I am reminded, as I relive the experiences of my mother’s last weeks, that as outgoing and talkative as she was – she could talk for hours, to anyone, and no matter the circumstances, always found the right thing to say – she was also intensely private, and rarely asked for help or support. Adored by many, inside the family and out, at home and at work, she was the person everyone turned to when they needed help, and she offered all she could give of herself.
When I was little, she’d be called at all hours of the day or night when someone in the neighborhood was sick, or had fallen, or cut themselves. There’d be a knock at the door and someone would ask: Is your mother at home? Can you ask her to come? We need her. And she would go, spending much of her limited free time cleaning wounds, taking temperatures, sending people off to hospital when necessary. The Penetanguishene nurse.
When there were illnesses in our own family – on her side or my Dad’s – she would spend all night at the hospital by someone’s bedside, then go to work in that same hospital when morning arrived. She could somehow last for days on little or no sleep. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I began to realize the toll this took on her, but she couldn’t have acted any differently – this was who she was.
The years she spent caring for my father as he battled Alzheimer’s were perhaps the longest-running example of both how much she would give, and how little help she would accept, despite the cost to herself. I’d lived that experience with her, and it had taught me many things, one of which was how to judge what assistance she might be willing to accept, and when.
By the third day of our visit to St. John’s, I had a much better sense of how little energy she had and the limits of what she was able to do. There would be no more shopping trips, and no physically taxing outings… On this day, day 8 since her diagnosis, we would simply have a quiet lunch and talk.
The restaurant we chose was relatively new, with a simple menu that specialized in chicken and rib dishes, with excellent fries and desserts. It was rare that my mother could go anywhere in St. John’s without seeing someone she knew, and this day was no different: a former student of hers, who had later become a colleague in the School of Nursing at St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital, spotted us at our table just after we were seated. My mother’s answer to the inevitable ‘how are you?’ question was by now well-rehearsed, though this did not soften its impact on Bernadette, who was going through many challenges of her own. The two women parted with a hug, and the promise to extend many prayers for the challenges they’d both face in the days to come.
When we were alone again, my mother asked if I’d mind if she ordered a glass of wine. She knew that I rarely drank alcohol – with the exception of the first weeks of my convalescence after knee surgery, when my dad would pour his 14-year-old daughter a capful of brandy to help ease her shaking and settle her stomach so she could try to eat something before physiotherapy – I’d never turned to alcohol for assistance in coping with anything.
But her question struck me as almost absurd: of course I wouldn’t mind. I remember thinking that she could drink the whole bottle if it would ease the shaking of her hands just a little, and soften the lines of pain on her face.
We ordered our lunch, and began to talk about nothing of consequence. I had intended that this outing be light, the conversation about regular things – a normal lunch during an anything-but-normal time – and much of it was. However, my mother had something significant she needed to discuss with me.
Her words, as I remember them:
I know you don’t want to talk about this, and maybe you won’t have to worry about it for a long time, but I have to tell you something. I want to be buried in my nurse’s uniform. And my hat, I want that with me but not on my head. It should be near the top of the casket and off to the side. But the uniform I prefer has short sleeves, and my arms are so thin now. I don’t know what to do about that. They’ll look so thin. And I’m afraid with everything being white, I’ll look too pale as well. There’ll be no color whatsoever. And I don’t know what to do about that.
I know these conversations are necessary, and I am my mother’s daughter, so while inside my mind I screamed for her to stop talking about her final outfit – for the clock to turn back and her cancer to magically go away – I simply looked at her. Because as much as it broke my heart to be even thinking about this, I knew I had the perfect answer. I knew this was one problem I could actually solve.
You should wear your nurse’s cape, I told her.
The red-lined, navy blue cape would cover her arms, and she had always looked so beautiful in it. In fact, for me, the cape with the white uniform, and the white hat with black band, was the attire that best captured the essence of my mother – her warmth, her caring, her class, her style, her pride, and her strength.
The dilemma was solved, and she smiled with relief as the load was lifted from her shoulders. I have no idea what kind of expression I wore in that moment, or what kind of expression I wore later, when we returned to the house and she took me to my bedroom – with its white walls, red shag carpet, red bookshelves, desk, and Vogue graphic mirrors on the wall. She needed to show me where everything – uniform, slip, and undergarments – were hung inside plastic, waiting for the day when I would need to access them. The box on the shelf held her stockings and perfectly polished shoes. And there was space beside the uniform where she would hang the cape.
I can see it as clearly now as if I was standing there still; the closet that had once been packed with my clothes and shoes, where we would hide with my young cousins when it was time for their visits to end so we could delay their departure… totally empty except for the garments my mother wished to wear to her grave.
Clothes that perhaps we would not need for many years to come.