First Person / Well done, Mom: There's company in dying, and she knew how to do it

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My mom died last month. Good for her.

Mom was just shy of 92 and the last five years had been brutal. Two major bowel resections 13 months apart and three broken hips. Yeah, she broke one of them twice. And the poor woman was only 4 feet 11 inches and 78 pounds.

She'd been wanting to go for years. She wasn't suicidal, or particularly knocked down by her continual maladies. She was still doing her crossword puzzles and the Jumble every day and wouldn't skip her daily Wall Street Journal. If the Steelers had her grit and mental toughness, they'd be going for their 18th Lombardi Trophy.

No. Mom was a believer and wanted to go home. She outlived her two younger brothers and my father. She told me, "JF, you know how much I love you kids, but I'm tired. My friends are mostly gone, and Dad and your uncles. I want to see them. I want to see my mother. I want to see Jesus."

I absolutely understood, which is why I say good for her.

Life could sometimes be a trial, but Mom soldiered on. She could be sweet, loving, cantankerous, generous, petty, doting, demanding, gracious, spiritual, worldly and kind. All that. I think that's known as being human.

It's hard to count the number of nurses, aides and other workers in the nursing home she'd been in since June who told me, "Your mother is just so wonderful. She makes me feel better. She prays for me and always asks about my family. And she's so grateful for any kindness. I just love her."

In the Art of Living I would give Mom a solid B. In the Art of Dying she was magnificent.

And Dying is a strange enterprise.

A lady told me that her mom was in bad shape in the hospital for several months. The family finally pulled all the artificial machines and let nature take its course. She lasted another six days. This lady said that on the last day her mom, who had not moved for all that time, suddenly sat straight up in bed, had an ecstatic look on her face, and said to someone only she could see, "Oh! You're so beautiful." She then lay down and died in 15 minutes.

My wife and I visited my uncle in the hospital when it was obvious that Unc was not gonna beat this one. He was lying on his side away from us in the fetal position. Unresponsive. My wife held his hand and I rubbed his shoulder and said, "Hi, Unc, it's JF and Darlene. I'm not sure if you can hear us but ..." And then I proceeded to talk about this and that, especially sports. Unc loved his sports. We could talk Steelers endlessly. The Pirates drove him nuts.

Finally it was time for us to leave, so I told him, "Unc, we gotta go. There's nobody else here right now, but we know you get lots of visitors. They'll be here soon."

Now, he hadn't moved a muscle the whole time, but he rolled over and said in a halting yet clear voice, "But when I open my eyes, they disappear." Who was he seeing?

He died a few days later.

My wife said when her dad was dying far too young that she was with him in the hospital on the last day. He had advanced bone cancer and was drugged to the point of coma. He hadn't moved in two weeks. All of a sudden he sat bolt upright and tried to get out of bed, seemingly very troubled.

"I had heard that sometimes relatives come for them, and he had one person that he really didn't get along with who had died a few months before. So for some reason I said, 'Daddy, you don't have to go with her. You wait for Vi.' Violet was a family friend who had also recently died. He immediately relaxed, lay back down and passed in a few hours.

"I also heard that as they're dying you should look up at the ceiling. In the corner I saw a silvery, spectral, cloud-type formation. Lasted about a minute. What do you suppose that was?"

I said, "I don't know. Maybe it was his way of telling his daughter that he loved her."

She said, "It gets stranger. Mom was out of it, so I called information and asked for the number of the funeral home. 'No listing, ma'am.' I asked her again and gave her the address. 'No listing.'

I said, "I pass it every day."

" 'No listing.'

"Mom's listening to me and says, 'Oh, no. Your dad did NOT want to go to that funeral home. He wanted to go to Slater's.'

"A few days after the funeral, just to satisfy my curiosity, I called information again and asked for the number of the first funeral home. 'Here it is, ma'am. Do you have a pencil?' "

I got the call that Mom had died from my son and his wife who had fortuitously walked in right when it was happening. As I was telling them the story of my wife's dad, my daughter-in-law said, "Oh! I looked up and saw a goldish shape in the corner of the ceiling. It shimmered. It lasted for about a minute and then was gone. I think it means that she's happy."

I'd like to think that that's exactly what it means.

I have always understood Death. It's Dying that's hard to figure out.

Bye, Mom. Love you.


James F. Cataldi is a retired dentist who lives in Moon (


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