Tomorrow on July 17, 2021, it will be exactly 21 years exactly since my mother, Anita Wink, passed away after an over two-year ordeal with cancer.
Wow. Just to write that. 21 years ago. Just over two decades ago. If I wanted to be highfalutin and such, I would call it one score and one year ago, but I will refrain from doing that. Yes, I know it is too late to refrain from that, as you’ve already read this, but at least I mentioned that I will not frain again. Hopefully, that is some solace.
I can remember that night from so long ago like it was yesterday. She had been home having hospice care for about two months after being told she was terminal. Each day, she got a little bit weaker, a little bit closer to the inevitable. I know that one day I will die, but I can’t imagine knowing an approximate total of days that I would have left.
It is so incredibly hard now to go back to a time when she wasn’t sick. I hate remembering those last two years. Yet supersede so many other prior memories because of the dramatic stakes, the emotional roller coaster, the recoveries, the regressions. That she and my father didn’t end up complete gibbering and blubbering wrecks over the course of that time is rather remarkable.
21 years ago. Hard to believe that I’m remembering backwards to the year 2000. Once upon a time, 2000 seemed so futuristic and now, it is old hat. In 2000, I would have been working at the Oshkosh Mail Processing Plant on 2nd shift for the summer before going back to New Ulm for college. Sweating away on a truck dock, the smell of humidity affected cardboard everywhere.
Not that I could focus on work, mind you. Given the circumstances, I was just waiting for the call from home that I needed to get back right now. Each day was another day on tinder hooks, on egg shells. Every time a supervisor called me over, I anticipated the worst. While relieved that most of the time it was just direction for me to go over to another area of the dock that needed help or being told that I should go take my lunch, it just delayed the inevitable.
My mother for the most part was in good humor, despite the circumstance. My dad was home from work during that time. Her folks, my grandparents, came over to stay at the house through the course of this. The hospice nurses were aces. The pastoral visits were treasured. Even the church choir showed up at the house to sing hymns of comfort to her. My brother and I were working for the summer, but we were always hanging around the house when home. Family surrounded us. Her co-workers visited often.
She even asked about seeing some movies that I liked, that she had never thought about seeing before. My mother started my love of films, her favorites are my favorites to this day. I could watch The Bishop’s Wife, The Quiet Man, and Bringing up Baby every single day if I was ever given the choice. I never tire of any of those movies. I remember us watching Nosferatu on a crappy transferred cheapjack VHS I had, just because I was in a silent horror phase and wouldn’t shut up about it. I don’t know if she liked it, but at least she humored me.
My mother had humored me before about films. I remember that after a two-week high school trip to Germany, she had gotten me a welcome home gift. I said that I was only gone for two weeks, but that didn’t stop her. She had gotten me a brand-new tape of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. I was stunned. She said she asked my brother what I would have liked, he said that movie, and even though she was never going to watch it, she found the VHS for me. What other kid had a mom that encouraged their interest in Jason Voorhees, I ask you!
That reminds me: she once acquiesced to seeing the first Friday the 13th. She did have one stipulation: I had to tell her everyone that got killed. I tried to argue that ruined the suspense and surprise of the kills, but she had to know or no go. So, I listed all those killed. And we watched the movie which, given several rather naughty scenes of canoodling, is rather awkward indeed with your mom. But she did like the effects, Kevin Bacon’s demise especially was given high marks. Oh, but I didn’t tell her about Jason coming out of the water at the end and she wonderfully jumped! She was ticked I didn’t say anything, but I said, “You only wanted to know about the deaths! Jason didn’t kill anyone in that scene!” It didn’t placate her, but…it was worth it!
Back to the matter at hand, it is amazing when you are told that more than likely this is the day that someone you love is going to die. It was so matter-of-fact. She was not doing well over the past week or so. She was mostly unresponsive, slowly more and more comatose. Just hearing the measured breathing that became more and more labored. Also, there were random unconscious moans at times. Only she and the Lord knows what she was thinking about while in that state.
I couldn’t stay in the living room where she had been for the past few months. I did have a brief laugh when I realized she was dying in a living room. A room for living. As Shatner in Airplane II said, “Irony can be pretty ironic.” (Sorry, I had to break the mood a tad. I digress.)
My grandparents couldn’t and wouldn’t leave her bedside. My father either. But I had to get upstairs to my room. I had to go outside on the front porch. I had to get out. Frankly, I didn’t want my seeing her take her last breath in that state to be my final memory of her. There had been too many dark memories that have wedged into my brain already, I didn’t want that one too.
I’ve often wondered if that was selfish on my part. Perhaps. But as she was unresponsive over the past few days, no lucidity whatsoever, I could reconcile that. I did reconcile that. I had been home saying good bye over the past months. At that time, she was responsive, talkative, interactive. Now it was different. I didn’t need to be there right at that specific moment. I would just be one more person in a crowded room. I sat in my rocking chair upstairs and tried to finish the book that I was reading over the past few weeks. It was a Barnes & Noble collection of the complete Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories.
There were only a few adventures to go and the book would be done. Something in me wanted to finish that book that night. I don’t know why. I had never read Holmes before starting in with that complete volume. I had enjoyed it thoroughly as a pleasant distraction over those weeks. But the minutes kept on ticking and I kept on reading.
Then I finished the book. And not that much longer after that, I was told to come downstairs because it was all over. I didn’t need to, didn’t want to. I didn’t want my final view of her to be just this empty shell of what she once had been. However, my grandparents persisted and even suggested I give her a kiss on her head. I did it. I really didn’t want to do it, but I could see how affected my grandmother was, so I did it.
But she was not here to receive that kiss. She was gone to be with the Lord. I went over and saw that at least she was no longer suffering. My brother wanted nothing to do with seeing her at that moment, retreating to the front room and then the porch outside. I don’t blame him, I envy him for being able to miss that.
21 years later and I’m still standing in that living room. Not physically, but I’m there. I’m always there, remembering that moment. Every July since, that moment gives me pause. Hell, every time I think about her grandkids that she never saw, that moment gives me pause. Every time I know that she never met my wife. She never saw me or my brother graduate from college, which was her dream for her kids. She never saw me out in South Dakota or Michigan when I lived there or when I came back to Wisconsin. She never helped me move into or out of my apartments or my house. She never babysat or answered the myriad of questions I had about parenting.
One thing I know is that she could never see or appreciate when I was fortunate enough to receive Maureen O’Hara’s autograph after sending her a still from The Quiet Man. I remember sending Ms. O’Hara that still, which I procured from eBay. I even wrote her a personal letter to go along with the picture, telling her all about my mother and how much she loved that film. And knowing that a then-surviving, honest-to-goodness star from that movie read that letter over in Ireland still makes me smile.
21 years. They go fast, apparently. It has been half of my entire lifetime ago. When I take a step back, it is just incredible to conceive of that much time being gone. All I can do is be thankful for the time we had, thankful for the better memories that still linger, thankful for every opportunity that I can tell my wife and kids about the grandma they never knew.
And maybe, just maybe, one day I can share a mother’s love by giving my children their own copies of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. (Yes, it is that fun!)