A year ago yesterday, Papa Bear died in his home with all of us “kids” and his wife of 69 years, our mother, gathered around his bed. His cancer nibbled away at him slowly, then rushed in at the end and gobbled him up. We all watched it for five days make its final march, as Papa’s breathing slowed and his body curled up. The kids and Mama Bear, as well as other relatives who came to say goodbye, reminisced together, telling Dad-stories, sharing meals that one of us “girls” made, or we got take out that had just the right amount of grease or hot pepper to coat some of the grief.
Now one year later, Mama Bear is dying. It will be only hours or perhaps days now. But she’s been cheated. Mama is in a memory care home with the COVID restrictions we are all too familiar with. Ironically, because she is dying now, we get to see her in person rather than through a window pane, masked up and face shield in place. When it would have done some good for her condition, to hug her, kiss her, tell her in person how much we love her, we were shut out, the COVID restrictions slowly killing her, probably faster than her dementia and old age. It was sadness and confusion about her dementia that hurried Mama on the path to whatever it is that happens at death. Not being a religious person, I don’t believe in heaven, although I love the concept of pure peace and love and harp music. Telling Mom that she’ll be with Dad in heaven gives her peace. I hope. So that’s what I do.
Rarely in our lives do we have to say the painful words to another person that it’s okay to let go, that there is peace and no pain or scariness ahead. I said to Mama Bear that Dad misses her and now it’s time to be with him. And, bonus, she’ll see my sister Barb who died twenty years ago. She’ll be with Grampa and Gramma, her parents, and all of her brothers and sisters, who she outlived, all ten of them. She can do all the fun things she used to, like crafty projects with Barb, and RV trips with her brother and sister-in-law.
Last night I told Mama Bear the story of her life, alternatively using “Bob and MaryAnn” and Dad and Mom, as her eyes remained shut and her oxygen tank make a clinking, sighing noise. Her story is the one she told us all from diaper stage on up, and that Dad shared too, although he wasn’t as chatty as Mama. Even before she had dementia, Mama told the same stories over and over and over again. But no one ever said anything. We just listened and smiled. About a year ago I realized that these oft repeated stories were Mama’s way to pass the family history from one generation to the next.
Mama Bear is the family memory. Or she was, until dementia shook her memories up like dice in a Yahtzee cup and scattered them about her brain. My cousins love to visit with Mama because she tells them things about their deceased parents that they never heard before. I’ve watched my cousins’ faces when Mama would tell them these stories. They barely breath. Their faces take on a kind of joy because Mama’s story is a real and absolute link to their parents. Mama created that connection that brought their parents back to life for them, just for a brief time, as long as the story lasted. That is one of Mama’s great gifts.
Today I saw Mama Bear struggle to say something to me. No words really came out, her lips only moved slightly. But her eyes told me a story. That she loves me and she’s scared. She knows that it’s the end, and who wouldn’t be scared of that. Everything you’ve known is going away. Mama starts to shake a bit and grips my hand with a kind of strength that she didn’t have 20 years ago. But in these last hours all who she is and was is flowing into her hands. The hands that hugged us, that made Christmas cookies for days and days, that washed our hair and set it on Saturdays, that took our calls and loved everything we said no matter what it was. The voice that never criticized, that comforted and commiserated, that was LOVE itself. And to never hear that again. No, I don’t want this. How can this be? She’s the immortal Mama Bear.
I’m gulping tears, ugly crying for the most beautiful woman on earth. I know, her spirit remains in all that was, in all the kids and grandkids and great-grandkids that she and Papa created through their love. And let’s just say it, their lust too. They had six kids, Mama was jumping on Papa’s lap whenever she got the chance. They shocked my cousins by taking showers together “to save water.” Papa said it was “like at first sight and love five minutes later” about when he met Mama. A journalist had interviewed them about four years ago, after 65 years of marriage, and Papa said the line above after the reporter asked if he fell in love with Mama right away. Mama was shaking her head while Papa said it was the “thunderbolt” of love that struck. Mama was younger in age by a few years, as well as worldly-ness, or she would have probably realized that she was smitten from that first meeting, outside the beauty parlor (what they called them in 1950) where Mama worked, and Papa pulled up in a car with a mutual acquaintance. Papa had been around, in Europe at the end of WWII, a fatherless son who knew how to take care of himself. Mama Bear had grown up in the strife and desperation of dust-bowl Nebraska until her family drove away from it all in 1942 to a small town in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, to start over, to be able to breathe again.
Of course everyone’s parents die. And there is nothing to take away that emotional pain. Or that awful tightness in the throat when you’re trying so hard not to cry. But god-damnit, why did Mama Bear have to suffer like this, dying without all of her family gathered around, saying goodbye together, comforting one another, sharing the grief of all griefs. It’s not fair. She deserved better.
I join with everyone who has said that this has been a totally fucked twelve months. Now leave me to cry. I love you Mama Bear. Give Papa Bear a hug and kiss for us, and Barb too. No words, Mama. But yes, we have the stories. And we promise we’ll do our best to pass them on.
From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast
A beautifully written tribute of your Mom’s life. I always enjoyed visiting with both her and Bob on my trips to Oregon to visit Amber and Kyle. I so feel your pain regarding not being able to visit when our loved ones needed us the most. My sister passed in the hospital last September and a dear cousin at the end of December. May God give you and your family the strength and peace you need during this time. Love Janelle and Steve Shaffer.