As some of you already know, on Friday, July 16, I lost my dear sweet Mama. Or as I called her “my little Mama Pajama.” She had had Alzheimer’s for several years but it was finally her congestive heart failure that took her. She was 85. Her death was not unexpected, but still these first weeks without her have been hard. Who is ever prepared to lose their mother?
As Fate would have it, my sisters and I and many of the nieces and nephews had already planned to be in Georgia that weekend for our annual Hiawassee picking party. We had known all week that Mama had been struggling with shortness of breath but she’d weathered so many storms in the last few years (including a heart attack) that we thought it entirely possible she would pull through again. One of the Greatest Generation, she was made of stern stuff. My sister Nancy, who was having her week-long summer visit with the parents, did a wonderful job of keeping us apprised of Mama’s condition, but neither she nor the Hospice nurse nor any of our round-the-clock caregivers had any idea that Thursday would be Mama’s last night.
The story of that last night, as it was told and retold during the weekend of the funeral, was filled with meaning. Mama, who for once was resting in bed, asked for the preacher. Nancy called him but he didn’t get the message. So Nancy and my sister Claire, who was there for the night, went back to the bedroom and read from the Bible, sang some songs, and had a prayer with her. Then Nancy asked Mama if she wanted to say a prayer. Mama said she did. And Nancy said it was as if her Alzheimer’s didn’t exist—she prayed a long, eloquent prayer as we had her do in church so many times before. Then Mama asked, “What’s the game plan for tomorrow?” Claire said, “What do you mean?” And Mama replied, “Tomorrow’s going to be a Big Day.” Still, at the time, we just didn’t know.
Our wonderful round-the-clock help, Rita and then Karen, each sat by Mama’s bed for a long time that evening and both later told us some of the things that Mama said. She looked for a long time at the big picture of us—her five daughters--that hangs on the wall near her bed and talked about us. Mama said, “I’ve got doctors, and I’ve got teachers.” (And as I’m hearing the story I’m thinking, “What about me?”) And then Mama said, “And I’ve got musicians. Lots of musicians.” And she went on to say how proud she was of all of us and that we had “done a good job.” I felt like we had received her blessing.
She also told Rita that tomorrow she and her girls would be “stepping on the soil.” At the time, Rita thought that she might be referring to Heaven. But later Rita told us that she’d found out that “stepping on the soil” was an old country expression that referred to digging a grave and the soil was the earth which was thrown out onto the ground. (Have any of you heard that?)
Mama slept pretty well that night, with Karen close at hand, and early the next morning, Claire, who is one of the doctors, thought Mama was doing well enough for her to go back home to her work in Asheville, N.C. But when Nancy checked on Mama around 7 a.m. her breathing had taken a turn for the worse. Rita, bless her sweet heart, had had a bad feeling and had come to the house even though it wasn’t her shift. When she saw Mama she immediately called the preacher, the Hospice nurse, and Mama’s own doctor and said, “You better come now.” And they did.
Red and I had just about finished packing the car for the trip down and he had gone to gas up when Nancy called to say that Mama would probably die that morning. I, of course, burst into tears. Nancy, who handled this entire experience with unbelievable poise and grace, had the presence of mind to ask me if I’d like to say goodbye to Mama on the phone Oh, yes! So Nancy held the phone up to her ear and I told Mama I loved her and would miss her every day of my life. She could not respond, but I believe she heard me. What a blessing that was.
As we left the house, I grabbed some photo albums and pictures of Mama to have for the trip. And that was a good thing because we had not been on the road long when Nancy called to say that Mama had died. It was 9:10 a.m. I could hardly talk as I called Casey and Chris to tell them that their dear grandmother had passed away. Chris was coming to Georgia anyway for the picking party, but Casey was in Michigan performing with the Dixie Bee-liners who graciously finished up their gigs without a banjo player so she could fly down to Georgia. I wished so much that I could be with each of them. It was a long, sad trip home with many tears. I was so glad to have Red there, doing the driving and holding my hand when I would start crying. I talked to my sister Laurie many times both to give comfort and to receive it. She is the youngest of us (and is also a doctor), and I always thought she was Mama’s favorite. (Although I’m sure Mama would deny having a favorite.)
Once we arrived in Clarkesville, there were more tears but there were also sisters and nieces and friends and flowers, and, yes, church ladies bringing food. Together we five girls planned Mama’s funeral service. We even managed to get a good laugh remembering Mama’s instructions about picking out her casket. She’d told us, “Price the least expensive casket, then price the most expensive casket. Then buy the cheapest one and give the difference to the church.” We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to buy the pine box, but followed the spirit of her wishes as best we could.
I’d always imagined, as the oldest daughter, that I would speak at Mama’s funeral, but I found that I could not. Instead, four of the grandchildren took part in the service. Chris spoke extemporaneously about his beloved grandmother and Casey played the song Mama always sang us to sleep with, “There’s A Little Cabin,” on the banjo. Then, as Mama had requested, our Texas cousins sang “Now I Belong To Jesus” as she left the Clarkesville Baptist Church for the last time.
At the graveside service after a prayer and a poem, the preacher read a portion of one of my blogs about Mama and me playing Scrabble. It felt good to remember those happy times, and even smile a little, in the midst of so much grief.
I miss Mama so much but writing this, knowing you will read it, has helped me a lot. Thank you for listening.
Winnie Claire Murphy Hicks
January 21, 1925-July 16, 2010