Donna Jean Murphy Grist and Linda Grist Cunningham circa December 1950, Red Jacket, WV.
April 5: I wrote this column on March 19, as we flew home to Key West from a family ski trip in Utah. Here I sit at my island desk on April 5, waiting, as is she. I’ve been adding and revising for 18 days, breath catching each time the cell rings, heart stuttering each morning as I check the texts and emails from the brother designated as the keeper of the messages. Robert told me this morning Mom has turned inward, sleeping most of the time, uninterested in connecting, an occasional smile from out of nowhere and for no reason. It won’t be long.
It is now April 12. I am heading to the Shenandoah Valley this afternoon. We’re being told it could be “just days.” For her sake, I hope so. For mine? I’m trying to be the Ice Queen.
April 18: Home. And waiting. Though we fret, as does she, Mom continues the long path to her death. We held hands and snuggled close for hours. When she talked she talked still about getting ready for the party. She checks her watch and asks what time it is. “Is it time yet,” she asks. “I don’t want to be late.” We reassure her that she is on time and that she looks beautiful and ready for the party. And, I found that smile-making photo of the two of us in December 1950. Isn’t she beautiful?!
June 10: Can’t sleep. It’s 2 a.m. I learned years ago not to toss and turn. Get up. Write something. Certainly lying awake and wondering if Mom just died and that’s why I can’t sleep is a bit dramatic.
Mom is actively dying. Such a powerful term that phrase. She’s peaceful, pain-free, sleeping, making this last transition on her own terms. Until Mom, I thought of dying as something over which we have no control; but she’s controlling this; she and God are deciding the when, just as she decided the how. It has to be soon. She stopped eating and drinking on Monday, June 3. The statistics say she should be dead; but, then Mom never has done anything just because the stats said she should. And, we wait. We five children and our extended families scattered across the country and around the world pick up our phones, look for the missed call or text, go back to our days, and wait. The three boys, Mike, Richard and Robert spend time with her; Beth and I are grateful they can represent us. And, we wait. And, I write. Just like Mom has done for decades; writing in the middle of the night.
I took Harper back to the shelter Friday for adoption. I cried the whole way there and the whole way back. Harper is the nine-week-old kitten Ed and I bottle fed at 2 in the morning, taught to use the litter box and sternly admonished “no bite,” all the while giggling at this delightful calico who comes when called and begs to be picked up and snuggled. We foster kittens and swear every time there’s no such thing as Cat 6 when we have Cat 5. We already had one foster fail, which is how we ended up with our beloved Cat 5 Michael. I dreamed about Harper Saturday night. Who the heck dreams about a kitten? I may go back to the shelter tomorrow and bring her home.
June 11: Mom died at 3:15 a.m., Tuesday, June 11, 2019. I did not go back to pick up Harper. But I might.
I will finish this before she dies.
March 19: My mother’s mind is filled with butterflies. Thousands of them. Angry. Joyous. Gentle. Determined. Catastrophically and devastatingly sad. Soaring; exuberant. Occasionally mean and catty. Silly and giggly. Uncompromisingly demanding. Strong and assured; weak and unutterably afraid. Complex; complicated. Terribly, gloriously human.
As she moves these days toward her death, she reaches with focused slowness to grasp a butterfly here, another there, until she’s woven together a sentence, a thought, a ragged conversation with the occasional silent minute slipping by as she reaches for another butterfly.
In the good times, there are whole discussions that make sense to her though perhaps not to others. In the bad times, well, I’m not the first child to feel the heart-crushing frustration of watching a parent slip away.
I will write this in present tense while I can. I cannot bear the idea of past tense.
Donna Jean Murphy Grist turned 91 on Feb. 20, 2019. The second of four sisters, the daughter of John Herbert “Jack” and Mary Elizabeth Riney Murphy, the wife of Richard Paul Grist, Sr., she has outlived them, most of her friends and all but her children, grands-and-greats and a handful of nieces and nephews. She’s been ready to die for six months, perhaps a year. On Jan. 15, 2019, we gathered. For the first time.
“Why are you here,” she asked me on that mid-January dying day, her hands warm, her heart strong, her breathing shallow and steady, her skin as flawless as when she was 30.
“I want to say good-bye,” I say as she fades again. “It’s OK for you to let go.”
“I’m ready,” she says. I know I am dying. It’s OK for you to go home. I love you.”
We’d thought, we five siblings and her caregivers, that Jan. 15 was good-bye day. We said our farewells, in person and through FaceTime. We made peace as best we could with the demons with which children wrestle and went through a box of Kleenex. She was letting go. It would be only hours.
Except it wasn’t. Which is why I was back in the valley six weeks later. I’d said my goodbyes in January; there was no reason to go back. Except that there were. She’s mom and my friend and I had no excuses.
“Oh, you look just like Lindy,” she said with a startled smile as she opened her eyes and re-arranged herself in the chair. I’d shown up unannounced.
“I am Lindy,” I said. “I came to visit.”
“I am glad,” she continued, “but are you sure you can afford it? It’s not spring. Shouldn’t you be working?”
Butterflies, you see. Gentle brushes connecting a childhood nickname and a years-ago conversation about not leaving Key West in season because of the cost and the challenges of winter travel. I’d gone back to the Shenandoah Valley March 1. My brother Robert says now, three weeks later, that might have been the last time she could muster the butterflies. In formation, as my sister Beth says.
“Well, now that you’re here, we have a lot still to accomplish. Get me my iPad and make a list. I’m late for a meeting and there are things I need to learn. Do you think they have any literature I can pick up so I can learn the things I missed? Get me to the stage now. They’re waiting.”
I grabbed paper and pencil and didn’t bother reminding her she stopped FaceTiming, emailing and ordering from Amazon Prime in late December. We’d make a list, she and I. And captured in that one clear, wholly lucid, if not wholly explicable, paragraph is all that is my mother.
