My mother passed away today, May 7 2018 (as I start writing this, it may be a couple days by the time I get finished) at 1:58 PM – she was 85 years old. and while most of the world probably didn’t know her, who she was, what she did, the way she thought or the manner in which she did things…that’s ok. I did. Because she was more than just “Mom”; she was everything I needed – also a substitute Dad, a friend, a confidant, and a believer in me. She had been so happy when I decided on a whim to send her flowers for her birthday last month – she was tickled pink..”You’ve never sent me flowers before – they’re beautiful!” she told me that evening when I called to make sure she got them. I didn’t tell her that the reason I sent them was that I had had an uneasy feeling the week before her birthday that this would probably be my only chance to do it, and besides, eighty-five was one hell of a milestone…and because I want to tell this right, this could very well be the longest blog post I’ve ever done…
Jo Ann Kirkham was born Jo Ann Ruff in the area of Vanatta Ohio on April 9 1933. She grew up in the depression era, and had a huge family of brothers and sisters and half-brothers and half-sisters, not that she ever paid any attention to that “half” business, anyway. She considered all of them her family. Yet, near the end, the family was scattered here and there, mostly in Ohio but a few in Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts at different times, and she didn’t want ANY of them to know she was so sick. It was bad enough to her that I caught a plane last Tuesday and spent several days at her bedside. Most likely because of two things – one, because of the expense to me, but two, and more importantly, she probably realized it mean that she wasn’t going to recover. And she forbade me from telling ANY of them. I offered to call several who were close by and who would have been at her side, but she said no – I think she wanted nobody fussing around her while she was in hospice. Mom was always a self sufficient person, and she had her dignity. She had a falling out with one of her sisters a few years back; it was Mom’s unique perception that she was trying to “take over everything”. I knew better (still do), but…it was Mom’s wishes. And I felt I had to oblige her.
We hadn’t seen each other for years because it’s very tough for me to get from the Boston area to central Ohio, and she absolutely REFUSED to come back to see me if it meant flying – she did it once, in 1997, and while she had a grand time while here, and loved my wife Kim dearly, she had no other means to get here. But we talked on the telephone all the time, usually every week or so. For years I tried to get her to move to our area, and even offered to help her do so because we wanted to help her out, but she refused that as well – she wouldn’t even think of moving to Assisted Living, although after I really pressured her two years ago after another hospital stay and as did the VA doctors she saw on a regular basis, she did finally concede to having home helpers come in several times a week, and I will forever be grateful to them for helping her to get by these last few years.
Last Monday evening (4/30), just before 10 PM, the hospital in Lancaster called me – she’d been there since the previous Friday after a bad breathing spell and a mild heart attack, which they kept me informed of at least once a day since, and I had spent the day at home waiting for an earlier call having been told the doctor would indeed call me that day – the night doctor in attendance told me that she wasn’t going to make it through the night if they couldn’t get the bleeding issues she was suddenly having under control – her blood platelet count was extremely low and they were having trouble getting enough into her via transfusion – and that I needed to be there. So I went – I got no sleep the night before, spent packing and getting a plane ticket (and I HATE flying as much as she did), and then dealing with TSA and stuff at the airport at 5:30 AM the following morning, and when I landed, I took a taxi the 27 miles to Lancaster and went straight to the hospital. I was there just 12 hours after the call had been made. Mom was shocked to see me there, and didn’t think it was real for several hours. She was a sight, with a heavy breathing mask on, very weak from all the blood loss the night before, and we really didn’t get to talk much that first day – she was tired and in pain, and I was exhausted and terrified. It was a typical day in early May in central Ohio – breezy, warm (almost 90 degrees that first day) and thankfully, with no severe weather, which scared the dickens out of her regularly every Ohio spring and summer.
