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Elvis has left the building

My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2009. I started to lose her that year. This is the story of her passing. I am sharing it with you to help death and dying become more normal topics of conversation. We all grieve. Let's talk about it.

(Photo credit to Amber Place, memory care unit)

Mom loved Elvis music in her last few years. I don’t remember him being a particular favorite when she was younger, but we played it one day to ease her discomfort, and she enjoyed every song and sang along.

So, Elvis was played by her aides to help distract her for dressing and other annoying processes. Or to make her smile through a window during her last few months.

Mom passed in June of 2020. The year of Covid-19 or the Corona Virus. Mom got what we assume was the flu in February, I had a minor case in March, and then our state shut down, and nursing facilities were closed to all non-essential visitors. That meant us too. I visited with mom in February and then not again for weeks.

We were finally able to visit through a door in late March. They wheeled mom down to the entryway and placed her facing the glass door. I took the bench seat on the other side of the glass.

I took that seat with gratitude and sadness.

I spent my half hour getting mom’s attention on the other side of the glass. I played Elvis songs on my phone as loud as I could and danced. Anything to get her to open her eyes and smile. She swayed to the music and smiled when she saw me dancing like a drunk middle-aged mom. The aide tried to get her to respond and give me attention. She seemed sad for me that mom wasn’t responding much. I spoke loudly and told her not to worry. My expectations were low.

Over the next weeks, I tried to visit weekly, through any window they allowed. I asked my brother and aunt to join me every Friday that they could. We brought treats to the staff and shakes for mom. We wore our masks and socially distanced from each other during our visit. They would try to get her to respond and sing with limited success. One time we chatted through the window screen, and she reached out and deliberately turned the knob until the window closed on us. We laughed so hard at her ‘ending’ the conversation. That was our last window visit.

My brother called before our visit in late May. He said that mom was actively passing and was being moved to a private and quarantined room. We were allowed to visit in person as soon as she was moved. I stopped at the security check to answer health questions, have my temperature checked, get an orange dot sticker for my shirt, and a new blue mask. There were no visitors, just separated residents and staff – all with masks. I was directed to a separate wing and walked through taped plastic sheets to enter mom’s new room. She was lying there with eyes closed and her stuffed dog. She had lost a lot of weight. I pulled up a chair, took her hand, and cried. They had been a long time coming. I just sat there with her. I played some Elvis and then switched to Celtic hymns. I was hoping to ease her journey. I stayed for a few yours and then let myself out.

I went again the next day and took Paul’s offer of company. We were surprised to find mom alert, eyes open, and playing with her dog. She talked a little to us and drank some. I took a video as I was so shocked at her awareness. Over the next few days, I brought my homework and sat and listened to music with mom. She drank Pepsi with me and said “yummy” and “yes” she wanted more. Tom visited with me too, and he got her to agree that I was a troublemaker. We had another good laugh and called it a blessing. She did so well that they moved her back to her regular room. And our visits ended.

Two weeks later, we were told again that she was actively dying, and we were once again allowed in person. Tom came with me, and we saw that mom was significantly diminished. We hugged despite our safety protocols. We didn’t tell anyone. We went home to wait until the next day.

I got "the" call that mom had little time left. Tom was more than an hour away. I told Paul, and he wanted to go with me. “No, I am okay,” I told Jordan through tears. She offered to go with me, and I said, “No, I am okay. I’ll keep you posted.” I drove through a few tears and arrived at the same empty wards. I met with the social worker and the nurse, and they assured me that she had hours or days. Probably days. Mom was no longer there. She was gaunt, her mouth open, eyes glazed over and head back. Her breathing was regular but full of effort. She was comfortable and holding her stuffed bunny rabbit from Easter. I put Celtic hymns on then Josh Grobin. Again, hoping to ease her passing. I pulled down my mask to keep it dry from tears.

I remembered how important it was for my mom and her siblings to be there through my grandfather’s last breath. I felt that she would want me to do the same. I sat and held her hand. I told her that her mom and dad were waiting for her and that she didn’t know it, but her brother, Mick, and sister, Nancy, were there. What a party it would be. She would not be alone. I told her that Mike was there too and would greet her. And that she needed to give him a swift kick in the ass – but then tell him we were okay.

I told her that she was a good mom. That I knew she had done her best. That was true. And the first time I had ever told her. I had waited too long. I was ready when it was too late.

Josh Grobin came on with “You Raise Me,” and her breathing changed. It became harder and farther apart. I played it again, with a mix of guilt. Before the song ended, she took a breath, and I waited, and waited. And she didn't take another. I sat there for a long time. Then I cried. I walked out into the hall and flagged down a nurse through tears. She came quickly, and I said, “don’t hurry, I think…” She came in and confirmed. Yes, she was gone. She was surprised that she was gone so quickly. Then she blessed me with “What a gift. You must have given her what she needed, and she felt comfortable going with you. That is a beautiful thing.” Those were the best words.

Aunt Mary arrived and sat with mom and me. While Tom drove back, we participated in a ritual cleaning and blessing that helped us both. We waited for the funeral home from Jackson, 2 hours away. Paul came and hugged me in the parking lot. Covid rules limited us to 2 visitors in the room – so no groups. Tom arrived, and we traded places in mom’s room. It was like playing that plastic number game, move one out so another can go.

The funeral home guys showed up, and I told them who our mom was and that they had taken care of ALL of my family. “Take good care of her.” She went with her stuffed dog and bunny. I decided to play Elvis loud until she was safe in the vehicle. We blasted “Blue Suede Shoes.” Then they left. We hugged and went our separate ways.

I got into the car, and my phone synced as soon the engine started. Elvis’s “Angel in Disguise” started to play. I yelled, “Oh, hell no!” and turned it off. Then I hesitated and turned it back on. I cranked it. I put all of the windows down and drove through the retirement community on my way out. I drove by two older ladies that gave me such a look. I waved and laughed as I thought about what they must be thinking. Was I a 50-year-old whippersnapper?

“You look like an angel

Walk like an angel

Talk like an angel

But I got wise.”

Those were the right words for my last drive from mom. I got wise to her being human. No angel. No perfect loving, caring mom. No selfish, neglectful unfit mom. Just human. And I will continue to try and understand.

Love you, mom. You were a good mom. You did your best.

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