Even if you expect the death of a loved one, one can’t quite know how you’ll react the moment you get the news.
With my dad in 2003, I was home at my apartment in Dallas at 1:30 on a Sunday morning when I got the call from Mom. I let it roll to my answering machine, but I knew what it was, and I could hear the pain in her delivery.
Mom’s pain and struggles are no more. She passed away on June 5 at 12:28 p.m.
I was in the parking lot of my employer, KWTV News 9 in Oklahoma City, on the return side of a trip to Panera, where I got my lunch usual: a Greek quinoa salad with broccoli cheddar soup. My brother, John, who is a fantastic nurse with hospice expertise, texted our group that “she passed peacefully,” and a second time to reiterate, “Just to let you know: mom has passed away.”
While I expected it, it was still a shock.
The immediate wave of emotion was pretty intense, but it didn’t last long and subsided into a mopey sadness, at least for the rest of the day. I went home and ate my sad little Panera lunch, shot some hoops and mowed the yard, simple distractions from the tasks at hand.
Task 1: Meet up at Integrity Funeral Service at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Task 2: Do everything Mom wanted us to do, things we had discussed for the past two years at the very least.
We were prepared.
Mom had been super specific about her wishes. No funeral. No newspaper obit. Hell, she didn’t want us parading her photos on Facebook either, a one-way ticket, she said, to her haunting us for eternity. I will test that one eventually, which wouldn’t come as a surprise to Mom, although the focus will be on the early years and the mom I remember growing up.
But she didn’t really want us posting the news or announcing it to the world until we got some things in order, to make sure her will was executed precisely as she wanted. She had a distaste for people wearing their emotions on their sleeve publicly, and she was a big fan of people who led their lives privately with quiet and dignity. I remember when David Bowie died that Mom really liked how private he had been about his cancer and how, poof, he was just gone.
“Classy,” she’d say.
“Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come,” William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Our mom was 79, the youngest of seven children born to Ava Caldwell of Marysville, Ohio. However, she had lived in Oklahoma since the mid-1960s when she married our dad. After he passed 15 years ago, we kids vowed to help mom wherever we could, and we did.
She didn’t drive of her own choosing, so for the past 15 years we drove her to Walmart and to Tulsa and to wherever she wanted. My brother Charles did that for years before his move to St. Louis, and I took the baton about midway through. And then there was my brother John, the nurse. If you don’t have a great nurse in the family, get one. I know that nurses make good money, but I’m not sure that they aren’t still underpaid.
Good nurses, that is.
I talked to Mom every day on my drive home from work, even up to the week before her death, which made her sudden demise a tad odd. She had suffered from COPD for years, and while she would from time to time suffer dips in health and had lost weight gradually over time, she had really lost a lot of weight in the month before her passing. However, we had texted as recently as May 29 and had FaceTimed each other on May 30.
Her final text to me came on May 29:
feel better today!! Going back to bed this afternoon!
We called the past two years “bonus time” after an exacerbation almost killed her in 2016. Mom got super serious about her will, her wishes and her care. At the time, there was some talk about hospice, but Mom insisted that she wanted to fight through it — and she did for two more years. During that time, we had many more trips to Tulsa, to Walmart, to lunch and dinner and a lot of laughs and discussions about the day’s news.
She squeezed the ever-loving most out of life, and we squeezed back.
At Mom’s request, we hired an estate attorney, and we got her wishes codified. If I could offer one piece of advice to any of my peeps between 20-50, encourage your folks to make a will and to keep their estate out of probate. It’s been a godsend. Heck, lots of folks are disbursing their estates before they pass, putting homes into the names of their heirs and distributing money. You don’t need the extra headaches after a loved one passes.
I called attorney Michelle Nelson, from Tulsa, the week before Mom’s passing, to let her know we didn’t think Mom would make it this time. The night before, I had started getting LifeAlert calls (with a Los Angeles area code) at 11:30 p.m. While John headed south to be at Mom’s, I navigated the discussions with the LifeAlert operator.
It was clear that the time had come for hospice and a focus on continuous, palliative care. Sometime I’ll blog about COPD and how it progresses and how to manage it, but I’ll also write about the reality of a lung capacity that shrinks to zero and how life-extending devices such as a BiPAP eventually lose their effectiveness.
She stopped wearing the BiPAP a couple of weeks prior, a proverbial white flag to what is a devastating condition. Besides, it made the inside of her nose really, really, really sore. I don’t blame her for not wanting to wear it.
She didn’t verbalize it, but her actions spoke it:
“Enough,” she said.