That afternoon, the day doctor asked to see me outside of Mom’s ICU cubicle – I refuse to call it a room, because it wasn’t one – and I complied. He told me the honest truth – that they could continue to treat her of course, but she was far more ill than she’d EVER let me know. She had severe emphysema (always referred to by her to me as “a little breathing problem” – I had known she was on oxygen at that point, but didn’t know the severity beyond a COPD diagnosis), she had a large mass that had been diagnosed two years earlier in her lymph nodes in her abdomen (which i also knew about and knew she had chosen to not pursue the matter, even though I had urged her to do so) that the doctor believed to be an advanced cancer of some sort, and she was dangerously thin, even for her, as she’d never weighed more than 110 pounds her entire life (the hospital had to correct their records on this because they thought she’d lost over 100 pounds in the past year; some ninny had put 95 KG instead of 95 LBS on her record during her last visit to the hospital). Mom was bruised all over from all the needles and bloodwork and was tired of getting pestered every half hour by the people taking care of her and of course she was letting them know it too, in her own sweet way. She had “Do Not Resuscitate” orders in place as well, and I had confirmed them with the doctor on the phone the previous evening, just in case it happened before I arrived. But the doctor clearly thought that she would not recover this time. He recommended that we move her to a local hospice, treat her symptoms, give her a place where she would be mostly comfortable and out of pain, and give her some dignity to go peacefully, likely in just a few more days. I agreed with him, but didn’t know how to talk to Mom about it, so he said he’d have someone come and speak with us the next day. That evening, I knew I had to try to figure out what I was going to do…and how to talk to Mom about it. I left the hospital with my full backpack and headed to Mom’s apartment about a mile away – it was hot, and I was exhausted, my shoes were killing me, and it was hot, but Lancaster has minimal transportation – not even Uber – so I walked it. As instructed by Mom, I told her neighbor lady who I was, and showed her my ID and she immediately got Mom’s keys and asked how she was doing. I let myself in to her tiny apartment – she had moved into this place about two years after I had moved to the Boston area from Lancaster – and sat down, thinking things through. This was not going to be easy…in more than one way…
Wednesday (5/2), I missed the East Main shuttle bus at its stop about three blocks from Mom’s apartment (i didn’t know where the stops were, as they had only done this shuttle for about a decade now). No longer burdened with my backpack of clothes and meds and my laptop, I set out on foot for the hospital again – it was morning, was fairly cool, and the walk was painful – I haven’t walked this much in YEARS – but I got there, and she looked a bit better. They’d taken her down to a much smaller mask, and we could now talk pretty freely; we could now understand each other. After i’d taken a quick break to grab a bite to eat (for the record, and no offense, but Fairfield Medical Center has the absolute WORST food I’ve ever had, a true example of the derogatory term “hospital food”) and returned to Mom’s tiny ICU cubicle, a young NP named Alicia came in to see her. She was super friendly and asked Mom a number of questions, then asked me “Do you need a cup of coffee?”, and offered to take me to get one, and I realized then that she was from the hospice on the eastern outskirts of Lancaster that Mom’s doctor had requested to come in and talk to us. We went and spoke in the visitors lounge down the hall, and we didn’t really have coffee (although she offered to buy me a soda, as I don’t drink coffee but I smiled and told her that was ok); instead, we talked about Mom. She was the person who discovered the weight error – she too had thought Mom had lost over a hundred pounds, and we both laughed at the error. Laughter led to me getting choked up and we talked a long time about what the hospice was, what their philosophies were, and why this was the right choice. She offered to bring up the subject for me, and when we went back, Mom was just having another bleeding incident, and needed to be cleaned up – Alicia told me to go out, get a soda, take a break, and come back when they were finished, and I agreed.
