EVERY VISIT WITH MY MOM in her care center proves emotional for me. I always leave in tears. I cry at the gratitude I feel for seeing her one more time. I cry at the thought that this may be the last time I see her this side of heaven. I cry at her declining health. I cry at the time lost with her during the COVID-19 pandemic when care centers shuttered, and rightly so.
This last visit on July 3 was different, though. Not because I didn’t cry upon departure. I did. But rather, I was able to remove my face mask once inside Mom’s room (since I’m fully-vaccinated) and then hug and kiss her for the first time in 16 months. To do that brought me joy almost beyond words. There’s such healing power in touching someone you love. I can only imagine how Mom felt.
The moment Mom saw me as staff wheeled her into her room, her face lit up. I could see the light in her eyes, the smile hidden by her face mask. For her to recognize me as her eldest daughter started our 9 AM visit in a joyful way.
With our masks removed, I moved a folding chair close, then reached under Mom’s fleece throw to grasp her right hand. Mom pulled back, my hand too cold. Then I leaned in, kissed her forehead, wrapped my arms around her, careful not to displace the oxygen tubes which enable her to breathe.
Those first minutes together felt overwhelmingly emotional in the way that only a mother and daughter can respond to one another. This is the woman who loved and nurtured me, who raised me in the faith, who taught me that kindness and compassion and serving others are more important than prestige and wealth. What a blessing to be raised by her. I shall be forever grateful.
As I settled in for our visit, I pulled a stash of vintage photos from a cloth bag. I’d emailed the care center social worker in advance, asking what I could bring that would make Mom happy. Jessie suggested old photos. She was spot on. Mom reacted in such a positive way to photos of herself at age four, of her parents in 1956, of Dad (“That’s my husband,” Mom said), of my oldest brother and me as preschoolers… Mom identified family in the photos and smiled and talked. Our visits aren’t ususally this engaging. Typically I’m the one talking with minimal response from Mom. Clearly her memories of long ago are much stronger than recent and short-term memories. I promised to bring more old family photos next visit.
All too soon, our time together ended and I was hugging Mom goodbye, tears edging my eyes well before I exited her room. I expect by afternoon, she’d forgotten that Randy and I stopped by. But that’s OK. This isn’t about me. Rather, this is about my 89-year-old mother, who is in hospice. This is about her and her needs, about bringing her joy and love on a Saturday morning through hugs and kisses and a clutch of old family photos.
WE ARRIVED NEARLY A HALF HOUR early in the small southwestern Minnesota community. But I didn’t want to be late for my scheduled 10:30 am visit. So, after a brief tour around Belview and stopping for several photo ops, Randy pulled the van into the parking lot next to the low-slung building adjoining the city park.
I slid the back passenger side door open, camera secured over my shoulder, and grabbed a cloth tote bag from the seat. Inside I’d stashed several family photos, my bible, a devotional and two pictures colored by my nearly 5-year-old granddaughter. Randy eased out a vase of flowers secured in a bucket.
Then we headed across the parking lot on this Saturday morning in March, aiming west a short distance to the front entry. I looked for the doorbell I was told to ring. I pushed the button. We waited, the cold prairie wind sweeping around the care center. I shivered. Randy punched the button again. Peering through the double glass doors, I saw figures at the far end of the hallway. Soon a woman approached and invited us inside. I leaned into the heavy interior door, barely able to push its weight inward.
Once in the building, staff checked us in, took our temps, asked if we were experiencing any symptoms of illness. Apparently I didn’t answer. “If you were, you wouldn’t be here, right?” the young aide prompted. I nodded. Then I grabbed the goggles I was told to take and slipped them over my prescription eyeglasses with some hesitancy.
AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT
That’s when I saw her. My mom. Staff wheeling her across the carpet toward me. A short distance from her room to our designated meeting spot in the day room. In that moment, profound emotions overtook me and I cried. Not uncontrollable crying. But crying that represented a year of separation. One year had passed since I last saw Mom face-to-face. “Are you OK?” a staffer asked with concern.
I was. And I wasn’t. I understood that I needed to pull myself together, that this was not about me and how I felt, but about my mom. My arms ached to reach out and hug her, to hold her hand, to touch her and never let go. To kiss her cheeks.
Staff wheeled Mom to the end of a table in the day room. Randy and I were advised to keep a six-foot distance. We knew enough to keep our masks on. A screen provided some privacy. But I was cognizant of people occasionally moving on the other side. Yet, it really didn’t matter. I was here. In the same room with my sweet mom. Randy and I would have 15 minutes with her together before he had to leave and I could move into her room for a compassionate care visit. Mom is in hospice.
Mom’s health is such that conversation with her is one-sided. Us talking. Her listening, if she could hear us over the whir of her oxygen machine. Randy and I talked in raised voices. And when I showed her photos of my grandchildren, her great grandchildren, the skin around her eyes crinkled, indicating a smile beneath her face mask. There were more smiles and moments of connection, of understanding, of recognition. And those were enough to bring me joy. And her, too. I could see it in her reaction.
When Randy told Mom goodbye, she didn’t understand why he had to leave. Mercifully, her cognition and memory are such that she doesn’t comprehend COVID and all that entails, including the reason we haven’t seen her face-to-face in exactly one year.
