When mom passed away three years ago, I was mostly grateful

There are days you never forget. Ever. We all know what we did 9/11. The day my mom passed away, today, three years ago, will also be etched onto my flash memory for the rest of my life. We got the call at about nine in the morning, and the primal scream that met me when I picked up my dad’s call still sends cold shivers down my spine: mom was gone.

This picture was taken less than three months before she passed away. A cherished moment of lucidity, clarity. And the love for her grandson shows. Or so I like to see it.

This picture was taken less than three months before she passed away. A cherished moment of lucidity, clarity. And the love for her grandson shows. Or so I like to see it.

The rest of that day was a mesh of an emotional roller coaster, my life’s worst flight experience (SAS, never again), delays and this sense of “I have to, no matter what”: getting to dad, comfort him. We did, and over the next ten days, my son Sascha got him and me through some of the most difficult days of our life.

Three years later, I still miss her. But before I tell you why, let me just explain why I was grateful then. Mom was suffering from Alzheimer’s, she had spent the last eight months in a nursing home, as her condition had deteriorated so much that dad could no longer care for her. With her mind slowly melting away, mom was no longer the person I had grown up with. Her personality had begun to alter after a bad riding accident in 1985, and after the onset of Alzheimer’s, she became irritable and paranoid. The latter causing her more suffering than the rest of the family, as it made her anxious, nervous and afraid. But yes, for my dad it was hell. Everything that went wrong was dad’s fault, she blamed him for everything. When she misplaced her keys (or simply forgot where she’d put them), she accused him of trying to lock her up. Four years ago, when dad was in the hospital for weeks after complications with kidney stones, I was looking after her, and those weeks showed me just what a heroic thing dad had been doing for the last five or more years. Just one example: one day she’d misplaced her arm rings, three simple yellow and white gold rings she’d been wearing for decades around her wrist. But she’d lost a lot of weight and they tended to fall off, so she had taken them off and put them in her bed side table. We looked for them for three hours straight, turning the entire house upside down, until I finally found them. During the entire time listening to her tirade about how a) dad had stolen them to give to mistresses, b) sold them to give money to a mistress, c) how the boy next door had broken in and stolen them etc. On and on, and on. And since her short term memory was gone, she’d go back and repeat everything, every five to ten minutes.

So yes, when mom died, I was relieved, primarily for my dad’s sake. The loss had hit him hard, but caring for her had taken a terrible toll on him.

This picture on the date of my parent's golden anniversary, just three months before mom left us.

This picture, taken on the same day as the one above, on my parent’s golden anniversary. Mom had a good day, her last one.

Three years later, I miss her, still. I miss her council. I miss to be able to ask her about parenting. I miss grandma. My mother in law was never much “mother” material, and she’s not what you would call a “domestic goddess”. We’ve done well, but I sometimes envy parents who can call their parents to ask about home remedies to help a sick kid, or how to handle a tantrum, or to just vent… My dad tries, but his is a generation where dads were expected to stay out of the whole raising of kids thing. That was women’s territory, men stay away. He has few memories to share that help me and my husband.

I also miss my mom’s almost limitless knowledge of mother nature, all the herbs, plants and flowers she knew had medical properties. My gypsy grandmother, plus no money meant that our family possessed an enormous knowledge of what to use for different ailments. I recall that as a child, my mom would dry the flowers of the linden tree to lower fevers, sweetened with candy cane and licorice root. We ate salad made from dandy lion leaves in the spring, rich in iron, and supposedly to cleanse the body after a long winter. But I know there was more, a lot more. Mom knew the names of every flower, every herb we ever came across. I don’t.

This picture of mom, dad and her two sons in law was taken on her 70th birthday. The disease had already been ravaging her for a few years, but she still had good days, like this one, surrounded by friends and family.

This picture of mom, dad and her two sons in law was taken on her 70th birthday. The disease had already been ravaging her for a few years, but she still had good days, like this one, surrounded by friends and family.

There is so much my mother knew. I often wonder about our roots, our family: where did we come from. As a young man, you don’t care about your roots, but as a father, I realize the importance of heritage, and I feel the need to have as many answers as possible so that one day, when my son asks, I can pass on those stories. However, by the time I began to really care about those stories, mom’s memory was gone. While she met her grandson a couple of times before she died, I’m not sure she actually realized that she was a grandmother. I do remember, however, that she was afraid that she would have to look after him, raise him. In her generation, men didn’t raise kids. That was her biggest fear, not joy that her son finally, after all those decades of hopelessness, was to become a father. I don’t blame her, but that hurt. It still does.

I miss my mother. I miss that we will never be able to swap kids stories, compare how alike my childhood was to my son’s. Did I behave as well/as badly as Sascha does at times? Did I fall asleep easily or did I keep getting up again and again, trying to push her buttons? What stories was I told as a kid? Did I insist on choosing my own clothes? Was I stubborn? I have some of those answers, I have the memories from my childhood, but not as far back as being two or three years old. And I wonder, how much of me is in Sascha? I will never have those answers. And for that, I miss my mother.

Mom was wise, mom was smart, and she had a heart of gold. She lives on, in the way I fold my underwear, in the way my dad insists on ironing his briefs to this day, in the way he stores silver wear and plates in the kitchen, how he buys groceries. Mom lives on in our memories, and we cherish the ones we have. They say it’s worthless to cry for spilled milk, but once every year, on December 5th, we get to at least express regret, regret that she’s no longer with us. For mom and us, death came as a mercy. It doesn’t make the consequences any easier to bear.

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Have a peaceful and calm third week of Advent, and if you still have your parents, why not give them a call. Tell them you love them. It’s never too late, until it really truly is…

Hans

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