Today is the anniversary of my mother’s death. It was on October 10, 2004, that she passed away from emphysema. You know, as a mother, I don’t fear dying, but I do fear leaving my children, not being able to be there for them when they need me. I have this idea that when life breaks their hearts, I need to be there for them. I have this idea that I can give them a hug and it will make them feel better. As they grow up, I am actually discovering that I don’t have that magic power anymore. Shockingly, when they are sad they may even want me to leave them alone. And I guess this is right, whether I like it or not.
One thing I was always aware of, after Michaela was kidnapped, was that my mother suffered a double burden. She had her own deep grief over what had happened to Michaela, and on top of that she suffered because her daughter’s heart was broken as well. The day of Michaela’s kidnapping she came to my house and went home that night. What an awful night it was, though, and she returned the next morning and stayed for weeks, sleeping on my couch with broken springs. She was waiting with us for Michaela to come home, but she was there also because she wanted to try to keep me from having to endure another night like that first awful, horrible, terrible night.
In her last years, when she knew that she wouldn’t be with me for much longer, she actually had the same concerns for me that I have for my children. She really wanted me to find another mother figure in my life. But that’s just silly. That’s just impossible. There are people in my life who love me, but the difference between the way they love me and the way my mother loved me is that my mother is probably the only person in whose life and heart I came first. Cause that’s the way it is, isn’t it? I know that deeply now that I no longer have that in my life.
Gosh, I just don’t know why I am having such a difficult time putting what I mean to say into words. A few years ago, I broke my ankle, and it required surgery to put in a metal plate. I was really out of commission for ten weeks. I was unable to put any weight at all on that foot, and I wasn’t able to be up for long periods of time because when my ankle wasn’t elevated it would swell uncomfortably within the cast. I was stuck at home and not able to do a lot without much difficulty. So my family, who was used to having me do for them, suddenly had to do for me. They rose in varying degrees to the challenge, but in varying degrees I also really felt that they didn’t want to be having to do these things for me. I was a kind of a bother, you know. I remember one day sitting in the bathroom crying over this, but what I was really crying for was my mother. I felt like a burden to my family, and I felt as though that burden was unwelcome. I didn’t even want to ask for anything from them anymore. And my heart went out to my mother, and I couldn’t help wonder if she had sat and wept like that. She’d never been a complainer. How many things had she longed for help with? How many ways had I let her down?
I really look back on those last years with my mother as absolutely the most precious in my life. I have this deep love for the elderly, because when I see them I see my mother, and I have to restrain myself to keep from reaching out and hugging them. I have said to people who are caring for their ill or elderly parents, treasure this time and do everything you can for them. When you think you can’t do it one more time, when you think you can’t give one more minute, when the very thought that this is an imposition even dares to cross your mind, shake it off. The time you have to do this is brief, and you will not get a second chance to make up for what you didn’t do. So pour your heart into it, do it with love and treat your parents as though they are the most important thing to you, treat them as though caring for them is as much of a joy and delight to you as caring for you was to them. Just love them, freely and fully, as they have loved you. Love them joyfully, so that you will bring joy to their lives. They are not a burden. They are a gift. Let them know that always!
I really thought my mother would live forever. She’d survived a couple of crises I’d thought she wouldn’t, pneumonia and a fall which had resulted in a cracked rib and punctured lung — both considerably dangerous for someone with advanced emphysema. I had asked her doctor several times how long she had to live, and had not received an answer. On her last visit to her pulmonary specialist, he said, “Okay, that’s fine. We don’t need to see you again for six months.” She’d thought that was good, that it meant she was doing well. In fact, she died just a couple of weeks later. At her last hospitalization, that doctor told me that her lung function had been negligible at that visit. After she had been admitted to the hospital with an oxygen level in the 70’s he thought it over and said that if I wanted him to he would sign a family leave authorization for me. There is a provision, at least in California, which allows you to take a leave from work to care for an ill or disabled parent or family member. And how I wish I’d been able to do that. How I wish that the doctor had leveled with me. It is true, there are things we cannot do forever, there are things in our life we can’t bring to a grinding halt for an extended period of time. But when the time left is short, we can do anything. We can drop everything. I’d had a difficult time trying to force the doctors to tell me how much longer my mother had to live, because I felt guilty even suggesting that she was going to die at all. So let me make this just one more thing in my life that the rest of the world can learn from. Corner those doctors. Make them be honest with you. And do everything you can for your parents, or for your husband or wife, your brother or sister or aunt or uncle, or whoever it is who loves you, who needs you. When you give your heart away, you always get it back bigger and better.
