Springtime = mom.

When pretty blue scylla spring out of the ground and forsythia bushes burst with yellow blooms, I think of my mom. In the weeks before Mother's Day, when trees start to bud and get “fuzzy” as she described it, I think of her too. And while I clean my garden, happy to see pink peony shoots poking through the soil, Mom is there -- even though it’s been four years since I last saw her, before she passed away two days shy of her mid March birthday, just as winter was fading away.

Patsy and sisters 1936 Little Patsy Reed with her big sisters Mary and Martha, Port Washington, 1936ish.

That last trip to see her started out like all the others -- packing and re-packing too much stuff into the suitcase, too much food in the cooler, fretting over the care of the cats, leaving later than we planned, and our traditional stops at Starbucks and the Skyway McDonald's. Then up Up UP over the Skyway and onto the familiar toll roads to Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The difference this time was that Mom was gravely ill and last rites had been administered. The ominous impact of those words "last rites," delivered in an e-mail from one of my brothers, had sent me into hysterics. The only light note was Dad following up with, "If mom had been more energetic, she would have told the priest to hit the road." I'd spent the rest of the day in an anxious fog as I arranged to take off work and pull my son out of school, wondering whether this would really be the last time we saw Mom.

We usually visit Mom and Dad at Christmas time, when the skies tend to be gray and bleak. I've grown accustomed to a leafless, snowless December landscape from Chicago to Cleveland. This time, though, the miles of flat farm country were covered in a light layer of late winter snow, the skies had cleared, and the morning sun shone brightly. Trees and fences were traced in a fine white filigree. I noticed for the first time apple orchards and vineyards, their rows of dry twisted branches artfully frosted, giving a depth to this open country that I’d never seen before. Groves of tidy, uniform firs -- Christmas tree farms, we guessed -- added their green silhouettes to the scenery. Above, fluffy clouds trailed across the gloriously blue sky, and occasionally pairs of hawks drifted in wide circles over the turnpike. The midwest never looked so pretty, I thought, and I would tell Mom about it. With my son settled next to me and a Harry Potter audiobook in the CD player, I felt at peace despite the circumstances of the trip. I squinted into the miles of oncoming highway until my laugh lines ached.

Pat lovely young ladyWhat a beauty!

Mom's pretty blue eyes brightened as we approached her bedside at the Cleveland Clinic later that afternoon. A clear plastic oxygen mask was strapped around her delicate ears, and a tube in her arm led to a tower of machinery quietly dispensing doses of saline and morphine. The papery skin on her arm was bruised from too many needle sticks. She smiled weakly but warmly, the familiar smile of motherly love I’d known for so many years. We held hands and conversed as best we could, her voice ranging from a whisper to a hoarse croak and slightly muffled by the mask. Despite the difficulty, and without a single hint of frustration, she asked me about school, and how was my fiance Kenny, and had we found a house yet? She called her grandson over and talked to him about his girlfriend, his band, school, and his favorite class -- metal working. A talented and classically trained artist born and raised in Port Washington, New York, Mom delighted whenever one of her children or grandchildren pursued the creative arts. She asked him to make her a sculpture, and he promised he would.

We talked about the weather (too much snow in Cleveland over the winter, not enough in Chicago), and what I would plant in my garden that spring. Dad sat quietly reading a book, relieved, no doubt, to finally have family take over during these wearying, worrisome hospital visits he’d been making daily for weeks. Sometimes Mom closed her eyes for a while and appeared to doze, then she would open them again, smile, and find something new to talk about. I had expected a more sickly version of her, that proverbial shadow-of-the-former-self we expect when someone is on their last. She was a little bony, and her hair was thinner from a few chemo treatments for her recently diagnosed cancer. But her skin was warm, rosy and vital. She doesn’t look so bad, I thought. She’s not

Pat at Indiana DunesGathering freckles in the sun with Dad.

