By Jennifer N. Fenwick
I was granted an unexpected gift in 2021 that would come to mean so much more to me than I could have known while I was living it.
On Saturday, April 10, 2021, at 12:28 pm, I received an urgent text from my youngest sister, Sarah, “Jen, call me ASAP! It’s about Granny. Now! Now! Now! Jen, call me!”
With all the grandchildren referring to Mom as “granny,” my five siblings and I had taken to referring to her that way too. Granny and Mom became interchangeable, just as Papa and Dad had been, and still were.
Mom, 80, had suffered a stroke and was being admitted to the hospital. With all the COVID restrictions only Sarah and our older brother, Drew, would be allowed in to be with her. That was difficult for the rest of us, but we persevered, with Sarah and Drew texting and calling regularly to keep us updated.
Mom remained in the hospital for several days for monitoring, but overall, her prognosis was positive. We were grateful and encouraged.
Upon discharge from the hospital, she was transported to an aftercare treatment center for rehabilitation.
While Mom progressed in therapy at the rehab center, my brothers began working on her home to get it ready for her return, installing handrails on the front porch steps and handrails and grab bars in her bathroom and shower. Sarah and Drew’s wife, Kathy, cleaned and stocked the refrigerator with items Mom could easily swallow and ensured she had the necessary supplies she’d need to make the transition back home. Drew and Kathy’s daughter, Anna Beth, a physical therapist, would be providing continued PT for Mom at home, which delighted her.
On April 24, Mom was released from the rehab center and finally brought home.
Mom would require around-the-clock care, which for the six of us was something we could share. We were blessed that our sister, Laura, and her family were actually living with Mom in our childhood home at the time. Hurricane Michael, which had devasted our area in October of 2018, had displaced many families including theirs. While their house was being rebuilt, Jim and Laura and my godson, Jack, were living there. This meant Mom would not be alone at night or on the weekends. During the day Monday-Thursday, while they were at work, Sarah cared for her and I was able to work four ten-hour days so that I could be free on Fridays to be with her.
In all those Fridays with Mom, it was the moments in between tasks that made our days special.
Fridays began quietly, with me arriving at the house around 7:00 am. Mom was usually still sleeping or awake but still lying in bed. We’d begin her day with coffee, breakfast, and meds. Blood pressure, temperature, and pulse were taken and recorded throughout the day for her doctors. Then Mom would wait for her daily picture or video of her first great-grandchild, Gracie.
Drew and Kathy’s daughter, Savanna, and her husband, Harrison, had welcomed Grace in April while Mom was still at the rehabilitation center. Because of COVID restrictions and Mom’s immobility, we couldn’t visit, so Savanna sent Mom daily pictures and videos. I’d often catch mom smiling as she looked at the pictures over and over again (or tried to! I often had to help her navigate the new iPhone my brother had given her!) There were times she’d even wave and say, “Hi there Gracie, it’s your great-granny, I love you!” to the videos.
Anna Beth came three days a week at noon to administer PT. How special that her own granddaughter was able to care for her during that time! Mom walked around the house using her walker and performed the seated strengthening exercise AB had taught her a few times a day and on her own too. Eventually, she’d progress to using a cane so AB would walk Mom slowly up and down the street of our neighborhood.
Mostly we’d sit together in Mom’s favorite area, in the back room next to the windows looking out on the backyard and Papa’s workshop. We’d talk about days gone by and the generations of memories that filled the house.
Mom and her five siblings had been raised in the house when Nana and Grandpa relocated their family from New York to Florida in the mid-1940s. From the age of five, Mom had pretty much resided in that same house. She and Dad had purchased it from Nana following Grandpa’s death in the early 1960s. My siblings and I were raised there. Our children had grown up walking through the same door and often sleeping in the same rooms we had once occupied. There was a sense of peace and comfort in those walls. It was home.
Spending time with Mom there became so much more. It became a time of growing in understanding and in finding peace in our relationship and comfort in each other.
As the oldest girl in a family of two boys and four girls, Mom and I had often clashed as I was growing up. We rarely saw eye-to-eye, especially as I reached my teen years. By the time I was 19, I was heading into what would become a devasting first marriage and the beginning of a decades-long struggle for me.
By 21, my first marriage had been annulled and I was headed across the country with my new boyfriend. John and I would be married in Phoenix, Arizona, and Mom and Dad’s first grandchild, our daughter, Nichole, would be born out west. Dad would drive the almost 2,000 miles to bring Mom to Las Vegas, where we were living at the time, so she could be with me for Nichole’s birth.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to do that,” Mom would say, “But your father said that you would need me and that I should go, so I did.”
Mom’s stay in Vegas with us was a turning point in our relationship. I think that was the first time I ever saw her as a woman separate from the fact that she was my mom. Understanding that she had felt the same things I‘d experienced falling in love and becoming a mother. The fact that she went through childbirth six times astounded me and I told her so!
“I wanted as many children as the good Lord would send me,” Mom said. “I think your Father was grateful the Lord stopped at six!”
John and I would return to Panama City just after Nichole turned one. My entire family and most of his were living here by that time and we wanted Nichole to be surrounded by family like we had been growing up.
Upon our return, Mom and Dad kept Nichole while John and I worked and I returned to school. We talked about that during our Fridays, about how much of Nichole’s childhood was spent with my parents and with Drew and Kathy and their three daughters.
The four of them, Nichole, Anna Beth, Rebekah, and Savanna were the oldest grandchildren. Those girls have so many memories with Mom, from watching Anne of Greene Gables with her to eating her salmon croquettes and banana bread. Oh, and hot tea! I think Nichole gets her love of tea from Mom too.
