My mother died three years ago this Christmas season. A friend remarked earlier this week that when her mother grew close to death, “There was nothing left but the love.” That’s how it feels to me. A version of this story first ran a year ago, on the second anniversary of my mother’s death.
By Barbara Falconer Newhall
My mother’s last words to me were nothing much. No parting words of love. No heartfelt messages to the grandchildren.
Two days before she died, as I was about to leave her hospital bedside, I told her I’d take her to lunch at our favorite lunch spot the following week. Her voice was weak, but she smiled gamely and retorted, “I’ll pay.”
A day later, on the night before she died, she lay in bed with her head propped up on pillows eating a little soup with help from a caregiver at her assisted living residence. When the caregiver left the room, my mother turned her head on her pillows and said, “Get me some water, would you, Barb?”
No please. No thank you. Just a matter-of-fact, “Get me some water, would you, Barb?”
In the two years since my mother’s death, I’ve often felt short-changed by our last moments together. My mother died a few days before the winter solstice. On December 21,2013, it will be the winter solstice again. The days have darkened and grown shorter, and I’m feeling that old sadness again, guilt even, that I failed to make our last days and hours together more meaningful and more profound for her – and for me.
And so, this afternoon, I took time out from Christmas shopping to have a memorial lunch in honor of my mother. I stopped in at the Nordstrom Café, our favorite spot, and ordered the
chicken salad with blue cheese, sugared walnuts and fresh berries, the salad my mother always ordered when we lunched here together.
Sitting there, with my mother’s blackberries and strawberries before me, I realized for the first time how much of my mother – and me – there actually was in those words, “I’ll pay.”
We had both laughed when she offered to pick up the check, because, as the elder in our twosome, that’s what she’d always done. We laughed at how predictable we were. We laughed at how much we relished being predictable.
My mother’s words, “I’ll pay,” reminded us both of the good times we’d had at our mother-daughter lunches over the years — no husbands, no brothers, just two pretty ladies out on the town.
- Hot fudge cream puffs with ice cream at Sanders in downtown Detroit when I was a little kid.
- A haircut for the teenaged me at Northland Shopping Center in the suburbs of Detroit – and a Maurice Salad upstairs at Hudson’s Department Store.
- Corned beef sandwiches at the deli in Birmingham, Michigan, between stops at the Village Store and Kay Baum’s to try on clothes (for me).
- And finally, when my mother was in her late 80s, a shopping expedition (for her) at the Stanford Shopping Center in a borrowed wheelchair, followed by lunch at the Nordstrom Café. Chicken with berries salad for my mother, the chicken with apple slices for me.
On the day she died, my mother was too weak to speak. And so, her matter-of-fact, “Get me some water, would you, Barb?” turned out to be the very last words I’d hear from her.
I’m thinking about those words today as I eat blackberries and walnuts in my mother’s honor. And I find that, in fact, I am satisfied with her words, with their familiarity, their straightforwardness, with the fact that no “please” was offered or expected.
Tucked away in my mother’s quiet request to me on the night before she died was a message as simple as it was profound: “You’re my daughter and I’m your mother and that’s that.”
Tomorrow the days will start to get longer again, and the sky will be a little less dark.
Note to readers: The deadline for my book, Wrestling With God, has been extended. In order to turn my full attention to getting it done, I’ll be reposting some earlier stories in the coming weeks.