Even as she lay on her deathbed in a ward at the Health Sciences Centre on a Saturday afternoon in late September, my mother — or “Mudder,” as I affectionately called her — continued to display the loving, maternal instincts that had guided her entire life.
The two of us were alone, and Mom was confused and frightened, it seemed to me; a state of fear that seemed to dissipate slightly whenever our eyes met.
And it was at one of those moments that she proceeded to gently take a sleeve of my sweatshirt in her hands. I guess she was bothered by the length of the cuff, extending, as it did, over my wrist. So very slowly, and ever so gently, Mom wordlessly began to shorten the sleeve by folding the cuff backwards, a small section at a time. When she was finished — it was just the one sleeve that had gotten her attention — she tapped the end of the sweatshirt with her fingers, apparently satisfied with her work.
I thought for the briefest of seconds that she might actually say in conclusion: “There, Bobby, that’s taken care of.”
It was glorious in its simplicity, really, but I couldn’t help but think later that, only a couple of hours away from taking her last breath, Mom was still finding a way to take care of her children — her 70-year-old, in this particular case, her eldest, the offspring she had admitted just a month or so ago had caused her and my father considerable consternation, a result of my early, wild colonial boy lifestyle.
“You worried me,” she had said, arguably a massive understatement.
Mom led an eclectic life. By any standards.
An immediate smile was an acknowledgement, far from the first time, that hers and Dad’s distress had been replaced many years ago with relief, a sense of ease, and a wealth of pride, as she often put it, in how I had turned out, warts and all.
Nevertheless, there she was on that Saturday afternoon, close to death, paying attention to my needs. Mom to the very end.
My mother, Eileen Wakeham, the daughter of Placentia Bay natives Joe and Mary Judge, raised on Monchy Road in Grand Falls, would have been 95 years old this Tuesday. We — my wife Heather and I — would have had a celebratory birthday get-together here at our home in Flatrock, a place Mom thought of as her Newfoundland Shangri-La.
But that was not to be.
Needless to say, I miss Mom immensely, but at least I’m at a point of mourning where I can appreciate the amazingly long and fascinating life she led, a wonderful existence punctuated by an unconditional adoration for G.P., as she called my father — “the old gent,” in his later years — and for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Geographical barriers were never an issue. Mom always found a way to ensure we were all within her purview of affection and care.
And while raising the six of us (and, some would say, raising Dad, as well), Mom also managed to carve out a professional and avocational life for herself: returning to school in her early 40s to become a pediatric nurse; attaining international Silver Life Master status in Bridge; taking full advantage of Dad’s airline pass privileges to travel the globe. Two Newfs, the Grand Falls girl and the townie, having breakfast in Dublin, supper in Paris, drinking Scotch and playing blackjack in Las Vegas; embracing sports fandom from senior hockey in Gander to the NHL in New York and Philadelphia; voraciously reading anything she could get her hands on, fiction and non-fiction alike, especially material with so much as a hint of Newfoundland content; and establishing innumerable, enduring friendships along the way with her unpretentious personality, warmth, loyalty, intelligence and sense of humour.
Mom led an eclectic life. By any standards.
On that last afternoon when we were together, and after she had straightened out my sleeve, I was heading across the parking lot at the hospital towards my truck, my heart as heavy as it had ever been. Realizing just how ill she was, I quietly spoke to my father: “Dad, I don’t know whether you exist in some realm I’m totally unaware of, but if you do, please come now and take Mom, because she’s ready.”
I was barely in our driveway when Heather emerged from the house to tell me the hospital had phoned to say Mom had taken a turn for the worse. (Even for an aging agnostic like myself, there was a stirring of realization that my plea of desperation to Dad had been answered).
We were thankfully able to be at Mom’s bedside for the last minutes of her life and tell her how much we loved her. She was unable to communicate, but remarkably, at one point, a small tear appeared in the corner of one of her blue eyes. A paradox, I thought later, a tear of sadness, but a tear of joy, as well, perhaps knowing — this was part of her belief system — that she was about to be reunited with her parents and siblings, and, most importantly of all, with the “old gent.”
Mom and Dad were always the best dancers on the floor, and I like to think they were already resuming a jitterbug or an old-fashioned waltz on that sunny afternoon in late September.
Happy birthday, Mudder.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at [email protected]