Three Gifts from my Mother: A Reflection on the Power of Discussing Death and Dying
Written by: Crystal Ashley, Outreach Director/Funeral Director
My mother gave me many gifts over the years. Some of them have become distant memories and some of them I still have to this day. Other gifts, the most precious ones, have made a lasting impact on my life and continue to shape the person that I am today.
One year mom gave me a blue satin baseball jacket with two white stripes running down the side of each arm. The kind with wide, blue bands of elastic cinching the wrists and the waist. An undeniably 80’s kind of jacket that made me feel like a cool kid, something straight out of The Breakfast Club or The Goonies. Although there will never be definitive proof, I can’t help but feel like that jacket helped me be a little less shy and feel a bit more confident about myself. Or perhaps it was the warm hug mom gave me when I put that jacket on for the first time. Or the way she then brushed my hair out of my eyes and told me she loved me bigger than the sky, extending her arms upward toward the sky and then as far behind her back as they would go in a demonstration of how big her love for me was. I no longer have that jacket, but I carry with me the memory of how loved my mother made me feel that day and every day since. Mom, thank you for teaching me how to love.
Many years later I had two children of my own, I was working as a server at a restaurant, and I was a full-time college student. My mother had returned to West Virginia to care for my grandparents. I missed her dearly and I visited as often as I could. I recall one year in particular when my children and I were returning to North Carolina after visiting her and my grandparents. After a few hundred miles the kids were ready to stretch their legs (frequent stops were essential for everyone’s well-being since one of the kids were always poking the other, staring at the other, or crossing the imaginary line) and so I pulled off the nearest exit, probably somewhere just inside the Virginia border. I opened the back door of the car and lying in the seat beside my purse was a sky-blue gift bag my mother had snuck in there without me seeing. It had a card sticking out of it with my name on it, written in my mother’s beautiful handwriting. I can see her handwriting clearly in my mind to this day. She had the most beautiful handwriting that soothes my soul when I read it, but that’s a story for another time. Inside the card was a note and some money for gas. Inside the bag was a Bible and a plaque with a poem on it about never giving up. She knew that I was struggling to keep up with the kids, school, and work, even though I didn’t tell her in so many words. Mothers just have a way of knowing these things. I no longer have the plaque, but I certainly never forgot the sentiment. “Never Give Up”. I still have the Bible my mother gave me that day. Mom, thank you for building my faith and for nourishing my strength.
On May 8, 2006, my mother died unexpectedly from a brain aneurysm. I recall seeing my grandparents’ phone number show up on caller I.D. late one evening and thinking that it was my mother calling to tell me that my grandmother was in the hospital again. Only this time it was my grandmother’s voice on the other end calling to tell me that my mother was in the hospital, on life support, and that we needed to get there as soon as we could. We were completely blindsided and a wave of shock and disbelief knocked all of us over that day. Since my parents were divorced it was up to my sisters, my brother, and myself to make decisions about my mother’s end-of-life care. Fortunately, my mother had always talked about her end-of-life wishes and so we all knew that she did not want to be on life support. We took turns sitting by her bed and holding her hand that night before she was taken off of life support, telling her how much we loved her. The next few days were spent planning her funeral. My mother had always talked about her final wishes. Not only her desire to withhold life support, but also her desire to be cremated. She even talked about what two songs she wanted to be played at her service. Mom, thank you for sharing your wishes with us and saving us from wondering if we did the right thing.
In the days following my mother’s death, we found her journal. In her beautiful handwriting, one passage, in particular, stands out. About two weeks before her death she wrote that her cup was running over, that she could not feel any more blessed than she did at that moment.
Her cup runneth over. It certainly did. It ran over, and it spilled into the lives of everyone that was lucky enough to meet her.
Since I began working in the death care industry seven years ago I have wanted to tell my mother’s story in hopes that it would inspire people to talk to their families about their end-of-life choices. I have wanted to tell this story because I know how my mother’s openness about death helped me through an incredibly difficult time.
I hesitated to share this story, just as many people hesitate to talk about death. I understand that hesitation because I have worn those shoes. I have also worn the shoes of the daughter who lost her mother unexpectedly, and now I wear the shoes of the funeral director who clearly sees the impact on families of our silence and fear of talking about this important subject. My mother was an incredibly giving person and if she thought that her story could help even one person, then she would want me to share it. I hope this story inspires you to talk to your family about your end-of-life wishes. If you would like to talk about ways to begin this discussion with your family, then please give me a call or send me an email. I would love to hear your thoughts and help you navigate this conversation.
The best gifts, the ones that leave a lasting impression on your life, are the ones you cannot see.
Crystal can be reached at 910-791-9099 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org