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Listening to My Mother Even When It Hurt

Coming to terms with her impending death was more difficult than I expected

By Bonnie Goodman

One summer evening, three years into the five that my 89-year-old mother lived at the nursing home, I was giving a variation of the monologue I had started doing to cover whatever feelings lay hidden behind her increasing silences: "Mom, guess who called me for piano lessons! Remember, yesterday I told you about the rabbi who comes here? Well, not him, but …."

Suddenly, she sobbed, "Bonnie, I don't want to live like this anymore. I want to die."

The writer sitting to next to her mother smiling. Next Avenue, Mother Daughter, mother's day
Bonnie Goodman and her late mother Ruth  |  Credit: Bonnie Goodman

My eyes immediately filled with tears that ran down my cheeks like rivers through a broken dam. I heard myself saying, "I don't want to live without you."

My mother stopped crying and stared at me, as surprised as I was by my outburst.

Neither one of us knew that I loved her that much.

Neither one of us knew that I loved her that much.

She was the one suffering, as her multiple sclerosis was sending her body hurtling helplessly down a one-way street toward total dependence, something my independent mother feared more than death.

Yet, she comforted me. After all, she was still my mom.

"Bonnie, dahling," she said, her Boston accent making me homesick. "When it's my time to leave this fair earth, you'll be fine. You have your husband, you have your sisters …"

'I Don't Want Mom to Die'

"But Annie and Gwen live so far away now," I moaned.

My mom's favorite aide, Mary, sashayed in. "We're both in the Bible," my Jewish mother, Ruth, would tell everyone proudly. I was always happy to see Mary because she took great care of my mom.

"Ruthie, I'm going on my break now," she said, and glanced at my wet face. "What are you crying for, Bonnie?"

"I don't want Mom to die," I admitted.

"Oh, Lord," Mary snorted. "That's between her and God. You can't do anything about that, Bonnie, and, if I know my Ruthie, she's staying around a while."

She grabbed Mom's dinner tray and headed for the door. "Are you going to wait with her?" she asked.

"Yes, I'll be here," I answered sheepishly. She left, muttering, "Dying … Lord!"

Mom was quiet. I braced myself.

"'Everybody Loves Raymond' is on now," she said cheerfully. "Can you stay?"

My mother had forgotten that she wanted to die.


Distraction Became My Mission

If I could give her little reality vacations, maybe her life would be worth living. Being outside always calmed her, and in the summertime, we had been going to an outdoor restaurant that she enjoyed. It was spacious enough that no one would trip over her wheelchair. I vowed to take her every sunny day.

Being by the water soothed her. When we drove to the Hudson River and listened to the seagulls, Mom forgot all her troubles.

But those ephemeral moments grew scarce, and soon, it seemed to rain every day.

My mother had always been "a mover and a shaker" because she made things happen, but now it was her body that was moving and shaking.

"I can't walk," she said. "I don't feel like a person."

I refused to listen. Being powerless to help her made me irritable. Instead, I lectured her about all the people who didn't let their disabilities define them, like the athletes in the Special Olympics. All my proselytizing did was leave her feeling more alone.

For the first time, my mother needed something from me that wasn't easy to give. I tried opening my heart completely, but came home crying after every visit.

"Your problem is that you don't put up boundaries," my sister Annie informed me repeatedly from South Carolina. "You should know how to separate yourself from her by now."

She smiled and said, "I already know you'll be fine because you're strong."

What kind of boundaries was she talking about?

"If you didn't visit her so much she wouldn't have anything to look forward to," my sister Gwen observed from Oregon. "She's only living because of you."

Was the timing of Mom's death really up to me? I needed help.

I joined a support group for family caregivers. They helped me make some decisions. I wouldn't put up the boundaries that Annie advocated. Taking care of me meant taking good care of Mom too, not building walls for self protection. I agreed with Mary, not Gwen. Mom would die in her own time, not mine.

I would lie to my mother.

"Mom," I ventured casually. "You were right. I'll be fine when you die." 

She smiled and said, "I already know you'll be fine because you're strong. You are my sweet Bonnie, but when you need it, I know you have a steel rod up your ass."

I laughed and remembered the "cussbox" we had while growing up. Whoever used profanity had to put a quarter in the box and my mother had been the major contributor.

My Mother Always Knew

After our conversation, nothing and everything changed.

Until COVID hit and separated us, I watched her slow decline, felt her despair, but just listened. Even when there were no words.

She still wanted to die some of the time, but she took comfort in knowing that she wasn't alone on her journey because I was with her, strong enough to accept her just as she was.

Finally, I could give her what she needed.

I've heard that when someone is dying, their whole life passes before them, like cramming for a final exam, but as my mother lay dying peacefully, I saw her as my life passed before me.   

I saw that she had always given me exactly what I needed. Even at the nursing home, she trusted me, letting herself be as vulnerable as the child I'd never had, but always missed.

Holding my mother's hand, I felt like there was a waterfall in my stomach, as if the whole of us was a river running through me. As she took her last breath, I saw what had been there since my first — her constant love.

I wanted to tell her that, but it was too late. I'd said that I'd catch up with her later, and she'd gone on ahead. But I didn't mind because the world had changed; my vision was blurry with understanding.

She already knew. She always had.   

Bonnie Goodman is an essayist, musician, and music educator. Currently, her writing is focused on the experience of having been the family caregiver to her mother, who died at the height of the pandemic. She hails from Boston, which will always feel like home, and now lives in New Jersey with her husband. Read More
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