Family · Lucky Eleven · Mom

“*Supermarket Flowers”

Rita Marie O’Connor
12-31-1926 to 3-7-2022

Last year I thought my mother was dying. We’d put her on hospice in June of 2021 and watched her decline over a few weeks. And then she rallied. She didn’t come back a hundred percent, but she did come back. She had lots of visitors between June and year’s end, and we celebrated her 95th birthday along with the rest of the world on New Year’s Eve. A month later we discovered a water leak had caused lots of damage and excessive mold in the house, and with that, my siblings decided it was time to bring mom back to Michigan. Within a very short time, we met my brother and his wife at the airport, and mom left us to go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to a very nice apartment in an assisted living facility where, at 95, she would live by herself for the first time in her life. Even with lots of family members nearby, it did not go well.

Confused, disoriented, looking for her family, she only seemed herself when one of us was with her. She had her walker on hand, but left alone, she would always push it to one side and then hold onto furniture as she made her way around her little place. She couldn’t remember what the SOS bracelet on her wrist was for. Day to day she could not seem to remember why she was there, saying she felt like she was just dropped off and left. Her forgetfulness grew even worse, and though she had visitors every single day, until they came, she was lost. My sister had cameras in place to check on her, but it was heartbreaking to see and hear her confusion at night, knowing there was little to be done but call in and ask someone to please check on her.

And finally she fell. Twice. The first was just a scraped knee. She was shook up but quickly forgot about it. A day later, in the early hours of the morning, either her bad leg gave out or she had a slight stroke. They found her on the floor in the hallway near the bathroom, her left shoulder dislocated. At the hospital, under sedation, they tried to put the shoulder back in, but due to a fractured humerus and her extremely fragile bones, all they could do was strap her in a brace and send her ‘home.’ That day, Monday, February 28th, was the beginning of the end.

I was already scheduled to fly up to see her the following weekend. But after my sister called on Wednesday and asked if I could come sooner, I got on a plane the next day to offer her some much needed relief. Mom was confined to her hospital bed. It took nearly 24 hours, but with Kindred Hospice’s help, we found the right medicinal cocktail to ease the pain and anxiety her ordeal had caused. She had difficulty forming words with enough breath to speak them. She’d stopped eating and drinking.

It was a fast decline from there. All my Michigan siblings came to see her along with many nieces and nephews. She would ask what was happening, and we tried to be honest with her. I slept on the couch in her living room not wanting to be too far away from her. On Friday she kept trying to get out of bed, pulling herself up, saying the word, ‘pee.’ I told her she was not able to get up, she had hurt her shoulder, but she was insistent. When she tried to move further, the pain in her left shoulder would stop her. I talked with my nurse friend back home who suggested she needed a foley catheter. I immediately called hospice, and within an hour a nurse came out to give her relief. She filled the bag, poor thing, but her agitation finally stopped. Friday evening I was sitting next to her bed, my head resting on my arm on the half rail combing her hair with my fingers the way she did when I was a child. She turned to look at me and said in her garbled speech, “I love you so, so much.” I said, “I love you more.” She smiled and said, “We could be sisters!” I laughed and told her, “That works for me!” Then she smiled and made a low, breathy, “Huh-huh” laugh. Saturday and Sunday there were lots of visitors, but mom was rarely alert enough to do more than squeeze a hand. Nurses and aides asked if she had said her goodbyes to everyone. We assured them that we had told mom repeatedly that we were all going to be okay and that she can go be with dad. “But has she heard from them all?” She had not.

So Sunday evening I contacted each of the three siblings in Florida and told them we would be calling them and putting the phone to mom’s ear so she could hear them. And this woman, this mother of 11 who had not moved for close to 36 hours, turned her head at the sound of her child’s voice and listened as each one said their separate goodbyes.

Everyone went home, and I eventually went and laid on the couch. I fell into a deep sleep only to awaken suddenly about 12:35 a.m. I quickly got up and went into mom’s room finding her in the same position, but not breathing. I sat down, put my fingers on either side of her throat and felt a faint pulse. I attempted to sing to her the same song she sang for dad before he died, “Goodnight sweetheart; well, it’s time to go…” In less than 10 minutes, her heart – her big, beautiful, loving heart – stopped beating, and she died at 12:45 a.m. I sat there with her, combing her hair back, so grateful for being woken to be with her at the end, smiling through my tears thinking about the glorious reunions happening in heaven.

How did I get so lucky, out of 11 kids, to be the one to be there when this sweet, wonderful woman left this earth?

*In the words of Ed Sheeran’s “Supermarket Flowers ©,”

“Hallelujah! 

You were an angel in the shape of my mom. 

You got to see the person I have become. 

Spread your wings, and I know that when

God took you back, 

He said, ‘Hallelujah, you’re home.

Childhood

Cats, cars, and hope.

