Weeds: Always hard to say goodbye
On Thursday, September 5, at 2 a.m. Eileen Ruff passed away at Sleepy Eye Hospital. Eileen was my mother-in-law, and she was the last grandparent my children had.
Of course, it has been difficult for Pam. There is no easy way to lose a parent. These are the two people who give us life; then they write the early chapters of our story. There is a unique emptiness when they pass from this Earth.
Eileen had health problems for a while. But when she went into the hospital in August, it was with the thought that she would return to her apartment. Things turned worse. On Tuesday I was in the Cities helping daughter Abby move into a house for college. Around noon, Pam called. She was crying. Her mom had gone into a critical state that would likely lead to death.
Later that day, I got back to town, and went straight to the hospital. Pam and her sister were briefly away. When I opened the door to the room, it was a surprise to see Eileen sitting up and smiling at me. We had a few minutes to talk before a nurse came in. Even though I’ve talked to Eileen thousands of times, that short visit is one I’ll remember.
Family was called, and in the next couple days, most of them were able to see her. Her ability to talk slipped away, but there were hand squeezes that spoke wordlessly. There is no script for this. But as I observed it, her final hours were filled with love as best we flawed and imperfect creatures can do.
Many friends have lost parents in recent years. That is the stage of life we are at. Often with elderly parents there is time to say goodbye, but not always. In the final days and hours, things can happen quickly and beyond our control. Most of us would choose to have those last visits with our mom and dad, only we don’t get to choose. Looking back I experienced both ways.
My father, Sylvester, was still running tractor at the age of 88. Then in the fall of 1996 he fell and suffered a neck injury. After a stay at North Memorial Hospital, he was never quite the same. He settled into a less active life, but we still talked everyday.
A couple years later, in late November, a cold turned into a flu turned into pneumonia. In a day that is still a massive blur, Dad was taken by ambulance to Abbot Northwestern. By the time I got to Minneapolis, he was on a ventilator, never to be conscious again. By that evening he was dead.
No final words, no chance to tie up loose ends. No chance to say, “I love you,” to the man I should have said it to decades before. Gone. Like a door slamming.
I was 42, and it had never really occurred to me that a parent would die someday. I knew it in my head, but didn’t know it inside me. All that winter and into the spring work, I remember thinking I should tell Dad this or I should ask him that. Then I would catch myself, stop short, and realize I wasn’t going to do any of those.
After his death, my mother, Alyce was back in their home. Soon after Christmas, she started to feel ill for stretches. We in the family assumed that grieving was contributing to that. It got worse, and by March, it became clear that it was more than mourning. Exploratory surgery led to the discovery of pancreatic cancer.
She was dying. Dr. Papierniak told us that it was possible that the cancer had been in her for years, latent. He said it was possible that the stress of her husband’s death could have triggered it to grow. So, in a way, she was dying of a “grief.”
Alyce was too weak to return to her home. There was an opening at Divine Providence Community Home, and that is where she went for the life she had left. So here I had a parent dying in months instead of hours. And now I knew in my insides that a parent could die. As hurried and blurred as my father’s death was, my mother’s was a long slow slide.
It may sound odd, but I look fondly back on my mom’s final months. Divine Providence was a beautiful place for her to be. Staff was great, but beyond that the sisters would come in and pray with her. My mom had always turned to the rosary, so that was perfect.
I visited most days. Daughter Anna was a senior, and it was touching when she stopped to see her grandma in her prom dress. Abby was 8 and Ezra was 3. Blissfully young, they bounced all over Divine Providence making the rounds from the fish tank to the bird hutch to the patients’ rooms. The staff was glad for their youthfulness, and they had the run of the place. It was not lost on me that the generations on both sides of me were sharing these days.
My mom never talked about dying. It wasn’t denial. She knew that we knew, and we knew that she knew. There just didn’t seem much reason to bring it up. Somewhere I have a notebook that I kept to write down stories she shared. I asked all the questions that I didn’t get to ask my dad.
Finally it came down to Alyce’s last few days, and her children took turn keeping vigils. On Friday night I was there, two days before her death on May 30. That was the last time she spoke to me. It was then that she uttered my nomination for the greatest last words ever spoken. The nurses had been bringing her juice often as she couldn’t eat any more. My mom could be feisty, and about midnight she woke, looked over at me, and said, “Randy, let’s get a case of juice and get the hell out of here.”
Dylan Thomas wrote the famous poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” It was for his dying father, exhorting him to cling to life, to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Maybe get a case of juice, too.