Cathy's Blog

Saying Goodbye


Saying Good-bye

My mother’s family, the Berger’s, lived in Fort Ransom, 120 miles from her grandmother Maren Strinden’s farm near Pelican Rapids. The kids loved visiting her. She made them heart-shaped waffles with thick cream and her own strawberries. She shampooed her white cows to keep them sparkling clean, and her horses were spoiled and lazy. She spoiled her grandchildren, too.

When it was time for the family to go home Maren would stand in the yard, watching their departure, then throw her apron over her face and wail, “I’ll never see you again!” Why did she do that? my mother asked. Maybe, her mother replied, because when Maren was fifteen years old, leaving her family in Norway to go to America, her mother stood in the yard and did the same thing. This understanding may be why my own mother liked to tell us that in the Berger  family “you said good-bye even if you were only going to the well.” That searing moment of the immigrant experience—“I’ll never see you again!”—had left a mark on the second generation, and then on my own.

Which was why, when I got the call from my brother that my mother was not long for this world, I booked the next flight to Fargo. My sister on the West Coast did the same.  Although there was nothing wrong with her physically (a nurse told us she had the pulse of a 30-year-old), we had been aware for some time that she was tired of living, this 97-year-old who had outlived everyone in her generation. But dying from being tired of being alive can take some time, and my sister and I spent the next ten days at her bedside where, even though Mother was never keen on demonstrations of affection, we held her hand, spoke lovingly, stroked the ivory skin of her face.

One afternoon she opened her eyes, looked at the ceiling, and called out in a loud voice, “Show me the way!” “Show me the way,” she kept repeating, and my sister and I knew she was having trouble leaving this earth. What could we do to help her? What rituals are there for such a journey? Singing in harmony was a family ritual—in the car, around the table, summer nights on the porch—but that would be sure to bring up tears. My sister said, “Maybe we can read to her from the Bible.” I agreed, but the one in the room was a Gideon and that would not do. She then opened her I-Pad and found the King James version. As we took turns reading the Psalms our mother was suddenly present, gripping our hands. Then my sister had another idea. Mother liked the old hymns, not the jazzed-up modern ones, and she went to YouTube and clicked on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “Be not dismayed what’ere betide, God will take care of you,” they sang. Our mother smiled, and then she sighed. That may have been her good-bye. A few days later she made her departure, and in our grief we told each other, “Job well done.”

April 19, 2015

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