I love cats. I’ve always loved them, from newborn kittens with their eyes closed to the goofy teen-cat to the disdainful adult. I think cats are probably the least understood domestic animal there is. But if you’ve ever had a cat, you understand what I’m saying.

We grew up in the country with dogs and horses, but I always wished for a cat. My parents knew I loved them, and even though my dad hated them, they actually got me one for Christmas one year. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. All of the many presents had been opened when my dad came in from the kitchen announcing, “Maureen!” He had a darling brown tabby kitten hanging from his hand, and I received what was probably the best Christmas present of my young life. I named her Daisy.

She lived both inside and out. I loved her to death and worried when she wasn’t with me. She was goofy, like all young cats are, and everyone seemed to enjoy her. By the time she was maybe 10 months old, she was a part of my family even if she wasn’t a part of theirs. And then one day she disappeared. I was distraught, and I cried and searched for days, calling her name inside the house and out. My mom finally said that cats are wild animals, and perhaps she simply ran away to be with other wild cats. And so I went back to yearning for another cat of my own.

Enter Pansy, my new outdoor cat. I remember finding a litter of brand new kittens huddled together in the hay in the barn, eyes still tightly shut. My mom was worried they would be too cold, so she let Pansy bring her babies inside, up the stairs and into the linen closet to keep them safe from kids and dogs. I was ecstatic! Eventually, after the kittens got older, we had to box them up and stand in front of the Kresge store with them. I was able to keep one, Buttercup, and I felt the luckiest girl alive. Oddly enough, weeks later, Pansy left us to find the other wild cats, and then it was just me and Buttercup.

We all know of some of the issues with indoor/outdoor cats. They will proudly bring you their kill. They will experiment with their claws on your curtains to see how high they can climb. They will slowly and surely shred the legs of your upholstery with complete disregard. But they will also calm you as they slowly press their soft paws into your chest purring loudly, eyes half closed, content. They will rub up against you, claiming you as their own. They will lie on your puzzle to be where you are or, if you’re reading a book, their paw will rest on your arm as it sleeps in your lap.

The last experience of my childhood cats ended with the following story:

As my dad tells it, he’d had it with Buttercup. So with the planned cover story of yet another cat running away to the wild, he put Buttercup in his car to take to the pound 30 minutes away. He lowered the top on his convertible and drove off. When he arrived at the pound, he discovered there was no cat to be found. Thinking, I’m sure, that she must have jumped out, he was no doubt relieved that he didn’t have to enter that complex with yet another unwanted feline. He went about his work day and arrived home that night only to put the top up on the convertible and discover that Buttercup had hidden herself in the well. She jumped out and made a beeline for the house. Within a month she had run away to the wild.

I was never the wiser until much later when, as an adult, I heard him recount this story, laughing hysterically at the outcome of the day. To say I was shocked and appalled would understate the realization of what I’d learned. As an adult, I suppose deep down I understood that they hadn’t meant to hurt me. I had accepted what they’d said and, as a little girl, it probably did make the loss a little easier thinking perhaps those cats had found their place in the wild. But I can’t dwell on it too much. I now understand why it took me so long to bond with another animal. I was in my mid 30’s when my own kids found a kitten and I was finally able to connect with an animal. We had Cali for over 15 wonderful years.

I’d love another cat. David, well, not so much. But maybe . . . someday. I won’t abandon that hope just yet.

Childhood · Family

Close to heaven.

When my sister and I were in our early teens, we were lucky enough to have horses. Well, a horse. We boarded several, but we owned Clancy, a sable-brown thoroughbred with the temperament of a big lab. He was tall and gentle and surprisingly patient with a couple young girls learning to ride bareback through the fields around our home. Our neighbor friends boarded a couple of their horses, as well, and one of them was really smart. Clipper could open the door to his stall at will. Thankfully there was a paddock around the small barn that housed him and the others. But every once in awhile, it didn’t matter.

More than once the phone would ring in the middle of the night, and the convent nuns would be calling to tell us our horses were in their field again. Mom would come wake Kathleen and me and tell us to go get them. We lived in a very small town at that time, quiet and rural. This particular summer night, Kathy threw on some shorts under her PJ top, and she and I, in my kelly-green baby doll pajamas and tennis shoes, walked the half mile, bridles in hand, to the church yard where we found our two errant horses nibbling away on the green grass.

I have the sweetest most vivid memory of she and I atop those two horses climbing the hill towards home, hooves slowly sounding their ‘clip-clop’ down the dirt road. It had to be near midnight, but we didn’t need flashlights. Back then, with few lights for distraction, the dark sky had set off the brilliant stars and the Milky Way, creating an atmosphere so peaceful, I never wanted it to end. Letting the horses find their way, our heads tilted back looking at the deep, vast, star-filled sky, it was probably as close to heaven as I’ve ever been.