Sonja’s request landed on my heart with all the delicacy of a granite birdbath. Edna, who is 92, barely ninety pounds and suffering from dementia, is very close to the end. She was found last week at the hospice unresponsive with her eyes rolled back into her head. She was resuscitated, barely, but now Sonja is on final vigil.
Edna was born in Denver in 1925, the first child to a family of superb barbeque cooks. Her family, which later expanded to some seven children as the Depression took hold, became her rock. She was uniquely talented, including being a very able piano player who performed with an other wise all-male jazz band in the “Harlem of the West,” Denver’s lively Five Points neighborhood.
A woman known for her ability to put together a look- Edna was honored as one of Denver’s best dressed in the 1950s- Edna followed her Army husband to Germany with their infant child in the early 1960s. There, an isolated cloister of nuns stole Sonja out of her pram one day when Edna was in a candy store getting licorice for her husband. When she came out, the nuns -dressed in their traditional long black and white habits- were gathered around the tiny child, trying to rub the cafe au lait color off her cheek. They had never seen a Black child. This became known as The Great Penguin Heist in family lore.
As Sonja grew up, she and her mother developed a deep, close bond. More sisters than maternal relationship, they shared a passion for shopping, animals, laughter and faith. Sonja has been among my closest friends since the early 1990s, and Edna has always been an unshakable rock in Sonja’s life.
A few years ago, Sonja came to me in tears. Her mother had begun to deteriorate. As kindly as I could, I pointed out to her that there was no getting better, no going back. Edna was not going to suddenly make a miraculous turnaround. As I’d had to do with my mother, Sonja had to give her mother permission to die. At the time, this was devastating, but Sonja also knew this was an immutable fact. Since then, she found a VA home, then a hospice where her mother has received exceedingly good care. Sonja has spent untold hours with her, whether watching her sleep or telling her that her mother was in the next room, or removing a photo that made her mother cry. As the years have passed, this talented and passionate woman has alternatively drifted away, then back, asked for her mother, hallucinated, and finally, stopped eating.
Three years ago, my best friend Jill had sat vigil for her 95-year-old mother after a bad fall, then a stroke. I had known Deen for more than twenty years, knew the family very well. When the mother died, I was called to Spokane, where I spoke at her wake. There are few more sacred works than standing witness at the passing of the maternal torch. I’ve never been more scared, more nervous, nor more honored than at that wake. I told family stories, made people laugh out loud, and honored Jill’s remarkable mother. It was by far the most important thing I did that entire year. I was weak-kneed with gratitude that I hadn’t blown it, that I had been able to honor Deen in a way that did the family proud. They will never know how terrified I was.
This is why Sonja asked me to help write her mother’s remembrance.
It is well nigh impossible to encapsulate an entire, 92-year, remarkable life in the space of a few pages or stories. The depth and breadth of a life is vastly more complex, detailed and full of richness. Sonja sent me some stories to work with, and I spent most of yesterday composing the piece for her. She and I worked on corrections as she sat in her mother’s room. Sonja has no children. The family line ends with her, just as mine does with me. We share this enormous sense of finality, as well as the acknowledgment that what our mothers gave us needs to continue as long as possible.
Which Sonja is doing, as am I, as is Jill. Each daughter in her own way is carrying the mother forward. This is how we honor their gifts. This is how we honor their lives.
These women became the rock for their mothers that their mothers had been for them. There is no more important job in the world than to do this for those who gave us life.
In a world where old women are shuttled off to rot in homes, Jill’s and Sonja’s devotion to their mothers, to be close at the end, is a statement of deep courage. As they became parents to the children their mothers become, they never left these aging women alone. Even though both were unresponsive at times, Jill and Sonja were present. The waiting is agony, and even when death is expected, the great finality of it is awful.
This is the hardest work of all. In a society that fears death above all things, worships youth above all else, a dying mother is proof positive that we face our turn someday. It is as much a testament to the character of the daughters as to the story of the mothers that I am given the gift to pen a remembrance, speak at a wake, and take part in an ancient ritual.
Dying is sacred. Honoring the dying is sacred work. Embracing what is natural, inevitable, and deeply distressing is part of what makes us achingly, richly human. In this way do we respect what we cannot control, make way for more life, and give back to Nature what is Hers. Honoring death is part of what helps us to live well, without fear, and with regard for the time we are given.
When Mother Nature takes our mothers back, She reminds us to live while we can, be grateful for the gifts we’re given, and to continue to fill our moments with as much gratitude and joy as possible. Our moms wouldn’t have it any other way.