A Mother’s Final Lesson

Mothers’ Day is one of my favorite holidays. It can be hard for those who didn’t have a mother or mother figure. It can be hard for those whose mother was not loving. It is hard for those of us whose mothers are gone. Nonetheless, it is a day to celebrate mothers and to be grateful if we were blessed with a loving mother. And it can be a time to pause and reflect on lessons learned.

Mind you, my mother and I did not have a perfect relationship. For example, she was a master of the Silent Treatment whenever she got upset with any of us. It would be most uncomfortable, especially when it went on for weeks.

I did learn a lot from my mother, especially about faith. But I also learned some things about facing death.

On December 7, 1994 my mother called from the hospital. She had been the primary caretaker of my father since his stroke earlier that year. My father was never an easy person to take care of so when she began to allude to stomach pain I was sure it was stress. So I wasn’t surprised when she said they had diagnosed an ulcer. But then she added “And a tumor”. My quick research into stomach cancer indicated it was usually diagnosed late and therefore did not have a good prognosis.

She was 81 at the time and chose to forego chemotherapy, a decision I supported. Not knowing how much longer she would last, I made plans to head back East, especially after a friend who’d lost a daughter to cancer said “Don’t wait too long.” Thus began her final lesson.

I had spent time with people facing terminal illnesses and had learned much from them. I wanted very much to be there when my mother passed. But she held on. Finally one evening it dawned on me. Very stoic, she was determined to face death alone. I asked her “You want to go it alone, don’t you?” Slowly she nodded and said “Yep.” I realized that she was the one doing the dying and so she was the one, not me, who had the right to make that decision.

The next day, however, she apparently rethought it. She called at 6AM saying “I think I’m going to beat this!” However, by the time I got to the hospital she had again lost ground. Thankfully her doctor showed up and reminded her that he was doing nothing to support fighting. After he left I asked my mother “Are you wanting to fight for yourself or for Dad and Rob (my brother) and me?” She immediately said “Why for you guys of course.” I challenged her. “Mom you’ve lived your whole life for others. For once I want you to make a decision for yourself.” She paused and thought then said “If it’s for me, then I’m ready to go.”

But she had one more card up her sleeve. The next day when I came in, she seemed surprised. “What are you doing still here?” she asked. She apparently thought it was Christmas. I looked at her and said “Mom are you trying to stay alive through Christmas?” “Why of course” she said. “I don’t want to spoil everyone’s Christmas.” I argued that I didn’t want her suffering any more. But my mother was stubborn.

My mother slipped into a coma on Christmas night. I called the hospital and had them tell her we’d had a good Christmas. She hung in there for one last visit with my father on the 28th then let go. She was ready to “go and see my girls”. I like to think she had a joyful reunion that day with the two sisters I never knew.

My mother took leave with stoic dignity. Out of love, she hung on for several days, a final act of self-sacrifice out of love. And most especially she took leave in faith, negotiating the time with her Lord so that her beloved children and grandchildren could celebrate Christmas and knowing that she would be reunited with long-gone loved ones.

Reflection: Do you have any particular lessons you’d like to share that you learned from your mother or mother-figure?



About richp45198

I am a clinical psychologist and have an abiding interest in matters spiritual.
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2 Responses to A Mother’s Final Lesson

  1. Heide Christine Patterson says:

    Thanks for sharing, Richard. It is beautiful. These are important moments. Christine


  2. SUSAN says:

    “Intense family conflict”. That is how my relationship with my mother was defined in the MMPI. Dr. Patterson taught me that, “It takes two to do those dances”. Through therapy I learned to stop doing the dance or at least resist it. I don’t believe my mother received much love growing up and what she did receive was very conditional. Before she died she was able to say to me, “Forgive me, I love you, goodbye” (I am paraphrasing). Her being able to do that was the equivalent of a paralyzed person walking for a few steps. I was not with her at the time of her death but the person who was with her told me that she made the sign of the cross before going into a coma. Deathbed conversion or the random action of a dying woman with dementia? I don’t know. I do remember another thing Dr. Patterson told me about that when I was young, “It’s never too late”.

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