hidden away in bed. It reminded me that others needed me to be there for them as well. I was not allowed to drown in the ocean waves that threatened to keep me down.
Resilience gave me time to mourn, then pushed me to rise above.
Resilience continues to keep me afloat through the changing tides and seasons yet to come.
As we turn the page into a new year, I was tempted to choose an easy word like breathe or sleep or even stillness for my #oneword2018, but another word keeps whispering in my ear:
Inspire.
I want to inspire you in the ways you’ve inspired me.
I want to inspire kindness – not just what I’m doing, but all the amazing things you are doing as well, in and out of the classroom.
I want to inspire risk-taking as I step out of my comfort zone and try new things, then sharing my lessons learned.
I want to inspire collaboration and collegiality as we work together, learn together, grow together.
But most of all, I want to inspire you to be all you can be for those children and adults who need you the most.
You have the power to make a difference in this world, planting seeds of inspiration with each person you meet.
Do what you love and you will inspire others along the way. It’s a natural cause-and-effect that will radiate from your soul!
Today is a brand new day in a brand new year. Let’s give it a go and make it the best year yet!

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grief, mom, reflection, travel, vacation

Survivor’s Guilt

This month has been blur. Two weeks ago, my family and I traveled to Florida for the kickoff of an amazing vacation. We spent a day at Legoland then visited Sea World before boarding a Disney cruise ship to sail the seas with eleven additional family members (16 of us in all).

As many of you know, I’m a cruise gal. I love being whisked away to a different location with the taste of salt in the air, the ocean teasing me with its brilliance right outside my balcony door. I love being pampered (who doesn’t?) and enjoying a few days of not cooking dinner, not making my bed, not being the source of entertainment for my children. It’s a time for rest, reflection, rejuvenation. Even being disconnected from WiFi and cell service is a blissful change to my normally hectic world.

We plan our cruise vacations years in advance. The anticipation that builds prior to vacation is one that rivals birthday parties, holiday gift-giving, births and weddings. We talk about the activities we can’t wait to do. We reminisce about experiences from the last time we cruised. We imagine what will happen the next time we travel.

I take hundreds of photos during our cruises. They are my souvenirs, more precious than any t-shirt or postcard you will find. They remind me of beauty. Kindness. Peace. Joy.

But now, as I’m scrolling through all the photos from our vacation, I feel the need to add another word to that list: Guilt.

See, the cruise we took this year was a gift from my father-in-law, in memory of my mother-in-law who passed away March 2016. They wanted the extended family to have something to look forward to after she was gone, so they arranged for this vacation with everyone together.

Everyone except for mom.

My in-laws have cruised before. In fact, we invited them to share in our own cruise vacation in 2010 when my youngest child was only ten months old. We had a fabulous time making a lifetime of memories that week. Even today, we tease my now seven-year-old how Grandma and Grandpa searched the entire ship for a hot dog bun to appease him. Not the hot dog itself. The hot dog bun.

But now it’s different.

My mother-in-law is gone and we are still finding our own ways to heal from that loss.

During this cruise, we visited various ports. As we traveled to the same locations we had shared with her, I could feel her presence in so many ways. Oh, the memories that flooded my heart as we toured the aquarium at Atlantis and strolled the walkway at Castaway Cay! I felt her whisper on my shoulder from the gentle Caribbean breeze and her love from the warmth of the sun. Even at dinner I found myself lost in the conversation as I remembered the way she would smile and laugh at our reflections of the day.

We had an amazing vacation. Now we are home, re-acclimating to our everyday lives, and I am compiling the photos to share.

But now it’s different.

My mom is gone, too.

This trip had nothing to do with my mom at all as this was a celebration with my husband’s family. In fact, the loss of my mom was never mentioned by anyone the entire week. It wasn’t the focus of the trip, therefore it didn’t rise to the surface of conversation. It may have been the proverbial elephant in the room or perhaps not even a thought; either way, it wasn’t discussed. I briefly referenced her in a passing conversation about childhood memories, but that was it. My mom, her life, her death, were topics only for me to dwell upon.

Now here I am, pouring over hundreds of photos, wondering, “Who do I share these with now?”

Survivor’s guilt is real.

It’s only been two months since my mom’s death and I’m still riding the roller coaster of grief. I am paralyzed by the weight of sorrow as I remember the joy I experienced last week. How could I have allowed myself moments of fun on the heels of my mother’s demise? Why am I deserving to be blessed by the generosity of a family-funded vacation? Who really cares about my stories anyway? Why even share this with the world?

I am quickly learning that grief and guilt are seatmates in the cargo space of my mind.

So bear with me a bit as I navigate these crashing waves and searing riptides. My heart is still mending and I may seem a bit disconnected at times.

This coming week I will share stories from my cruise with parallels to my experiences as a mom, an educator, a daughter and friend.  My goal this year is to be more transparent in my reflections, so I thought this would be a great place to start. For those of you still sifting through the pain of loss, perhaps these stories will help us heal together.

I can’t share my stories with my mom anymore, so I will share them with you.


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