Paul Batura: I feared my mother’s death, but her last words softened the blow

My mom had just turned 40 when I entered the world on Friday, May 12, just two days before Mother’s Day in 1972. As the youngest of five children, I was always told she took the delivery in stride and actually enjoyed the extended stay in South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, Long Island in New York, where doctors, nurses and orderlies cared for her around the clock.

Between the birth and the recovery, she convalesced for a week – a break from raising four other children back home and a rarity in today’s quick-turn, cost-conscious world of medical insurance that limits hospital stays to a bare minimum.

Growing up with an older mother had its advantages, namely that she cut her parenting teeth on my older siblings. By the time my sister, Marie, and I came along, just two years apart, our mom had settled into a laid-back style. Very little seemed to rattle her. After 16 years as a mom, she possessed a practical, seemingly nonchalant attitude toward child-rearing. One of my mom’s favorite observations was, “If they’re crying, they’re fine. I only worry if they fall and don’t shed tears.”

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Age also gave her perspective, specifically about the fast and fleeting nature of childhood itself. She grew more sentimental with the years. On a few occasions, she let me skip school to attend a Mets or Yankees game to start the season, adding, “A child only has so many Opening Days in their lifetime.”

She even let me go to games on school nights, riding into the city in the back of our gym teacher’s Ford Pinto that had no seats, only a piece of plywood covering the car’s chassis.

But for all the advantages of having older parents, there were also some drawbacks. By my senior year in high school, I was intimately familiar with doctors, waiting rooms, specialists, late-night trips to the emergency room, hospital visiting hours and all kinds of illnesses and medical conditions that plagued my parents. The pages of the Merck Manual on our bookshelf were well-worn.

Overcome with emotion, I was struck with the thought that while the curtain was falling on a life well-lived, life for me had now come full circle. Here I was again, on the last day with my mother right back where I had been on the first day of my life.

My mom laughed when I remarked I never knew her when she was young, which is technically true for every child, but it’s magnified for those of us whose mothers had us later in life.

In grade school, watching at our town’s library, I remember crying when the father died at the end of the original black and white classic, "Cheaper by the Dozen." I feared that would happen to my dad or mom, especially as I watched them go in and out of hospitals. Over the years, the dread of losing them only grew as they aged. In retrospect, it was wasted emotion, of course. I couldn’t control it – and death is part of every life. But for years, I wore the worry like a blanket.

I grew up and started a family of my own. And then finally, it happened. My mother was hospitalized for her latest bout of congestive heart failure and the doctor broke the news that she had run out of treatment options. I arrived at her hospice facility knowing death was imminent.

Choking back tears, along with other family members, I sat at her bedside for several days, laughing and reminiscing. Life’s priorities become crystal clear at the hour of death.

“You need to go back to your family,” my mom told me on a Wednesday morning. “Julie and the boys need you.”

She was right, but I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave, because I knew that when I walked out that door, I would never see her alive again this side of eternity. I had arrived at the moment I had feared all my life.

Mothers seem to have that sixth sense, and mine must have known what I was thinking at that moment, because she took my hand and slowly pulled me in. I gently laid my head on her chest.

“You’re a gem, my last son,” she said in a wispy, strained voice. “You’re a light of my life. Don’t worry. We’re going to talk and see each other again, where there is no pain or suffering, just joy. I will always love you.”

Overcome with emotion, I was struck with the thought that while the curtain was falling on a life well-lived, life for me had now come full circle. Here I was again, on the last day with my mother right back where I had been on the first day of my life.

Her parting words represented a last and generous act, a final blessing that gave me the courage to face her death.

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My mother never liked to say the word “goodbye,” thinking it too negative and final. Instead, she would say, “So long for now,” a far gentler salutation that plants the seed for a reunion down the road.

Alas, “So long for now” on this Mother’s Day to all the moms who have gone before us, whom I hope are even now preparing for our arrival someday, just like moms love to do.

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