There is a lot of stress associated with caring for a loved one, in whatever capacity you do so. I internalize stress, but a lesson I learned from Dad’s death is that a grieving person needs to give themselves a whole lot of slack, for weeks and months even.
Be good to yourself, I’d tell other people in the same situation.
Kristi and I visited Mom over the weekend of June 2-3, and it did not look good. I did what I do: I mowed her yard. In the world of love languages, that’s how I show affection: I do stuff for you. Labor.
John and Tammy and Charles and Rebecca were with Mom continuously, and a hospice nurse named Candace helped immensely. Truth be told, there are dozens of nurses who helped Mom over the years, and they were all excellent…and interesting. Mom told me about all of them.
While Mom’s end was ultimately fairly sudden in terms of actual demise, COPD is a condition that had progressed for 21 years. Heck, it really started with a severe asthma attack she suffered back in 1985. For the past several years, I had gone about my daily life mildly worried about getting that text or that call that something had happened or that Mom has being taken back to the hospital.
It was mild stress, worried mostly that she might be suffering at any given moment.
For the record, I never minded the hospitals part of it. In fact, I like ’em, St. John’s in Tulsa, especially. Mom did, too, and that’s why she wanted to be taken there. We both detested Hillcrest, which we unaffectionately called Killcrest after Dad passed from sepsis in March 2003. But St. John’s is in a beautiful part of the city, near Utica Square, and their cafeteria was pretty sweet. Good pie. We’d often sneak snacks up to Mom.
And then when Mom would get released, we’d go eat at Olive Garden across the street.
St. John’s is also where I was born 47 years ago.
Alas, the realization set in pretty quickly last week that there’d be no more hospital visits, no more weekend grocery trips or afternoon conversations. That part makes me sad. However, the realization also set in that Mom and I actively stayed engaged via FaceTime and texting practically every day, at least 30 minutes to an hour every day for the past five years. Initially, we started that routine as a way for her to help me from dozing off in traffic along Interstate 235.
I quickly figured out that we had birthed a ritual that would ultimately comfort me for the rest of my life.
Mom also got to know my Kristi, as she knew Rebecca and Tammy, my brothers’ wives. A mother’s stamp of approval is a big deal.
Of course, Mom loved her grand kids and extended grand kids as well. Immensely.
Mom had a great friend in a local woman named Betty, a friend of the quality Mom hadn’t had since Edith Heathcock passed away suddenly in 1981. Betty took Mom to the store and to wherever she needed for during-the-week errands. Mom also had an extended family thanks to the Maddux crew out of Tulsa, relatives of my brother John’s wife.
They are part of my family from here forward as well.
There are many people who regret not being there for a loved one in their time of need or at the end of their life. That is not us whatsoever. And I think if you asked Mom, she would echo the no regrets, aside from not ever taking the time to travel to England before her COPD kicked in. I’ve got two vials of ashes, one to spread in San Francisco and one to spread in London, the two places she wanted to visit most.
The meeting with the funeral home was pretty straight forward. We had worked with Jimmy Spurlock’s crew previously in 2003 when Dad passed, and I joked that we might ought to get a volume discount. I always appreciated how willing Jimmy and his team were willing to comfort by reflecting the personality of their customers.
In our case, it’s through humor, often a dark, morbid humor.
And telling stories.
I plan to tell several of them via my blog over the next few months and years, as writing and content creation is genuinely therapeutic for me. However, we also discovered a gold mine of content from Mom’s collection of letters over the years: notes from her mother, Ava, and letters from our very serious grandfather, The Rev. W. Roy Welton, of McAlester. He was very fire-and-brimstone. All written in the 1960s and 1970s, these letters paint a picture of a world much simpler than ours, slices of Americana during an era when a handwritten letter was the equivalent of a Facebook Message or iMessage.
I have hundreds of family photos to get digitized for my brothers and me.
I have some videos of Dad from back in the day that I need to get digitized.
And so much more work to do, including helping Mom and Dad find their final resting place, which has been a tale unto itself. Folks are apt to say to the grieving, “She’s in a better place now,” but I would tell them that she’s actually in my car, at least until I can get her to my house in Norman, awaiting hers and Dad’s final destination at the cemetery in McAlester across from Tandy Town.
Mom loved McAlester. We used to go to The Meeting Place on Choctaw two or three times a year on Sundays.
And she would have found that “she’s actually in my car” joke damned funny.
But back to the task at hand: Aside from financial dealings and all sorts of communications that have to happen when a loved one passes, we needed to get Mom’s house in order, get it emptied and get it on the market. With the help of Tammy, Rebecca and Kristi, my brothers and I were able to get it done in a week.
