Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Passing In The Night

A woman died in the middle of the night.  This is nothing extraordinary.  It happens all the time.  But this passing was personal, for the woman in question was my mother.

Mary Alice King was, in so many ways, an ordinary woman, but in so many other ways, there was nothing ordinary about her.

It is somewhat of a miracle that she lived for eighty-five years.  She started out life in the small Midwestern town of Pekin, Illinois.  She was born in the middle of winter on January 28, nearly two months premature, along with a twin brother, Robert.  He was slightly over two pounds at birth; she was slightly under two.  In an era in which modern technology had yet to develop the kinds of remarkable machinery and techniques to sustain the life of a premature child so small, my mother's first days were spent in the slightly heated oven with a small bowl of water to keep she and her brother comfortable.

Both babies were fed from an eye dropper and both struggled mightily to live.  However, shortly after the first day of February, little Robert suffered a seizure and died in my grandmothers arms.  But my mother, apparently a very independent and strong-willed person from the very start, continued on.  She survived those early beginnings, of course, and went on to become a remarkably strong woman.

There are so many things that could be said at a time like this.  So many stories could be told about her like how much she loved to swim, how much music played a part in her life, how she had the ability to laugh at herself, never really taking herself too seriously.  She was a woman of great faith that I did not discover until the final years of her life, praying the rosary several times a day.  But the one thing that was most remarkable about her was her amazing strength.

My mother was a fiercely independent woman.  She faced life on her own terms.  She was, in many ways, a woman ahead of her time, although she would have never thought of herself in that way. She loved music and at an early age learned how to play the piano and other instruments.  There is a story that she used to tell about herself that is typical of the way she could laugh at herself.  As a little girl, she learned the piano.  The requisite recital came along and she proudly seated herself at the keyboard.  She began playing the tune and things were going just fine.  Her proud parents beamed in the audience.  However, when she neared the end of the piece, she forgot how to wrap it up!  She did not remember how it ended.  So, she simply began playing it over from the start.  When the audience realized this, they began to chuckle.  Her mother, my grandmother, was mortified.  She stepped up on the stage and quickly extracted my mother from the embarrassing moment.  As my mother told this story, she laughed and laughed.

She learned to swim at early age and it became a lifelong passion for her.  She became a lifeguard as a teenager and kept her certification up well into her 70's.  After she retired from the insurance company that she had worked for for over thirty years, she swam daily at her local YWCA.  She became such a regular, that the management asked her if she would like to teach young children how to swim..  My mother had never taught anyone formally anything.  But, like everything else she did in life, she agreed to do it and threw herself headlong into her new career.

She taught children from every background and age.  Some even had physical problems, but that didn't stop her.  She reveled in her new role and touched the lives of many, many children.  Four days a week, for some four to six hours each day, you could find her at the pool, teaching kids how to have fun in the water safely.  Finally, in her seventies, she decided that she was getting too old for this because she found herself getting tired more easily.  While she quit teaching, she continued to swim, this time for fun, on a nearly daily basis.

The greatest physical challenge of her life came in her later years.  A number of years ago, she began noticing that her vision didn't seem quite the way it should have been.  Once she described what was happening to her.  She felt like there was a smudge on her glasses that she couldn't wipe away.  This continued on for some months, growing worse with time.  Finally, she decided to have it checked out and was diagnosed with macular degeneration.  She was going blind.

But my mother, in typical fashion, was determined not to have something as insignificant as blindness hold her back.  She continued on with much difficulty.  She was a proud, independent woman, but the encroaching darkness began to rob her of that independence.  Slowly, but surely, the things she used to do on her own, things that were simple, ordinary tasks that were once easy, now became difficult.  Yet, she accepted very little help even though she could have used it.  Remarkably, she continued to drive, finally deciding that this wasn't too good of an idea when, on one dark, rainy evening, she found herself driving up on a sidewalk not far from home.  This is one of the only times I have ever seen my mother frightened.  One of the hardest things she had to do in the final years of her life was to give up driving.  Fortunately, however, she had a host of friends who pitched in and helped her with great generosity.

In 2005, she suffered a major hear attack.  She woke up on a Sunday morning, not feeling right.  She showered as she prepared for church and felt like her chest was terribly congested.  But, she passed it off as the early symptoms of the flu.  She went about her business throughout the day, feeling worse with each passing moment.  By Monday morning, the congestion in her chest had grown into a crushing sensation.  She could barely move out of her recliner due to shortness of breath.  She called her friend to come and take her to the hospital.  However, she was too weak to get to the car and so an ambulance was called.  It was discovered that one of the main blood vessels of the heart had been completely blocked.  It was amazing that she didn't die then.  With remarkable determination, she came back, never as strong as she was before the attack, but not slowed down much by any means.

In the last seven years, we watched as declining health began to take its toll.  She moved into an assisted care facility and after a period of adjustment, she to love the community and made many friends.  Her health continued to decline.  Finally, she came to a point where she could no longer take care of herself adequately.   The time that she had never wanted to come had arrived; moving into a nursing home.  Her health failed on numerous occasions and every time she rallied against all odds.  Until the latest event.

One week ago she was hospitalized because of shortness of breath.  She could not breathe without assistance.  She spent the last week of her life tied to a bi-pap machine, gasping for air every time it was removed.  She was miserable, yet she told us that she was going to get better and no one doubted that very much since she had defied the odds so many other times.  However, the shortness of breath and the strain that it put on her heart was too much and in the early morning hours of May 31, 2012, her heart gave out.

So now my mother is, at long last, at rest.  No more struggling to breathe.  No more depending on others to take care of her physical needs.  No more darkness of sight.  She has come into the Light and I am sure she is now using her musical talents to praise God along with the choirs of angels and heavenly host.

There is an emptiness in my heart but that emptiness is eclipsed by gratitude and love.  Like so many others, I never fully appreciated my mother until the last few years.  I had never seen her as the woman of strength and courage that she was.  She gave me many gifts, among them a sense of independence and determination.  She loved her family.  Her grandchildren meant everything to her.  In her last years, she took great joy in watching her great grandchildren grow.  She loved their visits and proudly displayed their pictures in her room at the nursing home.

Mary Alice King, my mother, will be missed.  She has gone to a place of peace and joy and no longer suffers the infirmities of a failing body.  The lessons she taught are invaluable.  But the thing she left us with was an incredible sense of love.  She was not demonstrative in her love, but you knew she loved.

I spent a few hours of what turned out to be the last day of her life with her.  She was miserable, constantly trying to adjust the mask to make it more comfortable.  The last thing I saw her eat was, fittingly, chocolate ice cream.  She had a sweet tooth as big as the Grand Canyon.  As the afternoon wore on, she grew more and more fatigued.  Finally, it was time to leave.  I kissed her good-bye and told her that I loved her.  I told her that I would talk to her later and as I started to leave, she said to me, "Tell Joan (my wife) hello and that I love her."  That was typical.  And these were the last words we ever exchanged.

My world will not be the same without my mother.  But her influence and love will never fade.  I am sad, but I am also grateful that she lived such a full life and now, she is with God at peace and in joy.  She was truly a remarkable woman.