My mother’s death was peaceful. She had worried, and so had I, about what it would be like to die from emphysema. We had both had fearful visions of her gasping for air like a fish out of water. But I’d worked with a woman whose mother had died from emphysema and I’d asked her what it was like. “It was very peaceful,” she’d said. “She just got more and more tired until one day she was too tired to get up. We took her to the hospital, and she died three days later.” And I have to tell you, that is exactly what happened to my mother. She was in the hospital for two days, during which I sat by her bedside, holding her hand and watering it with my tears. I’m sure that was not helpful for her. She was unconscious for the most part, waking only a few times. I asked her, “are you going to get better?” I wanted her to tell me that she was not going to live. I wanted to be able to say goodbye, to release her, but she wanted to make me feel better, so she said yes, she was going to get better. She woke another time and started to try to say something, but turned her attention instead to my children, who had come to visit, to smile at them and hold their hands. As time went by, she had been breathing through her mouth for a couple of days without being able to take in any liquids, and I knew that had to be uncomfortable. Her general practioner had been in that morning, and he’d said she didn’t have long, that the way she was breathing indicated that her organs were shutting down.
Me sitting by her bedside crying had probably not been very helpful. I knew how concerned she was to be leaving me. Finally, I took her hand and wept more tears on it, but I told her, “I don’t want you to suffer anymore. It’s okay for you to go now. You don’t have to worry about me, because I will always have you with me in my heart.” Less than five minutes later I looked up. There had been a change in the room, and I realized it had become silent. My mother’s labored breathing had stopped. She was gone.
When I told the nurse, she asked me if I wanted to go back in and sit with my mother. I didn’t know anything about this, but I said yes. My husband and my children were not there at the time, but I called them and they came, and we all sat there with my mother. It was amazing, because in those minutes after she died, she became perfect. She’d always been beautiful, but every imperfection left her skin and she became even more beautiful than she’d been in life. I thought that was symbolic, leaving the imperfections of this life for the perfection of her new life.
I’d thought it would be easy losing my mother compared to losing my daughter. I’d thought the grief would be nothing like it. But I was wrong. The morning after my mother died, I woke myself sobbing in my sleep, and when I became conscious, the sobbing got worse. You just cannot quantify loss. You can’t say “I miss this, or I miss that,” or say that it hurts for this reason or that reason. It just hurts.
In accordance with her wishes, my mother was cremated. We didn’t have a memorial service. I don’t know how people can handle all that formality in the midst of that kind of grief. I could barely get myself up, and I really didn’t want to see a lot of people. I wanted to be alone to grieve. After a few days, the Neptune Society returned her ashes to me in a golden box. I made a reservation for their boat for November 19th of that year, which was the 16th anniversary of Michaela’s kidnapping. Our immediate family went out on that day and scattered my mother’s ashes just outside the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. We each threw a bouquet of flowers into the water for my mother, and a bouquet for Michaela. This was Before Hope. My mother had believed that when she died, she would probably be reunited with Michaela. I had told her, “If you see Michaela, will you tell her that I love her?” And she had said, “Yes, I will. I will tell her.” I think sometimes that it would have been sad for my mother if Michaela had not been there. I think also that it will be sad for Michaela if she comes home and finds that her Nana is gone.
I have been to a lot of funerals. When my daughter was a freshman in high school, I went to the funeral of a friend of hers from school, who had died when she was hit by a train. I’d engaged in some pretty heavy duty crying during the service, but at the graveyard I just simply lost it. There was the casket holding this young girl, and there was the hole dug in the ground, and here the service was ending and we were just going to leave her there, and that was just too much for me. I seriously wept hysterically and uncontrollably. And did I mention that I’d never even met this girl? By comparison, going out and scattering my mother’s ashes was almost a joyful release. It was beautiful. But there are times I question whether I should have done that. I live on a hill, and when it is very clear outside, I can see the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge from my window. But I can also see when it is cold and stormy at the Golden Gate, and that makes me sad somehow, even though I know that my mother is not there.
If my mother had a grave, I would take flowers there on this day. But she doesn’t. Yet I can’t just let the day pass. What do you do with these days, these sad anniversaries, of deaths, of kidnappings, of birthdays for those who are not there to celebrate? What do you do? I’ve had almost 21 years of trying to figure that out just for my daughter. And I’ll tell you, this is what I do. I write about them. I create what I hope will be a bouquet of words for them, and I toss it in the ocean of the internet. I remember them out loud, and I bring them to life in the minds and hearts of others. That is all I can do.
I love you, Mama. I miss you. As I promised, I carry you in my heart always. I carry your love and faith and all you have given me, and that is good. And yet in the end, it only makes me miss you more.