When I got back about 20 minutes later, Alicia was still there, talking to Mom, and brought up “what we talked about while you were out”. My mom, God love her, was her usual self, asking my permission, if it was the right thing to do. The three of us started talking, and we had a nice long talk. At some point, I mentioned something about Alicia being a “smart cookie” on the subject. She laughed and said “Chocolate Chip” with a grin. My mom, still feeling better but still out of it, said she liked those and started calling her “Chocolate Chip”, which Alicia thought was funny. Eventually, she agreed to go to The Pickering House later that day. But then, right as Alicia started to leave, she said “I can’t be out there long, though. I have to get back to my apartment. There’s things that need to be taken care of. And I can’t afford it for very long.” This after the long discussion that Medicare would be footing the bill not even ten minutes prior. I went out with Alicia and to the other nurse who had come down from the hospice and signed all the paperwork to have her admitted. When I came back in and sat down, she looked at me with that sharp look she always gave me. “So, explain this. I don’t get all this cookie business. What do Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter (my input) cookies have to do with me getting home? I have to take care of my bills. Julie (her VA financial adviser) is coming by, tomorrow is the third, right? She ALWAYS comes on the third. I’ll have to sign my checks for my bills. They won’t write themselves, you know.” I froze. And I came very close to breaking down. “Mom.” I explained, “Alicia is going to notify the VA, they’ll know where you are. They’ll take care of everything.” “Well, you’ll have to wait for Julie. Let her know i’m in the hospital. She’ll worry. She always does.” “OK, Mom. I’ll wait for Julie before I come up.” A couple more nurses came in and told her they were going to miss her, but let her know she was in for quite a treat – they told her that it was even better than being at a spa. She kind of liked that, i think. I left at 4:30 to catch the last shuttle bus home, and she was scheduled to be moved to The Pickering House at 5:30 that evening. I waited for the shuttle for nearly 25 minutes, but it never showed, it must have come right before I got downstairs – and they stopped running at 5 PM every afternoon (GOD I HATE LANCASTER’S TRANSPORTATION ISSUES!) so once again, on my sore feet and back, I hoofed it back to her apartment for the night. Later in the evening, I decided to walk up the block and go to Main Street Bistro – back in the day, it had been Mauger’s Seafood, one of the ritziest restaurants in town, and Mom had worked there as a prep cook for nearly 20 years. That was a huge mistake. The place was filled with older people, and the decor had changed, but it was still the same restaurant, and as I was picking at my fish and chips, I was getting more and more morose. I barely touched anything, I had no appetite, I was just out of it. I walked over to the nearby Duchess shoppe that hadn’t been there when I left town (there were three of them now – the only one that had been there before I left was on sixth street, where I had worked for nearly five years), picked up some candy bars and soda, and went back to the apartment. I called Shirley, her friend and one of her Home Helpers, whom I’d met and talked to when she came to visit Mom in ICU both days I was there, to let her know that Mom had been moved, and she said she’d be up every day to see her. Then I called The Pickering House and they said everything went smoothly with her move, that she was comfortable and that they couldn’t wait to meet me the following day; they had been told I would also be staying the next couple of nights so I could be with her. I finally figured out how to work her TV, and watched The Weather Channel to see if the storm front that was pounding the plains that evening would hit Ohio soon (it did, but none of the bad weather hit Lancaster – all we got was a couple of rain storms, thank you Lord for that, I appreciate it). Then I packed up my stuff and prepared to leave the following morning – I wasn’t going to wait for Julie, as Alicia had already assured me that the VA would be informed before Mom left the hospital, and she was correct on that.
Thursday (5/3), I tidied up the apartment a bit, and grabbed a few of the envelopes on the table that I knew I would need to have for me to get everything together, and finally managed to grab a shuttle. As we tooled around Lancaster, I got to see parts of the city I hadn’t seen even when I lived there, and also what I had known, and how much the city had changed. The nice lady who drove the shuttle took me out to Sells Road, and offered to go ahead and drive me up the hill, even though it was off the route – the stop was down at the bottom of the hill. I stepped off the shuttle, registered with the desk, and the next two days were spent entirely at The Pickering House. The staff of wonderful people gathered around me, asking what they could do for Mom, and also for me – family care is included there. Their entire goal was to make sure everything was comfortable and as happy as possible. Shortly after I arrived, they shooed me out of the room so Mom could have a “spa day” – they did her hair up, gave her a massage with oils (which I think was also a thorough cleaning, as she had been having more issues with bleeding that night), and no doubt talked about things with the ladies taking care of her. When I came back to the room 45 minutes later, after walking around the beautiful grounds of the place and grabbing bite to eat, she looked much better than she had just an hour earlier. Her arms were still horribly bruised from all the needles and such during the hospital stay, but she looked happy; she had a big smile on her face, and was joking around with them, her hair done up nice. It was really sweet. Then the chaplain came by, just to introduce himself – Mom had asked for no formal visits while she was there, I don’t really understand why. His first name was Kermit, “like the frog”, he told her. My mother grimaced. “Oh I’m SORRY. What possessed