A Ray of Light at a Mother’s Death

Although miles apart, knowing that she was gone.

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Posted in , Apr 12, 2022

A ray of light

Last week I shared some material from a book I’m finishing for Guideposts about Alzheimer’s and my family, especially our journey with our mother and her dementia. I told about my last conversation with her. This week I want to tell you the rest of the story.

I spent the next few days of that last visit sitting in Mom’s room reading while she slept, hardly noting the comings and goings of aides and nurses. Sometimes I would look up and see Pat, her new best friend, standing at the door clutching her empty but ever-present purse.

I had coffee one afternoon with Colleen Burke, the director of the memory care unit. “How much longer?” I asked. 

“Not too much, though some hold on longer than others. It’s a process.”

We’d declined the feeding tube, of course, and Mom had been diagnosed with heart failure, a common complication of Alzheimer’s. I wondered if down deep she was fighting or simply letting go. Rossiters were fighters, Norman-Irish warriors. There was no way to tell. And yet my mom appeared at peace. 

I left her on a sunny Saturday morning, giving her one last gentle hug. My brother Joe, his wife Toni and the girls would be back the next day from Florida. My sister Mary Lou was coming down that afternoon. I paused in the doorway to take one last look at the woman who had given birth to me. The room seemed incongruously bright. Her caregivers were attending to her. She was in good hands, God’s hands. Then I turned and headed for the airport. On the way I stopped at a pay phone to call my sponsor.

“I feel so overwhelmed,” I said. 

“It’s dying,” he said. “We’re supposed to feel overwhelmed.” 

By Monday, April 19, I was in Tucson, Arizona, helping teach a Guideposts writing workshop. Two senior editors were conducting the morning session. I would join them for lunch and the afternoon session then host a dinner that night. 

Having once lived in Taos, I love the Southwest, and not just because it reminds me of my raw youth. There is a brute beauty to its landscapes, as if the further west you go the more America is America in its newness and wildness. I might have stayed there forever if I could have found a way. 

It was a crisp, cool spring morning, and I was up early thanks to the time zone change. I wanted to hike Picacho Peak, but it would take hours I didn’t have so I settled for the tamer and closer Tumamoc Hill near our hotel. 

The path was easy for most of the hike but got steeper higher up, and I was surprisingly breathless when I reached the top at a little over 3,000 feet. I lay on my back and looked up into the great western sky, a few tufts of clouds interrupting the boundless blue, a sky that seemed so vast yet so close. A spear of sunlight hit my eyes, and I remembered that I had forgotten sunscreen and couldn’t stay long like this. I thought of my mother’s love of the sun and how it healed her.

And then I felt something, like a swooning of the soul, a gentle rush as if something were leaving, and at that moment I knew she was gone. 

I hiked down quickly. There was a message for me at the hotel desk to call home. I knew already what the call would confirm.

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