Motherhood Moments: Coping with Mother's Day When Mom is in Decline or Gone

Filed under: Holidays, Opinions, Books for Parents

Jo Maeder and her mother. Credit: Portrait Innovations

What happens when a cynical hard-core New Yorker reluctantly moves to the South to care for the mother who always drove her crazy? To her (my) surprise, she falls madly in love with both.

Unfortunately, one was not destined to last.

It was Mama Jo's inability to live alone and horrifying hoarding, and a drop in income on my end, that brought us together. Once out of her depressing home and into a new clean one with me, the adventures began. We explored wineries all over North Carolina, spent an evening in the company of a few male strippers and a lot of out-of-control women, and climbed naked into a hot tub in the woods. Then she couldn't get out. It was hilarious after I triumphantly used muscles I didn't know I had.

A bevy of drop-dead gorgeous drag queens hosting a bingo fundraiser serenaded her on her 83rd birthday. Then she joyously danced with one of them. I displayed her entire massive doll collection for the first time in 40 years (and to my shock fell in love with them, as well). A long-fractured family finally came together. The few years we had together were some of the best of my life, and hers.

I always know when the anniversary of Mama Jo's passing is approaching. The bluebirds begin making their first nest of the year in the box outside the kitchen window. This time, it marked five years since I lost her. I still miss her terribly, talk to her, cry over her. It doesn't get easier. Knowing I'm not alone and that this is normal is a consolation. And that "anticipatory grief" is worse.

I was warned by a hospice worker when my mother was deemed "actively dying" that I was going through the most difficult part. In hindsight, it was true. Helplessness and sadness engulfed me as I faced the fact that my mother was never going to leave our house again alive.

What should I say to her now, or not say? Do, or not do? I would cling to the slightest hope that she was getting better. She ate a little more today! She slept less! I'd sit in the driver's seat of the car that had taken us on so many journeys filled with tender and insightful conversations and sob uncontrollably at the thought that there would be no more. It was pure hell for three-and-a-half months.

And then, relief.

I describe it in the memoir I wrote about the experience as feeling like I'd been climbing a mountain with a backpack strapped on and having no idea how heavy it was until I took it off. But what beautiful vistas I saw while hiking.

After Mama Jo's death I was concerned I wouldn't be able to handle Mother's Day. The opposite has happened. It feels as though every day is Mother's Day. I'm forever connected to her in a way I wasn't when she was still here.

If you are facing the loss of Mom or any loved one, here's my advice: Be there. Just sit, hold their hand, and quietly be present. I wish I'd done more of that and less worrying about the loss. And brought more drag queens into the mix.

Jo Maeder
wrote "When I Married My Mother," the true story of leaving her life as a New York City radio DJ to move to the Bible Belt to care for her estranged, eccentric mother. What she thought would be some of the worst years of her life were, in fact, some of the best. To find out more about Jo, and to read her book, visit Red Room.

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