CURIOUS GEORGE AND GOOD SAMARITANS AND A SMILEY FACE
We moved to her room, me carrying the vase of vivid flowers. Once there, I asked the aide to switch off the Curious George DVD playing on the TV. Mom was already fixated on the cartoon, which she loves. A stack of DVDs featuring the mischievous monkey rested on a table below the television and a stuffed animal Curious George sat on a recliner in the corner. I picked it up and gave it to her and Mom cuddled the monkey on her lap.
I looked around her room, bulletin boards crammed with family photos. I commented on the picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd that graced her bedroom wall on the farm. And I admired the bright over-sized smiley face posted on the bathroom door and felt gratitude to my aunt and uncle, who live just blocks away, for making this for Mom. Below, I saw a picture of a dog fish colored by my granddaughter in a rainbow of hues.
I talked with Mom about cream cheese roll-out cookies and my older brother sneaking ice cream from the freezer and eating it atop the haystack. She laughed. I talked about how she worked so hard to raise a family of six children and that now it was time for her to rest. Occasionally her eyes fluttered shut and I could tell she was growing tired. I continued to talk on other topics, although I’m uncertain how much she heard or comprehended. Yet, I have to think my mere presence, the sound of my voice, comforted her.
A staffer popped in for a moment, praising Mom for eating her pancake and drinking her juice and milk at breakfast. “Good job, Mom,” I said, feeling like I was the mom and she the child. And, in many ways, that would be accurate.
Soon the staffer returned and handed me a sheet of paper and said Mom might like it if I read some of the information thereon. My eyes landed on a story about Neil Sedaka, then quickly shifted to an article about National Good Samaritan Day on March 13. I scanned the piece, chose tidbits to share about the Good Samaritan parable from the bible. To show kindness. To help others. It seemed fitting for this day, in this small town care center where staff show great compassion. I will always feel grateful to the healthcare workers and other staff who have cared for my mom like a family member.
As time ticked toward 11:30 and lunch and the end of my hour-long allotted visit, I knew I needed to leave. “I have to go. Maybe next time I can take you outside so you can hear the birds, see the trees.” Mom smiled beneath her face mask. “I love you, Mom.” Tears brimmed.
“I love you,” she replied. Her words felt like a hug, a kiss. Bringing us together after a year of separation caused by a pandemic.
In the doorway I stopped, turned for one final look at Mom. “I love you,” I repeated, then crossed the lobby to the staffer monitoring the front door. “I’ll need you to sign out,” she said. By then I was already crying, barely able to find a pen to note my departure time. I thanked her, observed the compassion in her eyes.
Then I walked into the sunshine of an incredibly beautiful Saturday in March in southwestern Minnesota. I turned left toward the parking lot where Randy waited. I opened the van door, swung onto the seat, removed my face mask and then sobbed uncontrollably, shoulders heaving, face in my hands. Emotionally-exhausted.
Me with my mom during a January visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020 by Randy Helbling.
I STOOD BEFORE THE CARD RACK at the dollar store, pink cotton print mask covering my face, eyes scanning the choices before me. I filtered through a few Mother’s Day cards before choosing one for my eldest daughter and one for my mom.
It was an emotional moment for me as I selected the card to send to my mom, who lives in a senior care center 120 miles away in southwestern Minnesota. I last saw her on March 7, the weekend before Parkview closed to visitors to protect them from COVID-19.
Mom is on hospice, which makes a difficult situation even more emotionally challenging. How do you work through the guilt of not being there for your mom when she most needs family? How? The intellectual part of me understands the closure. The “I love my mom” side does not.
So I stood there, in front of that display rack of flowery cards with sweet messages, and considered that this could be the last time I would buy a Mother’s Day card for Mom. I wanted to rip off that mask and plop down on the floor and cry away my pain in heart-wrenching sobs. Because that’s how I felt. Overcome with sadness.
But, instead, I clutched my two cards and walked to the check-out lane, strips of orange tape marking social distancing lines on the worn carpet. I waited while the cashier scanned the biggest pile of merchandise I’ve ever seen a shopper purchase at a dollar store. I tried to be patient and wait my turn while an unmasked young woman edged closer to me, closer than my comfort level. It didn’t help that I’d just heard someone coughing repeatedly minutes earlier.
I recognize my heightened awareness created by COVID-19. I recognize, too, my heightened emotions. I considered for a moment just leaving the cards and walking out of the store. But I wanted, needed, to get the card for Mom without another visit to another store and more possible virus exposure.
So I refocused, wondering about that heap of merchandise the masked woman ahead of me was buying. Teacher, I thought to myself, then asked, “You must be buying for a bunch of kids?” Her answer surprised me. She was not. The goods were rewards for potty training. I nearly laughed aloud. Not because of the concept. But because of the sheer volume of rewards purchased for a preschooler who might just be smart enough to manipulate Mom.
Humor got me through that check-out line and out the door with a card for my mom and another for my daughter. Memories will carry me through this Mother’s Day as I think of Mom. Still here on this earth, yet so far away.
To all of you who have lost your moms, I am sorry. To those of you who still have your moms, cherish them. And to those of you who are mothers, like me, Happy Mother’s Day!