While Mom rested, I left briefly to find the kitchen for patients and families where Dad said I could find crackers and bottles of water. As I made my way through the hospital halls I looked up and for the first time saw the name of the unit where Mom’s room was located:
Palliative Care, where they relieve the symptoms of terminal illness without attempting a cure, where the dying are made comfortable until they pass away. I still didn’t quite believe it. Mom seemed so lucid, if a bit weary. I still wasn’t convinced I was here to say goodbye to her. But at that moment it didn’t matter; I had come to spend time with Mom and Dad, and with some of my nine siblings who were scheduled to arrive the next day. Until it was time for me to leave, I was determined to be present in each moment with my family, and not prematurely mourn my mother’s apparently imminent death.

Scylla on lawnI hope my springtime lawn is covered with scylla someday.

The next day two brothers and three sisters arrived literally by planes, trains and automobiles. By mid-afternoon, six of the ten children my parents raised on a shoestring were gathered in Mom’s room, each sharing their recent news, holding her hand, and retreating red-eyed to the seats by the window. At night we bunked down all around the house, on couches and in guest rooms, and more over at our brother-in-law Charlie's house. Charlie was married to our sister, Mary Jane, whose passing from breast cancer brought us all to Cleveland Heights on New Year’s weekend two years prior. For so long we'd felt ourselves lucky as a large family not to have been touched by death -- then breast cancer and now the maladies of old age had crept in.

Mom and MJ in '58
Mom and Mary Jane, 1958ish.

During family meetings with the medical team and hospice staff, I stayed behind to hold Mom's hands, stroke her hair, tell her whatever story popped into my head, or read aloud. Mom's hands were warm and soft. Occasionally I would check in with her, ask if I should continue, or if she needed anything, and she would smile and nod, or croak a barely audible “yes” or “no.” Then everyone returned from the meeting and the room was filled with energy and conversation again. I often looked around the room at my many siblings, and at the two people responsible for creating us, raising us, piling us into the car for trips to the beach, for feeding us Eggs Denver and chipped beef and Cowboy Cake, for arguing with us about loud music, homework, sex and cigarettes, and eventually seeing us leave home one by one, year after year. There were storms during those growing up years, but a generation later there in that hospital room there was love and sadness and waiting.

My son and I returned home the following Saturday, to get his life back to friends, school and normal. I felt I'd said and done enough for Mom. I could leave, but I couldn't say goodbye, not in that final way. I kissed Mom on the forehead, told her I loved her, and said, "I'll see you again soon, Mom." The Harry Potter tale unfolded on the long drive back, and when we finally arrived that evening, we were grateful to see our own rooms and our kitties. But the house felt lonely and I wanted to be back with the rest of my family, and Mom.

Pat and Stu in ClevesDad and Mom in the Land of Cleves.

The next day was warm and sunny, unusually so for early March. In the afternoon we got the call from Cleveland saying that after she’d had the chance to see or speak with all of her children, Mom's last moments were peaceful. Later, Dad told me everyone who was there gathered around Mom while a hospice worker said a touching prayer, the most beautiful he'd ever heard. I told my son and Kenny, and called my closest friends. Then I went outside to soak up the sunshine and let it dry my tears.

Scylla and peony budsMy peonies survived the winter!

We celebrated Mom's 81st birthday two days later with angel food cake and strawberries, one of her favorite desserts. Kenny said he could imagine Mom eating angel food cake with the angels, while my son noted that for angels it would just be called "food cake." We agreed that Mom can have all the angel food cake she wants now. It was good to be silly and light and think of her so sweetly.

ForsythiaOur crazy arching forsythia bush.

Dear Mom, if you ever had any questions about where you go when your time on earth was done, I can tell you. You’re blooming in blue scylla and the buds on the fuzzy trees and the yellow branches of forsythia. And you’re here with me as I till the soil in my garden at the house Kenny and I finally bought. And when I bake Cowboy Cake and pick violets and ride my bike along Lake Michigan, you’re there too.

Pat's blue sky sculpture
The Sculpture, dedicated to Grandma Pat.

Your grandson made you a sculpture and painted it blue, like the water near Port Washington, like Lake Michigan, like scylla and your eyes. He attached a tall swirling spiral that reaches up Up UP, to help your spirit soar into the sky.