My mother died early this morning. She was 74 and had a pretty good life, I think. I’d like to tell you a little about her.
Jane Arliss Weber was born March 28, 1932 in Windsor, Ontario. She was the first natural child of Cliff and Jesse Weber, though she had an older adopted sister, Joan. The Webers had two more children; a boy, Kirk, and another girl, Mary.
Cliff was a family doctor, the old fashioned way. He made house calls, carried all his supplies in a bag, and sometimes took payment in livestock. He sounds like he was a good task-master and had a healthy respect for good behavior and attitude. Jesse was a housewife. She sounds as if she was another tough one, but wasn’t above lots of love and fun. I get the impression that my mom’s childhood was a pretty happy one.
She went to nursing school at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children around the age of 18. She worked there as an OR nurse in the early days of heart and lung surgery. She would tell of looking after (and sacrificing) the monkeys they used as the source of lungs for early heart-lung machines, including the day that one of them got loose! She worked with early pioneers of childhood surgery in the day when the surgeon was the absolute master and beholden to none.
Somewhere in this period, the early 1950s, she met a tall, skinny refugee doctor from Romania, 10 years her senior, named Peter. He had left Romania soon after the communist take-over and had settled in Toronto to learn pediatric cardiology. He managed to woo her (apparently with a lot of help from her – the men in our family are not known for their amorous aggression) and eventually, over some reluctance in her family, they married on Dec 28, 1954 and she became J. Arliss Vlad.
It was a long-lived match; they would have celebrated their 52nd anniversary this December. They brought 5 children into this world – four within five years, 2 boys, 2 girls. If for nothing else my mother deserves credit for putting up with 4 warring and bickering kids for most of her early adult life. The fifth child came along 8 years after the last of the other 4 – when Arliss was 37 – and is trying to do his mother justice now.
I’m also happy to say that the initial reticence of her family was overcome pretty quickly. They decided my dad was a pretty upright guy, and in one of those lovely ironies, when my father’s father finally made it out of Romania and came to live in Canada, he and my mom’s father became very good friends.
Mom raised her kids very much on her own in some ways. My dad was (and continues to be) an ambitious, hard-working guy, and put in long hours at the hospital. We saw him less than some of us would’ve liked. But this wasn’t so rare at that time – it was often the case amongst families of physicians, especially the ambitious ones in academic medicine.
They lived in Buffalo, moved to Iowa City for a few years, moved back to Buffalo (where I put in my appearance), and finally settled in Ottawa for the last 27 years of her life. Things changed for her with this move. The other kids were now out of the house with only me left, and I was in school most of the time. She did what many women of her her generation did in that situation – she looked for things to occupy her time and let her express her own personality.
She made stained glass figures for a while – and did it very well. We still have her wonderful work all over our houses. Then she looked for things to do outside of the house, volunteering at the Red Cross and the Distress Center. She was a very good counselor at the latter, and I like to think she helped many men and women through times of depspair. Finally she made her way into retail, working at a pewter shop for some years. She enjoyed this, and we have lots of pewter things around our houses to show for it. She finally retired when she was in her mid-60s, and she and my dad settled into retired home life, traveling a little, napping a lot, and generally learning to live full time with each other.
What was she like, you ask? She was an incredibly generous, tolerant woman with a knack for making friends and keeping them. She took broken souls under her wing and helped them heal. There was Kim, the wife of my brother’s roommate. When she and her husband divorced my mom was there to help her through the rough time, help her find a job again, help give advice about raising a young child, and generally be second mother. Kim has remained a friend of the family’s ever since; she is re-married with another child, and doing great. Her husband is also a friend
She sat with the girl next door as she lay dying of leukemia. Her parents, who she did not know well at that point, were overwhelmed and my mom helped out however she could, by being there to talk to, and to be another body to sit with their dying child so she would not be alone in the hospital. They have been extended family ever since.
There were many others.
She was a fine talker, but also a great listener – that rarest of skills. Diplomatic, wise enough to let people make their own mistakes but willing to help when they suffered the consequences, she didn’t lose friends easily once they were made. She supported all her kids, whatever they decided to do with their lives, and didn’t lecture (much) or badger. She let us find our own ways. We made mistakes; she helped us figure out what to do afterwards. When we changed our life directions in mid-stream (for instance, by abondoning music for medicine) she never begrudged us the time and money she and my dad spent on us, but kept on encouraging us to go on and find whatever made us happy.