your mother do that to you?” I nearly died of amused embarassment. He laughed and explained that he had the name BEFORE the famous frog of the same name (I didn’t dare make a “Kermit bitchface” as Kim and I –and most of the internet – call it right then). He told her he was educated in the Methodist doctrine if she needed something (we had joined the Methodist church during my high school days), said a quick prayer, then left. I met all the wonderful people who work there, and unfortunately I don’t remember all the names, but I do some of them. I met one of the social workers – I believe her name was Star – when I was outside while she was having her spa treatment. The other two were Kristin and Kim, and both were of enormous help to both Mom and myself. Kristin arranged a “pining” ceremony for her military service, and she was blown away, as the whole staff gathered to tell her Thank You For Her Service (Mom served in what was then known as the Army WACs during the Korean war). And everyone wanted to find out all about her. Kim especially helped me out – helping me to arrange for cremation (another thing Mom insisted on – she had decided several years ago that she was terrified of being buried in the ground), and also helping me with transportation arrangements – if getting around Lancaster was difficult, then getting out of Lancaster without owning a car seemed to be practically impossible. She had a breathing treatment every three or four hours, and they also gave her mild painkillers that helped her breathe with less pain. We talked a lot about various things, but she still refused to acknowledge that she wasn’t going to be going home from the hospice. “I can’t be pampered forever you know…”. The next two days were a whirlwind as many of her friends came by, all of whom were from either her VA team or her Home Helper team. Shirley was there every day – they had become great friends – Mom had been tickled pink to have Shirley on her Home Helper team, as she was also elderly, but much more active than Mom was for many years, and they had hit it off well. Nina came by on Thursday as well, and also came by on Friday with her adorable little daughter in tow and a Wendy’s Frosty in hand for Mom, who loved every second of it – she had always loved them. Jen and Melissa also came by on Friday, and she talked to Julie on my cell phone too. All the people taking care of her thought she was great – Heidi and Mitch were her nurses the first two days, then Chris and Shonda on Friday and Saturday…and there were plenty of others too, I’m so sorry I don’t remember the names. I slept in the large reclining couch in Mom’s room both nights – they offered a roll away bed, but the couch was fine after I put a pillow under my knees.
She was tiring considerably on Friday, and before he left, Mitch opened her window – she had a splendid view of the little park around the back of the building, where she could see deer go by every now and then, and birds coming in and out of the bird feeder (there was one of these feeders outside EVERY window, which is just awesome). Late in the morning, sensing the cool air from outside, Chester made his first appearance; Chester is a stunningly handsome all-black cat who lives at the hospice. Mitch told us as he was getting off duty that he was there because of the outside air – he stayed indoors all the time, and loved chances to get the outside air without actually having to go outside. He lay down on the window sill, and I thought Mom would freak out – she’s always been superstitious about black cats – but she didn’t. In fact, she seemed quite fond of him, talking to him and to me as the cool breeze blew in the window. After her afternoon breathing treatment, she seemed very tired – Nina and Shirley had come and gone, and I asked her if she’d like to listen to some music, and she said that was fine. I pulled up my Spotify account on my phone, and after a little instrumental stuff didn’t strike her fancy, I put on one of her favorites, The Carpenters. All their hits, she remembered all of them, we talked about several of them as they played softly in the background. Shirley had brought up that I was leaving on Saturday – I had no more time I could spare from work – and I sat down in the rocker next to her bed and held her hand. I put my MP3 recorder on and we talked a little bit, but I didn’t want her to know I was recording, as I knew she’d get pissed – she always hated being recorded. I rubbed some body cream on her arms, as I knew they had hurt – both Shirley and Melissa had already done so that afternoon, but she wanted some more. Afterward, we said that we had always loved each other through everything that had happened – every crazy fight when we were both younger and all of which was long water under the bridge – and that we always would. She told me she was surprised that I was there at all…she knew I probably couldn’t afford it. But she also told me she was very happy I came, so that made the whole trip worth it for me. And she knew I had to leave and understood. I let her nap for a while, and talked to Kristin and Kim, both of whom assured me that she knew she wasn’t long to live, but was in denial, probably to try and spare me. As we went to bed that evening, Mom tucked in her bed, and me on the recliner, I told her I wanted to tell her something, a story about a movie both my wife Kim and love. And being a movie person, seemed to be natural to use it as an allegory:
“Mom, I want to tell you a story. It’s about a movie that Kim and I love. It’s this mystery noir film, like the ones you like with Bogie, but it’s set in high school. It’s called ‘Brick’. At the end of the movie, after all the baddies have been dispatched and the hero, his name is Brendan, is pulling things back together, his friend Brain asked him if he was ok. Brendan wasn’t much for words – you know movies like this, they’re not known for real romances…anyway, Brendan looks over his shoulder at Brain, and says a short sentence to him. One that said it all. He looks back at Brain, and then turns back the other way and says over his shoulder, ‘You did good, Brain. Go sleep.’ It was his way of saying everything was going to be ok. You know?”
