If you read about Donald, my stepdad, then you know a bit about my Mom. Her birthday was August 26, every year!
She was the baby of three in her family, a family with some daring stories.
Mom threw a knife at her sister, when they were in a climbing tree. It just grazed the side of her sister’s eye. Her brother tied their Mom to her chair with her apron strings, while home from school for lunch. When the three of them returned home after school, that day, she was still tied. Someone stretched a bicycle inner tube between the sidewalk gate posts at night and a sister returning from a date, was tripped and face planted on the sidewalk with a mild concussion. While doing dishes after supper one evening, a fight ensued and a cast iron pan of gravy was heaved across the kitchen. Their dad planted saltine crackers on the stairway when they were late for curfew.
Nothing like any of these episodes would have ever occurred at my house, growing up.
Gilberta’s parents, after living years in Atlanta, Illinois, decided to run a boarding house in Chicago. And they decided to do this while she was still in high school and they let or left her to rent a room in a local house, to finish her schooling. According to one of her best school and lifelong friends, she ended up renting a room in two different houses before graduating high school.
She dated my Dad, who lived on a tenant farm south of town, near Lazy Row Rd. They married on June 11, 1948. He wore a black suit. She wore a grey suit. It was at the Methodist parsonage with a reception at a farm house on the edge of town.
For a girl who went from school to wife, as was expected, she had an independent side and a nurturing side. The nurturing side was most evident when someone was sick or dying. It wasn’t very evident during the regular days. What I am saying is she was a great nurse without being taught “how to nurse”. Her grandmother suffered a stroke and was confined to a bed or wheelchair, the old cane woven wheel chairs, for several years. She had no speech left, but worked hard to be understood and Gilberta was her caregiver – the one and only. Later her own Mother suffered a stroke and although living at her sister’s house at that time, I think my Mom helped as much as she could. I like to think so anyway.
Mom was great when we kids were sick with the measles, mumps, chicken pox, tonsillitis, etc. My sister had rheumatic fever one year at Christmas. They thought she might die. I thought it was shitty timing, since our Christmas was put on hold.
Gilberta nursed her husband, our Dad, through his cancer and death, when he was a young family man of 45/46. I had no idea how she did it, until she came to my house to live, when she had cancer. I am NO nurse. Everyone will tell you so. I did what I thought was right, but the burden was carried best by my daughter, a licensed LPN, and my daughter-in-law, the most caring nurse I have ever known and a hospice nurse by trade. The biggest mistake I made was in my thinking. I forgot that she came to my house to “live”, not to die. I could have done better. It has been a hard lesson.
When Mom was diagnosed with cancer, Donald wanted no part in making the hard decisions and was glad to have me handle what was necessary. My siblings all lived in other states and they were also glad to let me handle the issues. They helped when they could. They stayed in close touch with Mom. Finally the time came for her to leave her house. Gilberta Young was extremely stubborn, and never prone to change her mind. She had made up her mind that cigarettes did NOT cause my Dad’s cancer, or hers, for sure. Regardless of the fact he gave them up when he was diagnosed, she continued to smoke “as was her right”. If you said that cigarettes were no longer allowed someplace, then she didn’t go to that place.
I had been a smoker for years and I know now, that she considered that a “bond” of sorts. When no one else smoked, we did. However, when I began to approach my early 40’s and realized how terribly young my Dad was when he died, I thought if I didn’t quit smoking, I could likely die young too. I loved smoking and I QUIT. It didn’t make my Mom too happy.
We were never close and this drove us a little farther apart. She favored my brother – “boys are easier to raise”, she said often and in front of her girls. She favored my next-in-line sister, named for my Dad, and everyone always babies the last. I had been raised to “raise” the next three. When the youngest went to school, my Mom went to work full time. She was HUGE on lists and there was one almost every day from that point forward – things to be done before she got home from work and who was responsible for doing those things and I was responsible for seeing that her list was carried out, every school day and every summer day. No extra-curricular activities for me, no paying summer jobs for me, my job year round was the “daily list”. Nine months of the year my list started with getting three kids up and off to school and continued after school with the chores on the list. During summer, we had lists that included laundry, house cleaning, preparing suppers and having coffee ready when they got home from work and overseeing three restless and uncooperative kids. None of this “killed me” and I’m a firm believer in kids having chores [duh!], but the stage was forever set. We were just never close as Mother/Daughter.
When Mom came to live at our house, I just naturally fixed up the spare bedroom. No more play area for our grandkids. We made it as personable as we could, with all the hospital equipment that comes with cancer. She was only feet from our living room and had a walker and wheel chair, but she was also expecting an on-call nurse. And I wondered who she thought that might be. She also thought that even though we didn’t allow any smoking on our property or in our house, that she would naturally be the exception. While emptying her house of personal items, she one day made the comment to me that “she would not smoke at my house”. I was shocked and thrilled to have her say it out loud and I had some silly idea the subject was miraculously resolved. Was I ever wrong?
First she told me in no uncertain terms, she would never have said that and now my house was hers and she would smoke all she pleased. Donald brought her cigarettes as usual, and while I was at work and someone else was with her, she smoked. When I found out and the SHTF, my husband told Donald on the side “no smokes, period”. Donald immediately quit bringing her smokes.
My Mother was deteriorating before our eyes day by day, physically, but not mentally. One day we got into some argument and she announced she was leaving. She called Donald and he wouldn’t come and get her…..mostly because he didn’t know where to go with her….certainly not to his house. Her car was parked at our place and she determined to take it, except I refused to give her the keys. It was not a pleasant argument, even as I tried to stay rational and calm. I called each of my siblings as she watched and fumed, to explain our situation and then handed her the phone to talk with them. That really pissed her off. Nothing pacified her and so she ended up going to the hospital for a week, by ambulance.
She wasn’t hospital sick and didn’t want a nursing home and after talking to Donald, therapists and others, she agreed to come back, but didn’t want to be left “in the back room” anymore. What could we do about that?
Oddly, our large garage was carpeted, with a nice piece used for an expo and discarded. I parked on it every day and the grandkids played in our garage on rainy or winter days. We abandoned the parking, disconnected the opener, and installed all the bedroom furniture and hospital items. We blocked off the back door and installed a large gazillion BTU air conditioner. Our garage had an entry to our spare bathroom and laundry and an outside door.
It became the cancer ward apartment, although we never called it that. It did work great. We could all come and go. She could see us. She came home with staph infection from the hospital and was kind enough to give it to me as well. I was so sick; I wanted to die before her. Being in the garage, we could keep the grandkids away from the contagion with a baby gate.
Life moved on with visitors, small parties and kids coming home as often as possible. Her cancer progressed, she grew frail and we managed one last big weekend with everyone home and surrounding her. There was a little wine, lots of hidden tears and laughter – our family staple. It was necessary and a real accomplishment to pull off. She seemed to wait until news reached her that each child had gotten home safely before she passed away a couple evenings later.
We are small town people and have always been small town people. We grew up knowing our local everyone including our undertaker. After my Mom died and Donald had come and hospice had done what hospice does, it was time to call our friend, the undertaker. It was a drizzly summer night. I didn’t want her face covered when he took her. I said to him, “When you come to get Mom, just back into the garage. That is where she has been and we can just open the big door and you can back right in.”
Humor has always been our relief valve in my family. Not that Mom would have seen the humor, but we always laugh when we talk about having the hearse back into the garage for Mom. We were just being helpful.