Winter Solstice — My Mother’s Last Words to Me Before She Died

Tinka Falconer enjoys Nordstrom Cafe chicken and berry salad. Photo by BF Newhall.

A few months before she died, my mother celebrated my birthday with a chicken, berry and candied walnut salad at the Nordstrom Cafe. Photos by BF Newhall

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

Barbara Falconer Newhall and Tinka Falconer at Nordstrom Cafe, Stanford, for lunch. Photo by BF Newhall.

Yet another mother-daughter lunch.

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.

For example:

  • 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.

Read about the challenge of writing about my mother at “Write About My Aging Mother? I Don’t Think So” or about an early shopping trip with her at “My Mother’s Magical Babushka.”

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.



  1. Barb, I remember reading this last winter, but didn’t comment then. It made me tear up, reading it again. I like the place you’ve arrived at in thinking over those words.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Thank you, Laura. In the few minutes since I posted on your website, I ran upstairs, grabbed my ereader and downloaded your book, “Everything that Makes You Mom.” (Much as I love my book stores, ereaders are great — I can order and get the book while I’m still thinking about it. No need to put it on a to-do list and then lose the to-do list.) It will be interesting to see if your book helps me get my next book underway!

  2. Lovely piece, Barbara. Anyone who has/had a good relationship with her mother will recognize the love enveloped within it.

  3. Connie Dugger says:

    Barb, This is so beautiful and has opened the door for memories of my mom. Thank you.

  4. Linda Spencer says:

    Hi Barbara – this is very beautiful, and it made me teary. I do treasure the time I have with my 86-year old mother. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story!

  5. Katherine Philipp says:

    Good tears this morning. Thanks, Barbara for the memories. My mother died 2 years ago. After a series of medical issues over several months – hospital to rehab to hospital to rehab to hospital to rehab – it was apparent she wouldn’t get back to her apartment and she had moved to hospice a week earlier. She was growing disoriented and I asked her if she knew who I was. She looked me in the eye and said “Of course I do. You’re Katherine Philipp.” Not, “you’re my daughter” Not just “Katherine”, but my full name. That’s the last thing she said to me. Confident, self-assured, knowledgeable. That’s my mom. After a day of agitation and restlessness, the nurse gave her drugs to calm her and she died quietly in her sleep 2 days later. I wasn’t there when she died. You might like to know that I have a picture of her on the Great Wall in 1982 next to a picture of me in the same place taken this year.
    BTW – I hate the short days of winter – dark in the morning, dark in the evening. I get more SAD every year, but I love that Nordstrom salad!

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Katherine. What a great memory — your mother addressing you by your full name. Thanks for the comment. It’s so reassuring to hear that other people have had a similar experience.


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