Mom thought about it for a couple seconds – and then I saw her eyes connect with mine…then a wisp of a smile crossed her face, and a tear or two seemed to come to her twinkling eyes, as she fell asleep for the night. And I knew…I understood. She got what I was trying to tell her. And that everything would be ok once I left. I got up and left the room for a few minutes just to get myself under control, and then I went back and went to sleep.
Saturday, I had breakfast with Mom and we chatted for a few minutes, and she said she was ok, with me leaving at least, and that she was really, really glad I had come to be there with her. After receiving assurances that someone would be with Mom at the end – a No One Dies Alone (NODA) volunteer – I got a call from my cab, and I said a hasty goodbye – he was 30 minutes early – and hugged her. “Woah, you gots whiskers. you need to shave!” She chuckled and said “Love you, honey.” and I told her I loved her too, and ran out the door. My cab was nowhere in sight, a sign that my trip home was going to be even more hell than I thought – I had opted to take a cab to Columbus, a bus to Toledo, and then the Amtrak back to Boston. DAMN, by three hours later I was wishing I had flown home too. Or stayed an extra day or two. More on this trip home later this week.
Shonda called on Monday to let me know that Mom passed at 1:58 PM (but you already know that, as I opened with that above, didn’t I?). And now I’ve taken two weeks off work, to deal with issues that need dealt with and to do my own scheduled medical treatments next week. My mom was something truly special, although we rarely really mentioned it. We had weathered the storms of life together or by telephone, and had built up a strong bond. Mom had kept things from me out of not allowing me to worry about her, but I did. That’s what a son does. I don’t know why she spurned family in the last years, nor do I know why she seemed to have turned on her faith as well, but I know that she was comfortable in her final few days, knew that she was loved by the friends around her, and knew that she loved me as much if not more than I loved her. I will miss her forever…and so will all that knew her…
“You Did Good,
Brain Mom. Go Sleep.”
Music and Lyrics by Toni Tennille
Life was always easy for me
Just because i knew that you were there
And even though the world fell down around me
I knew you would always care
And even though
I know you had to go
I’m strong enough to make it
Just because you love me so
Love survives in a song and a memory
Love survives, though everything else has gone
In the darkest night
There will always be a light
Love will survive
And even though the world fell down around me
I knew you would always care
You’ll always be
A living part of me
The love we shared together
Is the love that sets me free
Love survives in a song and a memory
Love survives, though everything else has gone
In the darkest night
There will always be a light
Love will survive
Thank you to my wife Kim, without whose phone calls I couldn’t have gotten through this, and to all my friends and family here and abroad, to the wonderful ladies from the VA – Melissa, Jen, Julie, and Nina, to Shirley and the other lady from Home Helpers (sorry i’ve forgotten the name as we met only briefly Saturday morning), and to the incredible, wonderful staff at The Pickering House in Lancaster – I could never do what you do every day, you have my amazing respect, and I am eternally grateful to you for all that you have done for me this past week.
TC Kirkham, sole son of Jo Ann Kirkham…and damn proud to be so, too…
Also published on Medium.