Late in her 60s, soon after I started medical school, she noticed that she was having problems writing. Then she started falling. Her right arm became less and less useful. After lots of tests, she was finally diagnosed with something related to Parkinson’s disease – the precise diagnosis has never been clear. She tried all the drugs; none of them helped. She suffered a slow but all too rapid decline over the next several years. The right arm became useless. Her legs got more and more klutzy and rigid, until she couldn’t walk unaided. Then she couldn’t walk at all and needed to be moved by wheel chair or lifts. Her other arm became slowly less functional and eventually she needed help eating and caring for herself. Then she had trouble talking. She’d found it harder and harder to find words for some years when this happened, but now she had trouble forming the words themselves.
Through it all, she kept a remarkable good humor. I won’t say she didn’t get depressed and cranky; of course she did, and my Dad, her main care-giver through all this, took much of the brunt. But she still loved seeing family, talking when she could, listening when she couldn’t. She’d laugh or smile at jokes and make a few of her own. Her brain worked just find through all of it.
Finally she became almost mute and completely helpless. Unable to move her limbs and unable to form many words, she subsisted on yeses and nos and had more and more trouble telling people what she needed. Her dignity had been gone for some time – she needed help to clean herself and toilet. She landed in the hospital a couple of time – a pneumonia here, a bowel obstruction there. During the last of these it became apparent that her swallowing was horrible. She was aspirating much of what she ate. She started getting pureed foods but this didn’t help much.
About a month or so ago, she made her final decision, and I have no reason to think she didn’t make it with full knowledge and reason. She refused to eat any more. I think she was sick of the coughing, sick of being unable to talk, sick of being able to do nothing but watch whatever was on the TV in front of her, sick of not being able to interact. It was a brave decision, though not the first of them. She had already wisely decided to forgo live-saving measures or feeding tubes. I have no doubt she was afraid of life’s end, but I also have no doubt that her suffering was great and that she was very tired. At the end, she took the little control left to her.
Over the last month she dwindled more. Less interaction, less communication, more weight loss. Finally, she became basically unresponsive, her heart rate fast, and her breathing labored. She took her last breath sometime around 2:00 am this morning. Her children were all around, with the exception of me.
I feel a little guilty about this, but I saw her only 10 days ago, and even then I’m not sure she heard me when I said my final goodbye. And I’ve seen plenty of death, and just didn’t want to see my mother like that.
What will I remember about Mom? I’ll remember her allowing me to do what interested me, letting me explore what I wanted to do, letting me make mistakes. I’ll remember snuggling on her bed as we watched Masterpiece Theater or Mystery or Saturday Night at the Movies (what was I? 11? 13?). I’ll remember her stories about forcing me to put my fact under water in the bathtub so I’d stop being so afraid of water and learn to swim (Oh, the embarrassment every time she told the story!). I’ll remember her stories about my young brothers and sisters, about the grandparents I never knew, about her friends through the years, about my Dad. All the stories! The same stories for the 2nd, 3rd, 8th time! God, that woman could talk sometimes!
Kudos to my Dad who took on the unexpected role of permanent caregiver, and to my sisters who took time off work to help look after her, and my brothers for being around, distracting my Dad, being muscle. Kudos to all her family and friends who helped and who visited regularly and kept her in touch with what was going on outside the house. Kudos to me even, for talking with her about what she wanted at then end, and what she didn’t want, and doing what I could as an informal GP to keep her as comfortable as possible.
And at the end of all this, something happened that was just typical of the people my mom befriended. For the last 5 years or more a woman by the name of Melida has been coming in a few times a week, lately almost every day, to help take care of her, bathe her, whatever. She was an employee of a home heath care agency. Early on, when my mom could still talk, she befriended her just like she’d befriended so many others. Melida has remained with us all this time, watching my mom fail and being there with her throughout it all, keeping her on as a client even when she changed jobs and employers. Last night, when it was clear Mom wasn’t going to be with us much longer, she called and asked permission to come and sit with her overnight. She was there at the end, representing Mom’s extended family.
And this was the most remarkable thing about my Mom: she made incredible friends who have remained loyal and close for so many years. They come from all walks of life, and all areas of the world. Some she knew for years, some for decades. They enriched her life and she enriched theirs. She gave them her unconditional love, and they all loved her in return.
Pretty amazing eh?