Five years ago, I was at work pulling together the first draft of a huge slide deck for our company’s annual talent review. My cell phone rang, and I saw a Thousand Oaks area code with a number I didn’t know. I immediately knew something was very, very wrong.
On the line was my Uncle Bob, who told me that my mom had been taken by ambulance to the hospital after she had been found unconscious by her sister that morning. I said, “It sounds like I need to get down there immediately,” and Uncle Bob said, “Yes, I think so.” I emailed my brother at his work, and my phone rang immediately. I told him what was happening, and then I called Mike at home and told him to get me on the first flight to Burbank that he could and that I’d be home as soon as I could to pack a bag.
I remember picking up that first draft of the slide deck and wandering the halls at work, looking for my colleague, Carol. When I found her, I said, “I’m sorry, this is a mess, but I have to go.” She took it, no questions asked, and said, “Go. Do what you need to do.”
In the meantime, Rob was on his way to TO and Mom. By the time I got the airport, he was at the hospital and had spoken to the doctors and my aunt and uncle. My mom had had a massive stroke in her sleep and was brain dead. They would keep her on the breathing machine until I got there, and we could make our final decision then. In the meantime, she was given Last Rites, and she was moved from the ER to ICU.
I remember nothing of the flight down, nor of my drive from the airport to the hospital, except that I was wound up tight, numb, and didn’t cry. I guess really I was just in shock. When I got to the hospital, Rob met me at the door and showed me the way to ICU, where Aunt Nancy and Uncle Bob were with my mom. I knew immediately that she was gone.
I think we shared some Mom stories for a short time, and Aunt Nancy told me that she and my mom had a mani-pedi date that morning. When Mom didn’t show and didn’t answer the phone, Aunt Nancy got concerned and went to the house to check on her. When she didn’t answer the door, my aunt got the “hidden” key (it seems like everyone knew the key was hidden in the backyard BBQ). My mom was in bed, gasping for air. Aunt Nancy called 911, and the fire department came. As they were leaving with my mom, the paramedic told my aunt it looked like my mom had had a massive stroke. He was right.
The afternoon before, my mom had been at my aunt’s house to play bridge with their friends. Everyone remembers her laughing and what a good time they had had. That evening, my brother and she talked by phone during his commute home. It looked like she had gone to bed, fallen asleep, and the stroke had happened sometime during the night.
It was, I guess, the way we all want to go, right? Peacefully, in our sleep, just don’t wake up.
After about an hour, my brother signed the paperwork to have the breathing machine turned off. And then we sat there as she stopped breathing and held her hands as she officially passed away.
Random memories come to me today, some triggered by pictures and some coming from my heart.
In the months before this, my mom and I had some intense conversations during our phone calls on my commutes home. Today I am so grateful for those conversations, because they allowed us to clear the air over things I did as a teenager that I had always felt guilty about. (Why do we waste so much time with guilt?) These conversations allowed us to become closer both as mother and daughter and as friends.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t come down at Christmas with my family like she had asked me. I was too focused on work, too stressed out, too overwhelmed to travel at the holidays. We made plans instead to visit over the girls’ midwinter break from school. Our tickets were for 10 days after she died. Everyone told me that she was so excited that we’d be coming down and that she’d get to see her granddaughters. I’m glad she knew we were coming … but gawd, I wish I hadn’t put my job and the stress I was feeling ahead of her request to come see her at Christmas.
My mom was the coolest person! She had such a sense of adventure, a carpe diem approach to new experiences, food, places, and people. As a young woman, she traveled throughout the west with a carload of her girlfriends. She met my dad on a chairlift while skiing “single” in Colorado. And you should have heard the story about when she snuck out of the family cabin at Lake Placid (where they spent summers), swam across the lake with some friends, and met up with some boys … and then got caught by her dad!
She loved wine, elegance, good food, playing bridge. She was a long-time member of the AAUW in Thousand Oaks, and a women’s investment group/club with some of her friends. She loved puns and bad jokes, with just a touch of naughty sometimes. She was a wonderful hostess, and even when it was “just family” over she made sure we had good food, good drink, and a great time.
She also had a crazy green thumb and had gorgeous orchids blooming constantly in her kitchen window. She traveled to Asia and Europe, and I joined her and my dad for three weeks in Spain one year and a week in Mexico another. On the trip to Spain we had a three-day layover in London, and when I—jet lagged and seriously off-kilter—got into a huge argument with some bus tour sales guy, with me yelling at him and stomping down the sidewalk and him following me, still trying to sell me the tour, she just stood there, waiting for me to rejoin her and my dad, laughing the whole time.
I remember how much my mom loved family too. She moved across the country with my dad when they were still relative newlyweds, and when her sister Nancy and her family moved from New York to California—and found a house just 10 minutes from us!—she was over the moon! She was so proud of her grandchildren from my brother and of all her nieces and nephews, and during our frequent phone calls I would always get updates on who was doing what from her. She was my fierce advocate when I went through an ugly divorce from my first husband, and she told me she was thrilled when I found Mike and “looked so happy.” And, when I had the girls? She told me that it gave her great joy to see me finally with a family, a nice home, and a really good guy for a husband.
In some ways, it seems like it was just yesterday that I called her almost every day on my way home from work. In other ways, it seems an eternity since I got to speak with her. I miss her every day. I try to bear in my mind the things she helped me see are what are really important—especially being a mom to those little girls of mine (who aren’t so little but will always be my babies) and appreciating family, friends, and time outdoors. I love you, Mom!