My beautiful mom passed away three weeks ago today at the age of ninety-five. She had lived a good long, but hard, life. Her strength amazed me. Without a doubt, she was the strongest and most compassionate woman I have, or will ever, know.
She was the sole reason my little brother lived a happy life for forty-four years when the doctors told my parents to put him in an institution when he was born with a rare disease call Hallermann-Streiff syndrome. Numerous specialist said he’d never see, walk, talk or live more than a few months or years at most. They said caring for him would be impossible, especially since she already had me to raise. Mom didn’t even consider their dire predictions. She was going love and take care of her tiny frail son for as long as he was on this earth, and she never gave up on him.
Through her strength and determination, mom worked with my little brother every day to build up the muscles in his legs. He was walking by the time he was fourteen months. Then, he was talking up a storm a few months later. By the grace of God, he could see with limited vision, so he wasn’t completely blind. He brought so much joy to our family with his quick wit and sweet compassionate nature. I shudder to think what would have happened to him if our mom hadn’t had the courage to follow her heart. I guess she showed everyone what a truly strong woman is capable of doing.
But her strength, courage and love was a blessing to everyone. When she was a teenager, her dad was killed in a coalmine explosion. It was during WWII and her three older brothers were at war. As the oldest child at home, mom dropped out of school and went to work at the local drugstore to help support her mom and five younger siblings.
After she married the love of her life–my dad–who was pretty incredible in his own right, she helped him start a business they would own and operate for forty-five years. Those early years would be more than a little difficult, because money was short most of the time. Dad worked seven days a week to keep the business afloat, and mom was pretty much left alone to take care of everything else..my disabled brother, me and our home, as well as book keeping, and all of the office work for their business.
I recall her telling me how she used to run the household and feed our family of four on less than forty dollars a week. But, neither my little brother or I had any idea how tough times were, because she made sure we had all we needed, which included enough love and care so that we never realized we were poor. I’m sure this is something my mom learned from her own mother. She told me they were dirt poor when she was growing up in the depression era. But as a child she was never aware of it, because her parents never let them go hungry and their home was so filled with love they never felt they were doing without anything.
As for me personally, well, she was the mom who showed me unconditional love no matter how much I screwed my life up. She was constantly there for me no mattered what I needed. After I was divorced, she was always there for my children (and later, for her great-grandchildren), too. I have no doubt she gave up many things she wanted, so we never went without anything.
After my beloved dad passed away four and a half years ago, I knew it was my turn to be there for her. Not only had my dad’s last wish been for me to take care of mom and not put her in a nursing home, but I felt this was a way I could repay a very small part of everything both of my parent’s had done for me. I really had no idea how hard caregiving would be, or how the next few years would affect my life forever.
I won’t lie, there were times during the past four years when I wanted to run away from the commitment I had made to care for my mom. We’re both equally as hard-headed, and we fought about everything. We hadn’t lived together for decades before I became her caregiver and now we were two stubborn old ladies trying to tell each other what to do. It was hard, but then it became even more difficult.
Dementia changed mom, and it changed me. She was scared of everything, and distrustful of everyone, even me. She was angry and I became angry. Every morning she wanted to know why she was still alive. She’d ask me why God was mad at her and wouldn’t let her be with dad and my little bother in Heaven? She accused me of everything from stealing her stuff to poisoning her food. She became very child-like. It was awful. We were both so miserable. Mom was so unhappy because of her growing state of confusion, and the constant pain from a bad knee that couldn’t be operated on because of her age. I was depressed because I felt obligated to take of her, then because of the gut-wrenching guilt that would consume me afterward.
It was a vicious circle of feeling trapped, feeling remorseful for feeling trapped, being grateful I could be there for her, and getting frustrated because nothing I did seemed to make her happy. But, no matter how much we fought, we always told each other at least one or more times a day how much we loved each other. Not even dementia could steal away the precious love we felt for one another.
I had always imagined mom would fall asleep one night and her wish to be in Heaven with dad and my brother would be peacefully fulfilled. At least, that was what I hoped. Cancer was not something I ever imagined would happen to her at ninety-five years of age. It’s the most horrible thing that could have happened to her at the end of her life. I am thankful she did not have to suffer for too long. She hadn’t been feeling well for several weeks, and her doctor thought she had a UTI. After a couple of weeks on antibodies, she began crying out in such intense pain I called an ambulance to take her to the hospital.
A CT scan revealed the horrible reason behind her excruciating pain. From the time she received the diagnosis of bladder cancer to the time of her passing was less than two weeks, but during those terrible days she suffered unimaginable agony. Those two weeks gave me time to recognize the depth of our love and how strong our mother-daughter bond truly was. Mom went downhill almost immediately, but there was never another angry word between us again, or anything other than the realization that we were spending our last days together and every single second mattered.
In the pre-dawn hours on June 15th, my mother joined my father and brother in Heaven. I still can’t believe she is really gone. I miss her more than words can say. While I was taking care of her she used to get so angry with me whenever I would leave the house and I would get angry because she was angry. Now, I realize she probably just didn’t want to be alone, because since she left me that morning, I’ve been lonelier than I ever thought possible.