We spent the first couple of days going through papers and documents and photos and gadgets, doohickeys and thingamabobs. John had a pile of things he wanted to keep. Charles did, too, and I as well. We also had a pile of things to give to Goodwill, and Kristi got us set up on Facebook to sell bigger items. Before Mom died, I had thought we might need to hold an estate sale, and I fully realize now that in 2018, you just need an active, local Facebook group.
For the first two or three days, we toiled for 7-8 hours and then had dinner together. This week, it was more like 10-hour days and upward of 2,000-3,000 miles on my new Subaru. We stayed the night in Tulsa a couple of nights, but much of the week, we just commuted — my brothers to the Tulsa area and Kristi and I to Oklahoma City. To say that the effort of the past week was a bonding experience, I believe, is an understatement although we were already pretty well bonded.
We recommitted however to get together more as a group and have Christmas together, rotating homes each year.
It felt like the movie “The Big Chill” minus the scene where an old college friend of Alex plays “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the organ at his funeral. Mom didn’t want a funeral because she didn’t want a random preacher who never knew her eulogizing her impersonally. She also never wanted to inconvenience people, making them feel obligated to come in from out of town.
Along the way this week, I inherited Dad’s 1964 Baldwin Acrosonic spinet piano, a model I learned might have been featured in a 1980s sitcom, perhaps “The Cosby Show,” I was told. When it’s tuned, it sounds terrific.
We also discovered that Dad’s 1987 Buick Century had stayed in Mom’s garage since 2003, and so we recorded some video of us trying to revive it. Side note: There’s more video than just this clip. Need some editing time.
Speaking of that garage, we cleaned it out, and that was a feat unto itself.
As I’m apt to do, I documented the entire experience. Tons of pictures ahead, today and tomorrow and the weeks ahead.
Mom mostly wanted to make sure we carried memories with us, executed her will and got her house clean before we put it on the market. She was immensely proud of having a clean house, and we weren’t even allowed to eat or drink anywhere besides the kitchen, a rule we struggled with in the first days after her passing.
So many more stories to be told, but the first one ends like this: Mission accomplished, at least on the primary fronts. Each of us took home multiple loads of stuff, memories and gadgets, furniture and more. We carried out her will to a T, thanks to Michelle’s legal work and the guidance of Danyiel Green at American Exchange Bank. And we got the house cleaned with a lot of Welton hustle and on the market thanks to our new friend, Jill Francis.
I could not have done that without the support of my boss and fellow managers and colleagues at Griffin Communications, who granted me the latitude to take care of Mom’s business.
This house was full as of June 5.
John, Charles and I along with Tammy, Rebecca and Kristi put in long hours to get this place in order. I’m really proud that we were able to come together and get this done so efficiently.
People grieve differently, and I grieved as much during the last two years after the exacerbation of 2016 as I have this past week. One was long and anticipatory, and the other a finality. Heck, wherever Mom is, she’s likely celebrating that she went first as she was always afraid I’d die in a mass shooting or drop dead of a heart attack while running. She really was. At the end of our daily conversations, we went through an odd, comedic routine that included her advising me to “watch my back.”
However, she was also fond of saying, “Kid, I’m the best friend you’ve got,” and “This is a beautiful life.” Even in the face of worsening health, she’d say that.
The latter is a sentiment I also hold. This is indeed a beautiful life. We’ve won the lottery insomuch as we’re human and alive, at least right as of this moment. There are very few circumstances that aren’t extraordinarily fortunate, especially if you live in America. I’m not closed to the idea that one could also replace ‘America’ with many countries around the world, too.
The point is: Gratitude is everything.
We still have some work to do, ultimately, to carry out Mom’s wishes.
I need to get with Zeke down at Oak Hill Cemetery in McAlester and contact his monument guy to get a headstone done for her and Dad. And then I’ll need to schedule a burial. It took us a little bit to even figure out where Roy and Beulah Welton were buried. Long story short, we had to establish that before moving forward on the other.
Mom’s house will sell quickly. It’s an 88-year-old house that has had two owners, and it’s in mint condition. But I’ll have to go back to mow the yard a few times and be there for closing when it sells.
And then we need to go see the world.
And turn up the music, especially Raul Malo, Chris Botti, Sting, Michael Jackson, Bee Gees and George Michael, and many more. Beyond any of these, Mom especially loved Chris Botti and George Michael.
We need to work hard, be kind and stick together.
Because this is indeed a beautiful life.