My mom was a young 74 and did all the healthy things – the exercising, the kale, the vitamins, the check-ups. I look like an ICU patient compared to my mom’s dedication to health so when my Dad, who is 86, called my cell phone on April 1, at 4:53 pm, gasping and unable to talk, I immediately assumed he needed medical help.
I couldn’t hear him well, I was at a pool bar happy hour with friends, and the connection was bad. I yelled – and I mean yelled – into the phone, “DAD, DO I NEED TO CALL 911?”
“I called them already, Becca. It’s your mom.”
And then I realized he wasn’t gasping. He was sobbing.
I don’t really remember the details of sprinting to the front of the resort, but I know I did. I know I screamed to the valet that I had an emergency and begged him to get my car first, and he did. I know I remembered to tip the guy who brought my car because apparently social norms are still important to me in times of crisis.
I called my brother, Andy, and scream-ordered him to get to our parents’ house that minute because something was wrong with mom. Not my best delivery (sorry, Andy). I called my sister, Jana, calmer this time, who lives here but was traveling for work.
And then I drove. My mom was gone by the time I got there. She was gone by the time my dad called.
I got to my parents’ house (I can’t say “Dad’s house,” I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to say that) and let myself in. My dad was right where I knew I’d find him, sitting at the breakfast table off the kitchen. It’s where he read the paper, worked on his computer, and talked to my mom while she puttered in the kitchen.
Dad saw me and started crying. I walked over and hugged him. My brother and I were still processing. But my dad was the one who found her and he knew this was very real.
My brother pulled me aside to fill me in on what he knew. I asked why in the hell an officer with the Scottsdale PD was sitting at the breakfast table with my dad, taking notes. Apparently, when someone dies at home, there’s an automatic investigation. Oh. I mean, it makes sense, but it’s a tad unsettling. That kind officer spent the majority of the night with us. What a job.
My mom was in her bedroom, where she had died.
The officer helped us through the doctor and death certificate issues, the medical examiner, the mortuary calls. Somehow we handled it, step by step. My dad phased in and out of shock and grief. He went to lay down with my mom several times, begging her to please get up. My brother and I walked into the guest room when we started to lose it, wordlessly agreeing that our dad’s well-being took center stage. We talked to our sister, Jana, on the phone as she scrambled to get a flight home. We were painfully aware that we weren’t talking to Jodi, our oldest sister, who died six months ago.
Finally, at, I don’t honestly remember, 9 or 10pm-ish, the mortuary came. What a job, I’ll say for the second time. He was gentle and kind and professional, exactly like the movies. He stood in the foyer, he never sat down, and explained that he would answer all of our questions, then leave and come back inside with the gurney. He asked if we wanted to see her – some people want to see the face and say goodbye, some want the body covered, it’s our preference, he said.
This visual of my vibrant, energetic mom on a gurney about did me in. I hung in there through the rude on-call doctor, the neighbor texting my dad about the police presence, scheduling the biohazard cleanup, my dad laying down with my dead mother…I hung in there. But the gurney. Sweet Jesus.
We asked him to cover her entirely. My dad had seen her, Andy and I didn’t want to, not like this, we would say goodbye later. The mortuary man (I’m sorry, sir, I know you have a name) came back into the house with the gurney and went into the bedroom without a word. He came out and told us he was ready. We nodded and he wordlessly went back in to get my mom.
I went into the guest room. I paced, I chewed my lip, I talked to myself. I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t know if I can watch this. I peeked out of the room and saw my dad, my brother, and the officer all standing up, in a line, waiting respectfully for my mom. Mom. MOM, what should I do. We don’t know who we are as a family without you. I can’t. Tears streamed, I went back in the guest room, I texted my sister, I spiraled. I heard the gurney wheels hit the wood floor of the entryway. MOM!! OMG, OMG my mom.
My brother quietly but firmly said, “Becca.”
That pulled me together. Ok, it’s time and I need to be here. I took my place in line. We were silent. The mortuary man pushed my mom, covered in a thick, gray sheet, and stopped in the large foyer as he went to open the door. The outline of her petite frame looked so small compared to the large, arched wood and iron front door as it swung open. We watched, not moving, as he carefully started to move my mom out the doorway.
We watched as she left her home for the last time. As she disappeared through the doorway, I stepped forward and waved to her just like I did a thousand times as a child and called after her, “Bye, Mom.”
Susan Wetherill Smith
July 15, 1947 – April 1, 2022