• Tom Cleary

One Last Lesson


Last month my mother passed away. Do not worry, this is not an invitation to a pity party. The woman was 96 years old, and when my dad died last year, they had already celebrated 75 years of marriage. They had an incredible journey and took their 8 children along for generous portions of that journey. This is more about what I learned from my mother at the end of her life, specifically about dying.


Everyone, whether they recognize or acknowledge it, learns much from their parents. I understand that this is not always positive. Sadly, many people learn what not to do. Nonetheless, we do take in much from those who brought us into the world, for good and for ill.


Overall, I learned many things from my both of my parents, enough to fill many pages. The one thing I learned from them both early in my parenthood, was when my daughter asked me a question, looking for some wisdom. I literally looked around the room and realized she was looking to me for that wisdom. I wondered when I had suddenly become the wise old man in all of this. Immediately my respect for my parents went up immeasurably because I realized that they made shit up as they went along, just like I was about to do. It is indeed a good lesson to learn that your parents had trodden the same ground as you, and in my parent’s case, successfully.


What I specifically learned from my mother at the end of her life was how to face that end, gracefully and faithfully. I did not have that opportunity with my dad, as he slowly declined from dementia and because of the pandemic restrictions I was not able to see much of him at the assisted living facility. In any event he died suddenly of a stroke. I do not suppose he was worried about his earthly demise, given his faith, but I never really got to see him grapple with it.


In contrast, after my dad died, I got set up at the assisted living facility as a designated family caregiver, so I could see my mother as often as possible. This allowed me to spend time with her that I would not have otherwise. In that time, she spoke openly about the fact that her life was gone. I tried the usual standard pep talk, but it was hard to argue with her. She never spoke with any sadness about this. She knew she had lived to a great age, much longer than she ever thought she would. She also was genuinely grateful for all that she had in this world. Grateful for 75 years of a wonderful marriage, all the opportunities she had and mostly for the people in her life. She would begin and end every day during this time by stopping in the room with all the pictures of her large family and just spending a moment of thanks. This is always a good lesson to teach and learn.


In time she began to noticeably decline. She did struggle cognitively but she was mentally sharp enough to be fully aware that she was nearing the end. She did not fight this nor hasten it (as a good Catholic would not). She wondered about the things that many do; what happens at the end, how does it all work, etc... She was not worried, however, just curious. Yet she was clearly ready. At one point during a stay in the hospital she was being assisted by a young nursing student and commenting that 85-90 years old would have been about long enough to live. The student replied, “why would you say that?” My mother answered, “because you end up like this.” She understood something only age and/or faith can give you: that there are worse things than dying. There is never an inopportune time to teach that lesson.


It is not always a pleasant thing to have parents live long enough to put you into a role reversal, whereby you are the caregiver and they the dependent. It can be surprising to learn that they were not as high on a pedestal as you had put them when you were growing up. Yet, there is something uplifting when you realize that yes, your parents are human beings, with all the frailties inherent in the species. It is uplifting because it makes you realize that despite those frailties, they managed to teach you some eternal truths about this world. It is uplifting to recognize that it is possible to be imperfect, yet by doing the best you can, make a positive impact in the lives of your own children. I am grateful for that lesson.


In the end, she managed to teach a lesson of dying with a full heart and a peaceful mind. You get to a certain point and you have lived your life, warts and all and you can do no more. You pray for God’s mercy and you press on toward the goal. Yes, I know that given her age and the life she enjoyed that this seems easy to do. Yet, there are many in comparable situations who do not exit as gracefully. She was openly lonely without her husband of 75 years, and the pandemic protocols did not help. Because of this she was searching, I think, for the exit door. Her final lesson is that when she found the exit, she crossed that threshold effortlessly and with full confidence in what awaited her. Thanks Ma!


Praise Be to God

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