Oddly, it was the same date and time his father had died decades earlier.
Papa’s death was not unexpected, we jokingly called him Lazarus, because he cheated death many, many times before. One of his biggest fears around growing old was becoming demented, and he always said he wouldn’t live past seventy-four.
When his time finally came, he was ninety years old and already far lost to us as a result of dementia.
For Mama, it meant a certain relief. For many years she cared for my father, missing out on a lot of things she might have enjoyed. And especially those last few years took a toll on her.
Our hope, after Papa died, was that Mama, even at almost ninety-two, would finally be able to pursue some of the things she still wanted to do. After all, she was still strong in mind and body.
My son married in June of last year, here in Canada, and my mother was present to celebrate with the whole family. She stayed for seven weeks, spent her time visiting with her ‘Canadian’ kids and catching up with a few of her brothers living here.
She did develop a few health problems—a herniated disk in her spine, a persistent sinusitis, a loss of taste—mostly painful or annoying, but nothing life-threatening. That is, until she was hit with a massive heart attack early December.
No one saw that one coming, not even the doctor she’d visited with that morning. Within two days my sister and I were standing beside her hospital bed.
Recovery wasn’t easy since her heart muscle had been severely damaged, but it was supposed to be possible to rehabilitate some.
I stayed after she came home right before Christmas, to look after her and make sure all was in place for her to stay in her own house. She was weak, short of breath and unable to do much of anything for herself. Not the mother I was used to, for sure. Help would come daily, to help her wash and change for the night. A struggle for my mother, who was not in the habit of accepting assistance of any kind, she’d always been utterly self-sufficient. We had been warned she wouldn’t be bouncing back, but that any improvement would be slow in coming. Still, after six weeks I returned home, hopeful she would continue to get a little better day by day.
A week later my mother was back in the hospital. My sister and I were on a flight back to Holland within hours of getting that call. The news we received from the cardiologist when we arrived was not good. The damage to the heart had been even more complex and severe than initially suspected, and Mama was in heart failure.
The news shocked us all.
Including Mama who, in contrast to my father, always expected to surpass her mother’s final age of one hundred and three years old. It appeared she wouldn’t make that. She wasn’t likely to have more than maybe a few weeks left.
Terminal—a word with great finality, and one that my mother would use quite a bit in the weeks to follow.
Mama was very clear in her wishes, from the moment she realized she was that close to the end.
The first thing she did after the doctor left the room was grab my sister’s hand and mine, and gave us each one of her and Papa’s wedding rings. “These are for you to have now.”
In the next days she outlined her own funeral in great detail, from the red blouse she was to wear in the casket to the cantaloupe she wanted us to add to the fruit salad at the reception to follow the service. She thought of everything.
Once home from the hospital—she was adamant she wanted to come home to die—we called in the medical team. We met with home care, family doctor and palliative care to have a clear plan in place for the days, maybe weeks, to come.
Next on her agenda was canceling any pending appointments in person, apologizing to whomever she had on the phone for perhaps making them uncomfortable with the news she was dying.
“I’m sorry, this may not be a pleasant conversation, but I won’t be able to make my appointment—it would appear I am terminal.” She would say this almost light-heartedly, causing a snicker or two from the peanut gallery.
It may sound bizarre, but my mother had a phenomenal sense of humor which seemed to come alive in those last weeks. Despite the grave circumstances, we laughed a ton.
Less funny were the conversations, both by phone and in person, with loved ones she wanted to say goodbye to. Those were difficult to witness. Especially when one of my two brothers, who traveled from Canada as well, had to return home to tend to his patients. That goodbye was extremely painful.
The rest of us spent some wonderful times with Mama, watching her beloved Olympic Games. In particular speed skating, where the Dutch cleaned house, to her great joy. In between she would reminisce about her days as a teacher, a time in her life she really enjoyed. Many anecdotes from her long and interesting life were regaled, often to our great hilarity.
But she didn’t miss a single race, and watched it all, from the opening to the closing ceremonies.
By the end of the weekend, Mama was clearly deteriorating, and the palliative team was called in to help keep her comfortable. We moved her bed into the living room in front of the French doors, yet she still insisted on getting out of bed in the morning and would spend the day napping and chatting in her recliner.
On Tuesday evening she called us from her bed, wanting to say goodnight to all of us. That was the first real sign.
Wednesday morning she didn’t feel like coming out of bed, so we sat with her as she slept. When the family doctor came in for a visit, she popped up like a Jack-in-the-box and told him “I’m still here and I’m doing fine!” It made my sister and me laugh. But just minutes after he left, she grabbed our hands and told us “I’ve had a good life.” She asked us not to leave her alone. Then she turned to my brother and told him she couldn’t fight it anymore.
Mama rolled on her side in bed with the warm sun on her back, closed her eyes, and didn’t speak again.
Thirty-two hours later, still lying in exactly the same position, she puffed out her last shallow breath. We never left her side.
My mother didn’t have years she had planned on. She didn’t get to do all the things she’d hoped for. My mother was an incredible person, and I missed her the minute she left us.
But Mama left this life exactly the way she’d envisioned; in her own home, surrounded by her things, and held by her loving children.
And just like that, in the span of only 10 months, my parents are gone.