Before she was taken from our home for the final time, we dressed her in a beautiful blue and white flowered blouse and her favorite pair of jeans. I had given her the blouse years earlier. She always said it was too fancy to wear and we should save it for her funeral. Seeing her wearing that particular blouse was heartbreaking, but she looked so at peace and so beautiful that the image of her wearing it on that morning will never leave me.
Something really remarkable happened to me since mom’s passing, but first I need to tell you about another thing I used to let annoy me way too much, because it’s an important element in the rest of this story. For the past several years mom had become extremely hard of hearing, and although we had two different sets of hearing aids for her, she refused to wear them We had to yell for her to be able to hear anything, and her TV was always blaring so loud I felt like I was about to go deaf myself from the constant loud noise. Added to this was the fact that mom would talk constantly, but never loud enough so she could be heard above the TV. I was always irritated and very vocal about this situation. But, of course, now I realize how ridiculous it was to let this bother me so much.
If only we could have a way of knowing how our actions will effect us when circumstances change. But, it’s my nature to dwell on the things I wish I had done differently for her, which is mostly how much I wish I hadn’t fought with her over everything. How stupid it all seems now.
In spite of those bad memories from the past few years, there were so many more great ones of the time we lived together during the past four and a half years. One of my favorites were our spooky movie nights. We loved to watch horror movies together, while eating black licorice and drinking Pepsi. She taught me to enjoy watching football, which is something I never imagined doing. But, mom’s enthusiasm while watching her much-loved Broncos was infectious. She was either cheering them on or cussing them out. Before long, I was sitting next to her doing the same thing, and actually having fun doing it. I treasure the memory of her last birthday party. She got such a kick out of the fact that we had actually put 95 candles on her cake.
Mom devoted her entire life to her family. She loved to sing and dance, play the guitar, the organ and piano, and host huge family get-togethers. She was an amazing baker and cook. When I was still in school, there would be freshly baked treats every night after school when I got off the bus. As I got older we were constantly going somewhere together. Mom was always ready to jump in the car and take off for a day trip or weekend adventure. There are so, so many priceless and beautiful memories that will remain with me forever. And, I will always be grateful I was able to fulfill my dad’s last wish for me take care of mom, and also mom’s wish that she would be able to die in her own bed.
Dealing with mom’s affairs has been fairly simple. There was a reading of her will at the office of my parent’s lawyer, and several days later I had to drop off some paperwork at his office. What happened there is something else I will cherish forever. The lawyer’s sweet wife, whom I will call Cari to protect her privacy, greeted me when I entered the office (she’s also his secretary), and after a few kind exchanges about how I was holding up, she casually asked me if I believed in physics?
Chuckling, I replied how the only one I had any experience with was a 1-800-Physic I had called in the middle of the night after too much wine, and I hadn’t been very impressed.
She smiled and replied, “Well, I am a physic. And, your mom has been keeping me up for the past few nights. I wasn’t sure what she wanted at first, because I didn’t realize you were called anything other than Veronica. But, my husband said he thought your parents called you Ronee, too.”
Tears instantly pooled in my eyes. “Yes, my family and friends all call me Ronee.” I was overcome with a sense of sadness. I desperately wanted to believe my mom was at peace now, but obviously she wasn’t if she was keeping this woman–this physic (?)–awake at night.
“Once I knew you were called Ronee, I knew what she wanted. Your mom talks a lot, but mostly, she kept asking me to tell Ronee thank you.”
There was no holding back the gush of tears at this point. Oh God! I was too stunned to reply. Was this really true?
“She also said to tell you she’s really happy and the flowers there are beautiful. And, she wants you to know that she can hear everything now.”
I could barely breath, but finally managed to gasp, “My mom was hard of hearing and I used to get so mad at her for refusing to wear her hearing aids.”
Cari smiled, “Well, now she can hear everything.”
My head was spinning. How would this virtual stranger know something so intimate about my mom? She would soon convince me she was the real deal as far as physics were concerned.
“Oh, and was your mom buried or cremated?”
Sobbing, I answered, “Cremated. Why?”
“Did you dress her in a blue and white flowered shirt or dress for the cremation? When she comes to see me she’s wearing something white with blue flowers,” Cari added to my shock and disbelief.
Now I was visibly shaking and crying hysterically. Cari and her husband offered me a box of tissues and a chair in case I needed to sit down. I didn’t even know how to respond. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind this woman had truly seen and spoke to my amazing mom in the afterlife. And, the messages she asked her to convey to me were personal and priceless. She wanted me to know she was happy and she could hear again, and most of all, she wanted to thank me.
I will cherish these messages from Heaven and from my mom forever. But, she really didn’t have to make a special trip back here to thank me. I always knew how much mom appreciated everything I did for her, although it didn’t even begin to compare with all the wonderful things she did for me. I just hope and pray she knows how much I thank her for everything she did for me my entire life, but especially for the honor she bestowed upon me by being my mom and my best friend.
Thank you, mom. With all my love…forever!
Ortencia Elizabeth Bettger