All goodbyes are difficult, but nothing compares to bidding a final farewell.
This past week my siblings and I said our last goodbyes to our mother, Anna Jean Nelson. She passed away at age 90 with my brother Les and my sister Jane at her side.
Mom had been in an assisted living facility for several years. After our father, Leonard, suddenly died of a heart attack in 1994, Mom continued to live on our dairy farm until her increasing frailty made it clear that she needed more help than our family could provide.
One of Mom’s greatest joys were her 13 grandchildren. She crafted customized quilts for each of them. When they were young, her grandkids were delighted to receive one of Mom’s magic pillows. She even made a magic pillow for me to keep in the car in case I got stranded in a blizzard.
Mom also took great pleasure in her great-grandchildren. Three of Mom’s granddaughters recently shared the news that they are expecting. By the end of this summer, Anna’s herd of great-grandchildren will have grown to 17.
Mom did her best to keep up with the family via modern technology. She was on Facebook and could do Facetime, although she was often flummoxed by the electronic gizmos. It wasn’t uncommon to receive a voicemail from Mom that contained nothing but background noise.
While Mom was never directly affected by the pandemic, Covid-19 certainly had a negative effect on her life. Her assisted living facility was put on lockdown for long periods of time. Phone calls and Facetime are nice, but they cannot replace seeing someone in person.
Over the past several years, Mom endured a series of urinary tract infections. She would be hospitalized and the family would be told that this was it, but she always somehow managed to rally.
Mom was dealt a devastating blow a couple of years ago when an infection settled into one of her artificial knee joints. She was told that her choices were amputation or near-certain death. She chose to fight. She chose life.
Mom later said to me, “They want to fit me with a prosthesis, but I think I’ll just wait it out.” This is an example of the tough-minded, no-nonsense attitude that enabled Mom and Dad to raise eight kids on a small dairy farm.
Mom came down with yet another UTI around Christmastime. But this one was different. We were told that her kidneys were failing and that she had stopped eating and drinking. The words “hospice care” became part of the texts that flew between my siblings and me.
My last visit with Mom was a few days before she passed. She was becoming less and less responsive, but she said my name when I entered her room.
I sat at her side and talked about my wife’s and my two sons and our new grandson. She smiled and commented on our grandbaby’s astonishingly blue eyes.
Then Mom said something that tore my heart out.
“Get me out of here,” she pleaded.
What could I do? How would one even begin to think about springing a 90-year-old, one-legged lady from a nursing facility in the dead of winter?
I told her that what she wanted wasn’t possible. She seemed to doze off, but then she awoke and again asked to me to get her out.
I instead tried my best to describe to her what it would be like go for a car ride next summer. We would look at the crops, checking to see if the neighbor’s corn rows were straight. There would be new-mown hay and we would roll down the windows and inhale the perfume of curing alfalfa. We would drive by our farm and inspect our Jersey steers, their doe-like eyes wide with curiosity.
Mom seemed to drift off to sleep. I didn’t know what else to do, so I held her hand. She began to cry. So did I.
About a month before she passed, I asked Mom what the favorite time of her life had been. I had assumed that it would be when we kids were young.
“My favorite time was when I was in college,” she said. “I was going to school and working and had my own car and my own money. Across the hall in the boardinghouse where I lived was a lady and her young daughter. They wouldn’t go to bed until they knew that I’d gotten home and was safe.”
That’s how I want to remember Mom: as a young woman with a world of possibilities and a slew of descendants yet in her future.
And now she’s home.