- An early adopter of technology who shopped online, texted, live-streamed music and emailed before it was cool. A librarian who happily traded real books for her Kindle and wore out two. Her second iPad is on my kitchen table.
- A woman of lists. Obsessed lists. Understandable in part because she is Chief Operating Officer and executive project manager of a five-kid, at-least-one-dog and a traveling-for-business-spouse household. There are lists on a piece of paper on the kitchen counter. Lists on the chalkboard of our Saturday morning chores. And, when she downsized to move into assisted living in September 2017, there were lists of lists – and color-coded dots.
- A life-long learner. There is little my mother can’t research and learn. From raising children and experimenting with a tomato fish spaghetti sauce (a near-mythic failure) to etiquette rules (a hand-written thank-you note within one week; ladies never leave the house without makeup; gentlemen hold open doors; everyone cleans toilets and changes tires). My mother loves Google search. Wondering aloud years ago when a great-grandchild was born about new parents and not knowing what to do, she grinned. “They’re so lucky; they can just ask Google.”
- A princess. She can be Cinderella or Moana one moment and one (or both) of the Ugly Stepsisters the next. She went from being a doted-on sister and daughter to a protected and cherished wife, then mother of five under eight with no time in between to learn herself. No one ever said to Donna “you be you and let them be them.” She measures herself unsparingly against her lists, the rules, the expectations and her pursuit of perfection for herself, her life. She measures her children that way, too; she did a good job with us and still we wonder if we can please her. She achieved enormous success and she never feels it was good enough.
- A writer. I’ve saved hundreds of her weekly family letters, typed on her old manual typewriter before she took up email in the early 1990s. They are filled with family comings-and-goings, a most splendid paper trail that binds us. But, there were her darker journals. She writes every day, legal pads filled with sheets upon sheets of her most private struggles, joys and perceived failures. She gets up in the early morning hours, makes a cup of tea, grabs a sleeve of Premium saltines, butter and a knife and writes out her feelings and then makes her lists. These past years she shared via email and the family Facebook group, too. She tossed dozens of journals in the 2017 down-sizing and we have discarded the rest. Without reading. A quick glance is enough to know that no one should delve so deeply into another’s personal journeys. In March, I opened one of her notebooks to find a Dec. 22, 2018, journal entry; just a handful of words of an unfinished thought and likely her last.
- I love my mother and when she walks toward me with a yellow legal pad in hand and “that” look as she says, “we need to talk,” I cringe, swear under my breath and wish with all my heart I could run away. She and I fought over those legal pads, which she too often used as a weapon. In September 2017, when Hurricane Irma roared through the Keys, I spent three weeks with her. Mostly they were good days, but not that late Saturday afternoon just hours before Irma made landfall and I was terrified Sunday would bring the death of my husband who’d stayed on the island. She’d been irritable that I was distracted and wasn’t spending time with her. She came at me with that yellow legal pad in hand and a determined “we have to talk.” I walked away in angry tears, sobbing that this one time it wasn’t about her; this one time I was the one paralyzed by fear. Though we ended in hugs, she was devastated; I, too. When she dies, I will wish with all my heart that she’d come at me with a yellow legal pad, “that” look and a “we have to talk.”
- An executive. Mom is bothered — though she pretends not to be — by her lack of a college degree and an executive career outside the home. Not that she was unhappy with being a wife and mother, but because, I suspect, she wanted to show herself and others that she could do more. It probably didn’t help that she raised five children who are college grads with successful careers; ditto her grandchildren. Somewhere inside she felt she didn’t measure up. There’s no doubt she has the skills to run a corporate office or manage complicated projects. She did that every day. She had a vision for her family, a mission and strategies for getting us there. She balanced budgets and met deadlines; she handled the human resources roles and challenged us as needed. She was toughest on us older three. By the time my two younger brothers came along, she’d mellowed a bit. It was OK for them to eat cold pizza in front of the television pretty much any old time. For the rest of us, our treat was tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches once a week as we watched Disney in black-and-white on Sunday evening. To this day, I think of tomato soup and grilled cheese as a special supper. Not having to sit up straight at the table for every meal? Positively sinful.
- My friend. We are so alike, she and I. I look in the mirror and see her eyes and say a selfish prayer that I’ve got her wrinkle-free, sag-free skin genes. There are our shared lists and our colored dots; our drives to control chaos and keep the silverware drawer in righteous order. There’s our penchant for retail shopping that includes shoes and way too many pullover shirts. A love of books and a delight in one-click ordering for the Kindle. There’s the absolute joy of grocery shopping; the only time, she once said, she could spend money and not feel guilty. There’s the skin care ritual, twice-a-year dentist visits and tooth-brushing after every meal. Clearly, there is our shared compulsion to write and write and write. And, oh, the love of the beach and the pull of the ocean. She visited Key West with me often and when we moved in July 2012, she worked side-by-side with me for endless, sweating days unpacking and sorting and making a home. Just the two of us and Molly the Cat. The girls.
- We’d planned another girls trip to Key West for her just before my dad died on Jan. 30, 2014. Somewhere deep inside she instinctively knew the timing wasn’t right. “I feel sure,” she wrote me, “that since we are pretty much soulmates (although you have so many good characteristics of your dad) you will understand and accept my decision to just stay put for now. Why change a good thing when it is working so well? Only God knows what tomorrow will bring and whatever it is, He will be there to help all of us take care of it.”
So, like my mother, I pray as I wait: “Show me my path. Teach me along the way. Direct my anger. Grant me peace. Sustain my hope. Let me laugh. For we will reap if we do not grow weary”
I promised to finish this in the present tense. I did. Godspeed, my friend.