Millie died. She’s my mom. She was my mom. It’s been less than a month so I’m still getting used to the past tense.
I wrote about her in the Tribune last September, telling some embarrassing things about her dementia, but also about what she had been like before she was sick, what a wonderful mom she had been, what fun she was, and how talented.
While I was waiting for the piece to appear, I was really nervous about what her friends would think, whether they would look at it as a betrayal. Some things aren’t meant to be talked about, especially that publicly.
But for days after the column appeared, my mailbox was graced with real letters with real stamps, and grandma-ish handwriting. I heard from lots of people, most of them friends of Millie. Several of the letters used the word “tribute.” They said my story had been a lovely tribute to my mom. I was amazed that no one said, “How dare you?”
A few of her friends called after she died, asking if I could read that Trib piece at Millie’s memorial service or hand out copies. No, I really couldn’t. Then on March 23, at the service, I couldn’t count how many more people mentioned the piece. So I guess I’m not in trouble, but I still have mixed feelings about telling the story of Millie’s final years.
It was pneumonia that got her in the end, that and me not letting them treat the pneumonia. She and I had a deal. She made me promise to look out for her, not prolonging a meaningless existence if that’s what she was ever left with. Neither she nor I ever dreamed that she would be left with years of meaningless existence, but that’s how it turned out, and there was nothing I could do.
I suppose our talk about such things came up in the first place because my grandma had a horrible end to her life, actually crying and saying she wished we could just shoot her with a gun. It was awful, but looking back it was nothing compared to what Millie went through. Millie wasn’t even well enough to cry or construct meaningful sentences at the end, not for a couple of years.
I don’t know what it’s going to take for us as a society to figure out some options for people at the end of their lives. My mom had a pretty great life, but any memory of it was all but obliterated by the last few years she had to endure. And for what?
Honestly, if pneumonia hadn’t intervened, she would still be here, sad, confused and unaware of who she is, who she loves, or who loves her. She would still be here, oblivious to acts of love showered on her by lifelong friends, oblivious to her only daughter’s successes and heartbreaks, oblivious to the knowledge that she even had a daughter.
She would still be here, unable to feed, clean or dress herself, wearing diapers, not knowing people who came to visit, not able to recognize herself in photos. We could have done several more years of that if the pneumonia hadn’t come.
If I could bottle that little pneumonia germ, I would be rich. I don’t know how many people are out there, going to sleep at night and waking up each morning praying for someone they love to die, but there are a lot. I’ve talked to a few of them. I’ve read essays from them in Time; I’ve heard them read their poetry on National Public Radio. Each of us finds our own way to cope.
The guy in Time said that whenever he looked into his mother’s face, deep inside his head he was screaming, imploring, “Die! Please die!” In the end, I did that, too. You see your shell of a loved one, you see their misery, you see them only suffer and never experience any joy, you look them in the eye, and you think to yourself, “What on earth are you waiting for, please just die.”
Lots of people are waiting for the flu, or pneumonia to come and free their loved one.
I’m so happy for Millie that she is finally finished with the last chapter of her life, the only bad chapter. People say that once your poor little person has died, you finally get them back. After years of witnessing the intense suffering, after advocating for them and mitigating everything that’s in your power to mitigate, after such a long period of time of looking at them through your own wince when you can look at all, when they finally, finally die, you get them back.
Unable to face all the thank-you notes I need to write, I took a nap on the couch, and Millie called me on the phone. She said the usual things she used to say, “Hi! How are you doing? What’s going on? How’s Chris? Let me take you to dinner.”
On the other end of the phone, I was thinking, “Don’t you know you’re dead? You can’t be calling me.” But there she was, chatting happily in a way I hadn’t experienced in years. I didn’t want to break the spell by telling her that she was dead.
In my dream I was looking all through the house for my husband, trying to find him so he could listen to her, too, but I didn’t get to him in time.
She said she’d call back, though.
Barb Guy is a community volunteer who writes occasional columns for The Tribune.