Mom’s Greatest Gift: Life lessons from a pandemic, dementia and a supportive work family

By Jennifer Reed

“Even better than last year. I’ll keep you on steady.” That was the verbatim and completely expected comment my mother-in-law, Liz, would make after every Thanksgiving dinner at our house. The thing was, whatever she found so great and better was the exact same meal I prepared the previous year.

Liz had grown up in the generation of uncertainty, fear and poverty having lived through the Great Depression, abandoned by her mother at a young age and left in the care of an alcoholic, but beloved father. As a young girl, she would sit every day with her older sister on the porch of their home hoping the bus would stop in front of their house and she would see her mother and little sister getting off the bus. After a year, little Liz and Sarah stopped waiting; the bus never stopped and their mother never came back.  

Liz loved her father Oscar Leonard greatly. Even when he was mostly absent between trying to make a living and trying to live by drinking, Liz and her sister never wanted to be without “daddy.” The three of them had an agreement that if someone came knocking at the door while daddy was away, the girls were to hide in the closet in case the social services people were coming to take them away.

Between being forced to go to school in the same class with her older sister for lack of childcare (and in the process, left with the feeling she was the dumbest in the class), or having to wear shoes two sizes too small for lack of funds, or being parented by a domineering older sister (which may have contributed to her own strict parenting style), or ultimately being torn away from her daddy by the court system (a memory which may have replayed as she made heart-wrenching cries for “daddy” in her last days), Liz grew up to be a solidly-grounded, strong woman with a strong work ethic. She was a cannery workers’ union stop steward — outspoken and principled. Abandoned by her first husband and left to raise a young daughter on her own, Liz managed to rise above the challenges and later met and married a wonderful man, Bill, my husband’s dad.

Liz and Bill at Butchart Gardens.

This was the woman I knew and admired as Liz. The same woman who would send me thank you cards after every dinner at our house even though we lived only 10 minutes away. The same woman who would collect boxes of clothing and shoes to send to my relatives in the Philippines. The same woman who always told me “Kid, you work too hard. Sit down and take a break.” We’d laugh because we both knew: we were both driven; cut from the same cloth. She was mom.

A couple of months ago when it was clear Liz needed hospice care, there was no question Rick and I would be there for her, even though neither of us had any hospice experience. The pandemic turned out to be a blessing in my situation as it allowed me to work from home, so we set up mom (on what was to be her “deathbed”) adjacent to my home office. The arrangement allowed me to check in on her throughout the day. Sometimes, when Rick had to leave the home, I would wheel Liz into my home office, and she would attend my meetings alongside me. My work family welcomed her and even included her in meetings, some calling her by her name and eliciting a delighted smile even on days when she was mostly unresponsive. 

As dementia ravaged her brain, I became Patty or Ida or “the nice lady,” but when those precious lucid moments broke through and she remembered who I was, she’d go back to the same refrain: “Kid, you work too hard. Take a break.” This time though, we did not laugh together. I cried and it left her confused.

Liz left this world on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, at 4:50 pm PST. That morning, I was getting ready for work as usual and had just sat down in front of my computer to join my first meeting. Rick texted me from the other room letting me know that the nurse thought today was mom’s last day. I immediately canceled all my meetings, let my work family know what was going on and focused the rest of the day by mom’s side. Rick and I did all we could to make mom feel safe and comfortable, sang songs about faith and love for God and assured her we loved her. After several hours of labored breathing, with her hands turning a mottled blue and her eyelids sealed shut, Liz exhaled her last breath as we continued to sing for her. She left peacefully and without fear.

Singing for Liz on her last day on Earth.

I sit here tonight almost a week from that day writing this because my husband and I have gotten a lot of comments from people about how wonderful it was that we took care of Liz and how lucky she was to have us. What people do not know is that as far as I’m concerned, I was the lucky one. She gave me the greatest gift one mother can give another. She gave me back my son. Let me explain.

It is common for people with dementia to descend into a state of anxiety and agitation. On her deathbed, Liz experienced a constant stream of anxiety; agitated about things she did or did not do, regrets for words she said or did not say, and fear that she was not a good person. Sometimes, I’d check in on her and she’d grab my hand and say: “It’s you. I’m so glad you’re here because I know you’d never let anything bad happen to me.” When I asked her why she was in anxiety, she said, “Oh, I’m not a good person. I tried to be a good mother, but I needed to be strict. Maybe that’s the reason people hate me. I think my son hates me; that’s why he doesn’t come to see me because he resents me.”

That shook me to the core. I did my best to assure her that no one hates her; that Rick has been beside her bed for nearly six weeks, holding her hand and comforting her, loving her. For a moment she understood and then within seconds the same fears returned, a painful memory loop. More than once, I put my head on mom’s chest and cried, deeply and personally touched by the universal mother’s fear of somehow failing as a mother. Hearing me sobbing, Liz became the comforter, telling me I work too hard, that I should take a break. Thinking we were still in her home rather than in mine, she’d say, “Go get something to eat; you can have anything you want in the fridge.” 

My favorite photo of Liz and me.

What mom didn’t know was that I wasn’t just crying at the sight of her tormented on her deathbed over fears that she had failed to be a good mother — I was also crying for myself, anticipating my own regrets when it came time for me to leave this world. It was then that I realized how critical it is that I now repair the broken bond between myself and my 23-year-old son, Siddha; the hurt feelings still lingering and unaddressed between us from a misunderstanding that occurred nearly a year ago. 

As soon as Mom fell back to sleep, I texted Siddha to tell him I was sorry for anything I did to cause him grief and that I forgave him for any pain he caused me. Most importantly, I told him my love for him is unconditional. He texted back:

“I love you with all my heart, Mom. You have been nothing but a great mom to me. I really appreciate your love for me, and I’ll be forever grateful.”

With those words, all the walls came down and we were back as a family again. And that is the greatest gift Liz gave me. It turns out she was a fantastic teacher and, as she liked to say, I’d love to put her on steady.

Jennifer Reed and her husband, Rick Reed, live in Snohomish, WA with their Great Pyrenees/German Shepherd dog, Rama, who stood guard and ensured Liz was safe when neither Rick nor Jenn were around. Their son, Siddha, now lives in the house where his grandmother, Liz, used to live. He vows to care for Liz’s garden, especially her prized roses.

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