We remember them

Posted: Friday, December 24, 2004

Hospice and Home CareBy Mary Cook

The Hospice and Home Care of Juneau's Remembrance Gathering took place on Nov. 28 this year, with Sheryl Weinberg as the guest speaker. I met Sheryl through HHCJ and was deeply touched by the stories she told about her beloved mother, Grace. I can think of no better way of closing this year than by sharing some of Sheryl's beautiful tribute.

"My mother was Grace Weinberg. She died on Aug. 5, 2003, at the age of 92. Mom was a little bit of a person - 4 feet 8 inches stretched out and just over 75 pounds - but she had a huge presence and was a gifted storyteller.

"Mom spent the last eight years of her life living with me in Juneau. I cannot begin to explain the magnitude of that gift. Mom and I had always been close, but being with her for those precious last years proved to be life changing for us both.

"Mother moved to Juneau with a host of medical problems. In April of 1998, I had to make the decision to have her intubated. Because of her age, I think there were those that thought the situation hopeless. This was understandable because they hadn't seen her hours before leading an aerobics class, nor could they know that even as ill as she was, she'd had the presence of mind to call me at work, then unlock the front door so the EMTs wouldn't have to damage it. So the medical providers did their work, and at the same time, with my knowledge of her vitality and will, I began doing mine. While the doctors intubated her, I straddled the stretcher, my face inches from hers, coaching her to work with the ventilator. From that moment on, I came to know how her body functioned as intimately as I knew my own. In the years that followed there were many more serious medical incidents, but most we were able to deal with at home with the support of Dr. Olsen and with that of my lifelong friend, Marsha, who is a nurse in Arizona. If Mom was having a problem, I could call Marsha, day or night. Most often, Marsha would ask me if Mom could sit up and have some tea and toast. That mantra would serve to calm us both and would allow for a more critical assessment of the situation.

"As a team, Mom and I developed the confidence we needed to make most of our problems go away, or at the very least, get better. That's not to say that there weren't frequent trips to the doctor or hospital; it just means that we had the courage to anticipate trouble and then deal with what came our way. And while we may have felt somewhat invincible, we were also realists. I could see Mom's physical decline, and she was aware of changes in her body and stamina. During her last spring Mom asked Dr. Olsen if he thought she'd see her 92nd birthday. He hesitated before saying yes.

"Because we had developed such tremendous rhythm and insight, I knew intuitively that tea and toast would not prevail the last time Mom began to have difficulty.

"I am Jewish, my mother was Jewish and a woman of great faith. Two days before Mom died, women from the Juneau Jewish Community and two of my closest friends gathered at her bedside to sing and chant prayers as I held Mom in my arms and whispered that I loved her, that her work was done, that she would live on in me. I also promised her that I would be OK. That night was one of the darkest moments in my life, but it's become a powerful and beautiful memory that marks the moment my healing began. I spent the last night alone with my mother. I had the heartbreak and privilege of holding her hand as she drew her last breath.

"As Mom was dying, I asked her to send me some signs after she was gone. I figured I'd know them when I saw them. And perhaps there have been some tangible signs, like a handwritten card from her for my 50th birthday, an event that took place ten months after her death. But what I've come to realize is that more than anything, the signs are each treasured memory, each laugh shared, each story told. I miss Mom's physical presence, but our relationship continues. I still rely on her example and her advice. And I honor her memory by keeping the promise I made as she lay dying - I am OK."

• Mary Cook is a volunteer with Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith.

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