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I’d see her name pop up on the screen of my ringing cell phone and before even answering, I knew exactly how the call would start.
“Bill, this is your mother, Shirley Yvonne Pendergast Horner,” she’d say. “I’m lost. Do you know where I am?”
She usually didn’t — dementia was clouding my dear 85-year-old mom’s mind and her memory. I’d tell her where she was, remind her, reassure her. I’d help fill in the gaps, try to assuage her fears, ease her anxiety.
Sometimes it helped. Sometimes it didn’t.
After the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted my visits to her at Cambridge Hills in Pittsboro, I spoke to my mom nearly every day. Most days, we’d talk three or four times. Then there were the difficult days when she’d call 10, 15, 20 times or more, confused and frustrated, and angry about the confusion and frustration. There would be back-to-back-to-back calls when she’d lash out at me, hang up on me, call back, hang up again, then call once more to say: “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve decided to return from whence I came.”
“OK, mom,” I’d say. “So … where exactly are you going?”
“I can’t remember if I was in Kansas or Nebraska,” she’d say. “But I’m going back there.”
There were many good calls, too, playful give-and-take conversations full of laugher and joy. She’d be confused, but in a good place, reminding me of the mother whom I’d been so close to for so long — and not this lovely woman devastated by age and a horrible brain condition.
There were funny moments: in the last two years, nearly every call included her asking me (usually multiple times) about my father. My parents divorced in 1972; dad died of cancer in 2005, by which time they’d learned to become friends again.
“Where’s your daddy?” she’d ask.
“He’s dead, mom,” I’d say. “He’s been dead for 16 years.”
“I didn’t kill him, did I?” she’d ask, serious as she could be.
Now she’s gone, too.
Dementia and her other health problems ended my mom’s life last Thursday. She’d declined steadily since complications from an atrial valve replacement in Nebraska in the fall of 2018 led to three months of hospital and rehab stays. A bad fall shortly after she came home in Hastings, Nebraska, quickly resulted in a plan to move her here, closer to my sister (who lives in Myrtle Beach) and me. We gradually began to notice signs of the dementia in mom’s second month back in N.C.; within a year it had grown alarmingly worse.
She took a bad turn a week ago Friday. Saturday was a good day. Sunday wasn’t. She mostly lost consciousness Monday. On Wednesday morning, her wonderful hospice nurse Stephanie called to say mom was in her final hours.
Stubborn ‘til the end, mom lived until noon Thursday. In the six days since that first Friday call, each of my children, her three grandkids, were able to visit with her one last time. Each, blessedly, saw mom during lucid moments. My older sister Belinda said her goodbyes while mom was still “alert and oriented,” as mom liked to say, on Friday. My wife Lee Ann and I got precious time with her, too, during a long Saturday visit.
A few days later, on Wednesday, the day before she died, I held her hand and talked to her and prayed for her, listening to the “death rattle” in her chest that portended her passing. I was on my way to see her again Thursday when Stephanie called to say she was gone.
Of all the testaments I can make about mom, one of the best is that so many of my friends and my sister’s friends considered her as their “second mom.” Our house in Kansas was a popular gathering place while we were in high school and college — and long after Belinda and I moved back to North Carolina, many of our friends continued to stop by and see mom, and then remain in touch with her when she moved to North Carolina more than 25 years ago (before a move back to Nebraska seven years ago).
“She was always a good mother to all of us,” a high school friend told me this week.
Mom grew up in Kansas but moved away from home at age 17 after a difficult childhood — going across the country to live with a cherished aunt and uncle in Arizona who supported her budding nursing career. She graduated from Mercy School of Nursing in San Diego, joined the Navy and met our dad in Portsmouth, Virginia, where they were both stationed. They married, left the Navy and lived in Sanford before their divorce took us to Kansas — where mom, Belinda and I started over, living in a small single-wide mobile home in a tiny farm community.
Mom got back into nursing, working third shift at a hospital 45 minutes away to support us. She was always a helper and a healer, an overcomer with high standards and low tolerance for middling behavior or achievement. She loved unconditionally and boasted about us loudly, despite being burdened internally by the hurts and dysfunction from her childhood that helped define her own life.
She taught me life’s greatest lesson: everything happens for a reason — you just have to figure out what that reason is, and what you can learn from it.
Now, it’s a strange place I inhabit.
Where am I?
For the first time in 58 years, I’m living in a world without a surviving parent.
My phone’s not ringing. Mom’s not calling to ask me where she is.
But I know, even still.
Rejoicing, singing praises in heaven. And in my heart, of course. Always.
Bill Horner III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @billthethird.