Me and Mom in Southeast Alaska, 1988.
My mother died two weeks ago.
I’ve been alternating between the usual stages of grief…total disbelief/denial, overwhelming sadness and good old-fashioned rage.
She’d had the flu for several weeks and had even been to the doctor a couple of times…would seem to be recovering, but then relapse. Around 8:00 on a Monday morning she called the ambulance for herself. Her good local friend, MK, came running up to the ambulance, but thanks to privacy laws, they wouldn’t tell her where they were taking her. MK called a number of hospitals in Oro Valley/Tucson, but they wouldn’t confirm if she was a patient there.
She died of septic shock alone in a hospital room six hours later. Her phone was ringing off the hook, but the staff wasn’t allowed to answer it. It was also password protected, so they couldn’t access her contacts. They asked her if she wanted to notify anyone that she was in the hospital, and apparently she told them no…and refused any invasive life-extending treatments. When they did try to call MK, she missed the call.
It took them four days to find me and tell me.
And we only really found out because she missed a chiropractor’s appointment, so when he couldn’t reach her he started working down her chain of emergency contacts. I spent that entire day in tears while trying to organize travel orders, hospital pick up and cremation. MK was kind enough to pick up her belongings from the hospital. And the State Dept paid for one round-trip ticket for me to the States.
There are no same-day flights from Reykjavik to Tucson in the middle of winter, so I flew to Seattle on Tuesday, spent the night in an airport hotel, then continued to Tucson on Wednesday. My best friend, AF, flew out from California to help me with the difficult task of going through her things.
But we had less than 48 hours, so I basically picked up her important paperwork, a couple photo albums and any jewelry I didn’t want movers going through. The rest we sectioned off into categories of stuff to go to friends, stuff to go to the local hospice, and the rest of it will go to my official storage in DC. I also had to pick up her ashes.
She’d always wanted them to be scattered in Sitka Sound, so I bought a ticket with airline miles, and on Friday I flew from Arizona to Alaska. Her friends and family-by-marriage there organized a Celebration of Life ceremony for Saturday afternoon. My ambassador and the folks at my embassy were super sweet and sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a card. I’d even received a card signed by all my old Econ colleagues in London, which was so thoughtful. My mom’s favorite niece flew up from California.
We were supposed to scatter her ashes from a small family sailboat on Sunday, but it was windy and rainy, and there were tsunami warnings thanks to a 7.1 earthquake up in Anchorage that morning. So I left her in their care to be spread on the sea at a later date. On Monday morning I began the 15-hour journey back to Reykjavik.
The weirdest part about it is that she was posting things on social media the day before she died. I’d FaceTimed her on my birthday the weekend before, and she’d carried on a 45-minute conversation…mostly on her own as I’d had a couple glasses of champagne with my special birthday lunch and was ready for a nap. We also exchanged emails a couple times a week, and it was her turn to write to me.
She was planning a trip to Alaska this summer for her 70th birthday and a trip to Italy with MK sometime next year. She’d asked me to a send a couple of her favorite Christmas ornaments back to her that had ended up with me by mistake when she moved to Arizona. The box is still on the counter in our dining room. She’d said she wanted an ornament from Iceland next Christmas.
I’d be happy to continue in the denial phase as long as possible. We lived a few thousand miles apart, so I could get away with it for a while…my daily life not changing a whole lot. But a few things have made her death crushingly real, like picking up her ashes. Seeing her face on the funeral program. And reading her obituary online.
And the little things have changed too…like there won’t be any more emails from her. No more silly comments on my Facebook posts. No more FaceTime calls where she puts the iPhone down and I stare at the ceiling until she gets her makeup on and feels presentable. She’ll never get a chance to visit Iceland.
And this will be my first blog post that she won’t read.