My mom and me at a family reunion several years ago.
My mom and me at a family reunion several years ago.

It is with mixed emotions that I face the fact that my mother died Aug, 14. Her name was Rita and she was 81 years old. And, while I grieve the death of the woman I have called mother for nearly 58 years, I also feel a certain sense of relief.

As I mourn the loss of her love and her concern and her care and her devotion, I am also grateful that she no longer suffers from dementia and a host of other illnesses that eventually caused her death. It was heartbreaking to see her greatest strengths – a quick wit, a sharp mind, and an even sharper tongue and sense of sarcasm – taken away from her.

But, through it all she showed us how to suffer with dignity and forbearance.

It is odd to describe a death as beautiful, but that is what hers was. My sister Diana and her son Aaron and I got to spend the last hours of her life holding Mom’s hand, thanking her for all she did for us, telling her we loved her, singing to her and – most importantly – praying for her.

My mother was a great devotee of the Divine Mercy devotion requested by Jesus and taught to us by Saint Faustina Kowalska. Among her litany of regular prayers, Mom recited the Chaplet of Divine Mercy every day. My mother found sure comfort in the promise of Jesus who told Faustina, “At the hour of their death, I defend as my own glory every soul that will say this chaplet; or when others say it for a dying person, the indulgence is the same.”

My mother prayed the chaplet over my dying father 18 years earlier, and my sister, nephew and I prayed it over my dying mother. My mother took her last breath just as we finished the chaplet. She went peacefully, quietly and assuredly into the next world.

Mom was not afraid to die. She not only believed in her Catholic faith, but she loved that faith and lived that faith and knew what was waiting for her when she left this earth.

In those last hours of her life, she had periods of lucidity and periods of unresponsiveness. When she was conscious, she would sometimes look beyond my sister and me, point at something in the distance and sometimes smile and sometimes mumble something under her breath. When she smiled that last time as she raised her hand, I like to think she had a glimpse of the paradise we are promised. Or maybe she saw my father for whom she has mourned these many years.

After she died, Diana and I were able to sit with Mom for several hours. We cried a little, shared a few happy memories and just savored the last time we would be Rita’s children gathered around her. We knew we had the privilege of Mom being there when we were born, and we had the privilege of being there when she died.

In these days, I have thought a lot about who my mother was and what she gave to her four children.

She loved both her Italian heritage and the Polish heritage into which she married. She spoke both Italian and Polish with fluency and was a dab hand at cooking the specialties of both those cultures.

Indeed, she was a fantastic cook – the best I ever encountered – although her brother Archie and her sister Angelina gave Mom a good run for her money in that department. She and her siblings loved to spar good-naturedly over the best way to cook certain Italian foods.

My ongoing battle with my weight is a testament (or maybe curse) to her wonderful cooking skills.

My mother was insightful and held no punches. I am not a barber today because of her. Believe it or not, at one time I wanted to be a barber – not a hairdresser, not a stylist, but an old-fashioned barber. When I was younger and would mention possible careers – lawyer, pharmacist and even priest – Mom would encourage me, remind me that if I studied hard and put my mind to it, I could be whatever I wanted to be.

The time I mentioned barber as a possible career, Mom’s response was this: “If you become a barber, you will wind up in jail.” When I asked for an explanation, she told me this: “A customer will sit in your chair and ask you to cut his hair short. You will cut it short. He will complain that you cut it too short. With that temper of yours, you will get mad and since you will have scissors in your hand, you will probably stab the customer and wind up in jail.”

I couldn’t argue with her reasoning, because she was probably correct. I assume that when I settled on a career as a journalist and she encouraged me, she did not think a reporter’s pen and notebook could be used as a deadly weapon that would end up with me behind bars.

It was saddening and humbling that in the last years of her life, the roles of mother and child were reversed. As her dementia got worse, I found myself tying her shoes, straightening out her clothes when she got entangled in them, helping her move about, doing her paperwork, paying her bills and seeing to other day-to-day trivia. The hardest part was calming her fears when what she imagined scared her.

For a long time, whenever I would visit her, I would bring a bag of her favorite candy, Butterfingers, despite her doctor’s declaration that she should not indulge in that particular vice. Each time I brought the bag of candy, for the benefit of those within earshot she would loudly admonish me for bringing the candy bars and protest that she did not want them. Then, quietly so no one could hear, she would tell me where to hide the bag of forbidden treats so no one would take them from her.

A friend of mine was very insightful in offering his condolences when he said to me “welcome to the ranks of the middle-aged orphans.” In an oddball way, that is how I feel. I used to be able to say, “I have parents;” now I say, “I had parents.” At one time, there used to be so many layers between death and me. I had a great grandfather, grandparents, parents and numerous aunts and uncles who stood between me and my consideration of my mortality. Since my mother was the last of her generation, there is no longer that luxury of putting off thinking about eternity.

The outpouring of sympathy and grief and condolences and promises of prayers from family and friends have been a great source of comfort to my family. I have lived my whole life professing the tenets of my Catholic faith. These are the days that I have to live what I profess to believe.

I mourn my mother, I celebrate who she was and the life she gave me, and I take great comfort in knowing that she is with God and with my father and able to enjoy her Butterfingers with impunity.