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Saying goodbye to my mother

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My mother died last week. To give you an idea of who she was, here are a few paragraphs from her obituary, published on March 21 in the Conway Daily Sun in Conway, N.H.

"Besty (Mehaffey) was a loving and spirited daughter, wife, sister, mother, grandmother and mentor to many. Besty was highly opinionated and a woman ahead of her time. She could be stubborn yet giving, tolerant yet determined to do things her way. She smiled frequently, liked to sit in the sun and watch the birds, enjoyed meeting new people and visiting with old friends.

"Her broad definition of family enriched the lives of many others who continue to tell us stories of how she touched their lives. ... In lieu of flowers, open your homes and love your families deeper, longer and stronger."

Growing up, I recall at least four people who came to live with us for several months because they were having trouble at home. There were more after I left for college. Welcoming people into our home was a feature that defined my mother.

When I wrote her obituary with my brother and sisters, we initially said she died "peacefully." I don't have a copy of what we submitted to the paper, but I think they took out the word. I don't mind if they did. In fact, I don't really know if she died peacefully.

I've never been present when someone died before. When I flew back to New Hampshire, I knew we were going to try to take her out of the rehab facility and bring her "home" to Diana's house, where she had been living before her stroke.

Diana was a miracle worker. Before I even arrived, she got them to release Mother, got a hospital bed set up in her old room, and left her other double bed in my mother's room for us to use. She also offered a double bed upstairs, which we also used.

When my daughter and I arrived, Mother was in a sitting up position, supported by the hospital bed. She was still nodding 'yes' and 'no' in answer to questions about whether she'd like a drink, or whether she was in pain, or whether she'd like some mashed potatoes, or ice cream. When we first sat by her bedside, it felt like she may have recognized us. A light smile crossed her face. To me, it doesn't really matter if she knew I was there. I believe she could feel the love in that room, and I was contributing to it.

By the next day, she spent most of her time sleeping, except when we had to change her position to prevent bedsores, or give her a drink, or a dose of liquid morphine.

She had stopped talking and walking a few days earlier, while she was still in the rehabilitation facility. She always said she didn't want to live any longer if she couldn't walk or talk. Having a debilitating stroke and continuing to live for years was one of her greatest fears.

After I arrived, my sister posted on her Facebook page that my mother had returned to Diana's, and people were welcome to stop by, just as anyone was always welcome to stop by the Mehaffey house when we were growing up. And people did. Although it's difficult to know how much my mother was aware of us, we hung out in her room, told stories of our days growing up, and laughed and cried together.

The night she died, my sister and I slept in the double bed in her room, and we both got up at 2 a.m. to give her a dose of morphine, and to change her bed position. I couldn't get back to sleep, so I got up again and sat with her for a long time, stroking her face and hair which seemed to quiet her. For a time, I went into the living room to read a book on dying that Hospice had left with us. I returned to her room when her breathing sounded labored again.

My sister who was sleeping upstairs also heard her breathing, and came down at about 6 a.m. By then, I was very tired, so I went up to her bed and fell asleep. About 50 minutes later, she came and woke me up to tell me Mother had died while she was by her side.

Whether her actual death was peaceful is difficult to say. She didn't appear to be in pain, yet it was a chore for her just to breath. But I believe that in the days leading up to her death, she was much more at peace than she would have been if we had not taken her out of the nursing home/rehabilitation facility. I don't know if we would have been allowed to spend the night there. And how many people would have come by for a visit? She also did not die on an operating table, in an attempt to put a stint in the clogged aorta that caused her stroke.

My mother made it clear long before she suffered from dementia or a stroke that she did not want any operations. She told us many times that she did not believe in extreme measures at the end of life. She wanted no feeding tubes, no breathing apparatus, no resuscitation. It felt good to honor her wishes, and to have everyone in the family agree.

It's hard to lose her. But as a mid-March storm dumped a foot of snow on the New Hampshire ground outside her window, it somehow felt right that she should go on this day, in this way.