Mt. Garfield, Grand Junction, Colorado
Two weeks before my mother died at the end of June, she called me up on the phone. She was living in the Assisted Living Center at that time, and I was in Aurora visiting my daughter, who was due to deliver a baby right after Fourth of July. I had traveled out to the Denver area that weekend to spend time with her, to photograph her and her husband as they expected their family to expand momentarily, and to attend a baby shower that Saturday that was being hosted by one of her friends. I purposely didn’t tell Mom that I would be gone for 4 days, as this often set off a health-related catastrophe of one kind or another with Mom. So, I thought I would quickly leave town for the weekend, and I’d be back early the next week. Life would go on, and we’d continue taking Mom to her various appointments the following week. Hopefully, she wouldn’t even know I was gone. But, of course, that didn’t work out exactly as planned. In theory, I should have been able to come and go as I pleased anyway, since Mom was being cared for at the Assisted Living Center, but theory and reality rarely coalesce.
Heather and I were preparing to have breakfast mid-morning that Saturday when the phone rang. It was Mom. She was very distressed and upset sounding. She was calling using the phone at The Assisted Living Center, rather than her own mobile phone, which she had trouble remembering how to use. That phone had become useless to her in the final months of her life because she couldn’t remember how to answer it, or how to make calls from it, or how to charge it. The Assisted Living Center she was in, didn’t allow their residents to have landline phones. There may be various reasons for this, but mainly, I think they have a fair amount of turnover, and they don’t want to constantly be hassling with installing and uninstalling phone lines.
Mom said to me, “I don’t want to do this crap anymore. I want to go home.” Well, there wasn’t much I could do from Denver, and so I told her where I was and that I was out there to attend Heather’s baby shower that weekend. I reminded her that Heather was getting ready to have my first grandchild. But I told her that when I got back to Grand Junction the first of the week, we’d figure out what to do next. She went silent, as if she had expected me to be at home and able to drive over to the ALC immediately and release her from their care. Of course, I couldn’t do that, and I wouldn’t have anyway, even if I could. She needed 24/7 monitoring whether she thought so or not. Her physical needs surpassed what I was able to help her with and why she was living there in the first place.
Sadly, for Mom, there was no place for her to go home to at that point. She was as home as she was ever going to be. I’m told by those who work with people at the end of life, that they often say they want to go home, and they’re not necessarily referring to some previous place they lived during their life. They might, and probably are, referring to wherever they were before they came to this life. At the time, I felt certain that this is what she was saying. There was no other home for her, either with me, or with any of her other children or grandchildren, who all are younger, and still working and raising families of their own. Her siblings and friends had mostly also crossed over and I think she wanted to go be with them. She didn’t come right out and say she wanted to die, but I think that’s where she was going with that statement.
I told her that when I got home the first of the week, we’d talk about it some more, and figure out next steps. I attended my daughter’s baby shower that afternoon and tried to put the earlier conversation out of my mind so I could be present for my daughter that day.
The following Monday I had a long trip home on the train. It took almost 12 hours to get from Denver to Grand Junction including various delays. I love the train sometimes, and sometimes I despise it. It was evening before I got home.
The following day, Tuesday, I called Mom’s primary care physician’s office and set an appointment for her to go in. I told the doctor’s office that we needed to discuss the current state of Mom’s mental health, because it seemed to me like she was depressed, even though she had filled out the annual mental health questionnaire at the doctor’s office, stating she was fine. She had an aversion to taking any kind of anti-depressants, because she swore, she didn’t need them. But clearly, by that point, she did. I wanted her to be as comfortable and content as possible. During the previous year, the medical professionals had been trying to subtly warn me that Mom was probably not going to live much longer and to make sure we had all her paperwork in order, including a Living Will, a power of attorney form at the ready, and any necessary funeral arrangements made. We had done all of this, but of course, you never know when you’re actually going to need this stuff. I figured it could still be years away. It’s true, denial is not just a river in Egypt. I got Mom an appointment with her PCP for the following Friday. I was hoping to get her on some medication and perhaps arrange to have an LCSW or someone who could visit her at home, come to talk with her on an on-going, perhaps weekly basis.
However, before Friday arrived, Mom had a massive stroke. It happened on Thursday morning. She was taken to St. Mary’s and then, after a few days, she was transferred to hospice, where she eventually passed away. The stroke had paralyzed her on one side, and paralyzed the muscles in her throat, which allowed her to speak clearly and swallow food. She lingered for a little over a week before she went home. At times, she seemed to be communicating with other family members who had passed on before her. She kept saying she didn’t know how to do it, and she needed them to help her by showing her how. I told her that when the time was right, it would happen naturally, and she didn’t need to know how to do anything to make it happen. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should even say anything like that, but I did, and oddly enough, it seemed to comfort her some. I told her that when the time was right, she would slip over to the other side, and her body wouldn’t be going with her. She’d leave it behind and emerge in the next dimension as she was at her most youthful, and beautiful self. Perhaps she would be like she was when she was 30 years old, and still a young mother. In the days before this, she had been angling the one leg she could still move, up towards what I thought was maybe some kind of portal, or window, she was looking through, where she saw her parents and siblings and other people she had known in this life. After we had this discussion though, she quit doing this, and relaxed a bit more.
She finally left this plane of existence and went home for good on Sunday morning, the 27th of June. It was about 10 minutes after midnight when she took her last breath. John and I were present.
I remember driving past Grand Junction in 1972, when my mom had packed all us kids into the family station wagon for a cross-country trip to Michigan, where her siblings still resided. At that time, she wanted to “go home” and visit them for a couple of weeks. I specifically remember driving past Mt. Garfield with its distinctive shape and characteristics. It never occurred to me at the time, that I would ever live in this area. Some people know when they’re home, because they still live in about the same place where they were born and grew up. Some people even still live in the same house they lived in as children. But some of us have wandering souls and home is wherever we hang our hats at that moment. In fact, home is somewhere we may never have been before in this life.
There is a Welsh word for this and that is Hiraeth. There is no English equivalent, but the word generally describes a type of homesickness that is a combination of longing, nostalgia, and yearning for some vague place called “home” that you cannot return to. It may be a place that no longer exists, or it may be a place that never existed. It could also include grieving the loss of your own life, which all of us do as we get older. We may remember our old selves, or parts of our lives that we once had, but which are no longer present.
They say that you can’t go home again, and in a very real sense, that is a true statement. My hometown for instance, is nothing like the town where I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, although my childhood home is still there. Yes, my childhood home is still there, but much of the surrounding area is vastly different. I could get lost in my hometown now. My childhood home was situated next to a good-sized citrus and fruit farm, and now that property is an industrial park. My old high school has been razed and a shopping center resides where it once stood. A new school has been built in a new location and my old school is nothing but Hiraeth to me and many others who attended there for a few generations.
The hills that surrounded my childhood home to the north and east, are still there, but many new tracts of homes have been built there. The place is much more crowded than when I lived there. Bottom line, I can return to that exact same physical location, and not be in the same place.
Life itself is a journey: A one-way trip. You may feel homesick at times. Don’t be alarmed. Keep going. Keep arms and legs inside the car at all times.