Seventeen grandchildren later, and I think Mom was present through most of their infancies! For every illness and recovery. For every year of their growing up. For baptisms, graduations and birthdays, she’s been part of it all. That was just her. She gave without expecting anything in return. Though she’d often apologize for, “having us too close together,” or for “not knowing what she was doing,” we all knew how very lucky we were. How very lucky we are.
Then, there were the days we’d talk about the hard stuff.
She’d share her grief and how much she missed Dad. She talked about her faith and that she felt unworthy of God’s love but was so grateful for it. I shared with her that one of the things I admired most about her was her faith, like that of her mother, it was built on a firm and unshakeable foundation.
“All those years you and Dad sent us to St. John’s for school. All those masses and holy days and confessions are still in there!” I told her, “And despite what you think, you and Dad did a wonderful job and were a tremendous example of what it means to be a spouse, a parent, and a Christian.”
“Well, I don’t’ know, Jen,” she’d say, “I had ya’ll too close together and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just wanted to get married and have babies!”
I’d laugh and say, “Mom, we grew up fine, great even. We’re all married, have great kids of our own, are functioning members of society! I think that’s a win for you and Dad!”
“Well,” she’d say again, “I just don’t know.”
But I did. We all did.
There were times we talked about my struggles with anorexia and alcohol and my recovery journey. Many times, Mom would apologize for my struggles as if she bore some responsibility for the choices I had made. I assured her that I blamed no one but myself and that I was finally at peace.
I shared about my time in recovery and the pivotal moments that changed me forever, especially the moment I fully surrendered myself to God’s mercy.
In those moments, Mom would often cry and reach for my hand, softly saying, “Praise be to God.” Other times she would tell me how grateful she was that God had given me John. “God was looking out for you, Jen,” she’d say. We often cried together and I shared a lot of the poetry I had written during and since my time in the hospital.
There were quiet moments too. Moments where Mom would read her daily devotional and scribble down verses, sayings, and prayers on scrap paper. I was so used to her doing that, we all were, that we often overlooked the wisdom she was imparting on the backs of those envelopes, receipts, or torn notebook pages.
Sometimes, she’d just sit quietly, looking out the window. I believe she was thinking of Dad in those moments. Other times she’d share stories about she and Dad, but always, always she would say, “Your father was such a good man. I didn’t deserve him but I am grateful that God gave him to me.” I knew what she meant. I felt that way about my own husband.
We didn’t always fill the silence. Just sitting with her was comforting on its own. Other times, we watched Food Network together. We loved Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives! Other times we’d talk about American history and the Constitution and how much the world had changed.
There were Fridays when Nichole and Emma would come to have lunch with Granny and me. On Mother’s Day and on her 81st birthday in July, they brought her gifts. We talked and laughed and they never left without hugging her tight and saying, “I love you.” All the grandkids were like that every time they visited or called.
When Laura came in around 4:30, we’d always visit for a few minutes before I’d leave. It was during one of those moments in early August, four months after Mom’s stroke, that she, Mom, and I would truly experience God’s presence among us. I was sharing a few of my poems when, Laura, a family and addictions counselor, asked us, “What is another word for love?”
Mom and I looked at each other.
“Is there another word for love,” I asked?
I couldn’t imagine what it could be. Mom said she couldn’t either.
“Mercy,” Laura said. “Another word for love is mercy.”
We had each experienced God’s mercy in our lives, and I think on some level we understood that God’s mercy is indeed experienced in the unconditional love He gives us. Through our triumphs and our storms, He remains steadfast in His faithfulness. He waits patiently for us and welcomes us with arms wide open when we seek Him.
As we communed, for it went beyond simply talking and sharing our journeys of faith, we were connecting on a deeply spiritual level, I felt it. Laura felt it. Mom felt it.
There was a moment as we were hugging goodbye for the day that a tremendous sense of peace and rightness enveloped my soul. At that moment I knew that whatever lay before us, we had been given a precious moment of complete acceptance of one another.
Later, Laura would share with me that she had felt the same.
Saturday morning, August 21st
I was taking a shower when John opened the bathroom door and asked me if I was ok.
“Yes,” I replied, thinking that strange.
When I got out he came back and pulled me into our room, sitting me on the end of our bed. Immediately I knew something was wrong. At first, I thought of Nichole and Emma, thinking maybe there had been an accident. Then John spoke.
“Kathy has been trying to call you and when you didn’t answer, she called me,” he said. “Your mom passed away this morning.”
I didn’t think I’d heard him right at first because I kept repeating, “My Mom? My Mom? My Mom passed away?”
In my head, I was thinking, “That can’t be. She was doing so well. There’s no way.” But then his words slowly sank in.
My Mom was gone.
Laura had gotten up to make Mom’s coffee and avocado toast before going to check to see if she was awake. She found Mom collapsed beside her bed as if she had been getting up and had fallen. She was already gone.
I don’t remember much of the rest of that Saturday. Grief has a way of overwhelming the body and heart. But I do remember thinking, Mom and Dad are finally together. She’s lived all these years missing him so.
My siblings and I met the next day to begin planning her service. She wanted “a funeral mass, a rosary, a simple coffin, and no fuss.”
We honored her wishes.
In the weeks and months since her passing, our lives have continued, though her absence is ever-present.
My siblings and I are in the process of getting the house ready to sell and going through over seventy-five years of memories. Books, pictures, furniture, mementos, all the things that made the house a home are now finding their way into our homes and into those of our children.
Just the other day I was going through and boxing up all the books in Dad’s office. One box for all Mom’s Catholic and spiritual books to donate to St. John’s, her parish church since she was a little girl; another box of assorted books to donate to the library; and another box for Mom’s Mayo Clinic books, health books, and recipe books for just about every ailment known to man. I quickly realized that I’d better shake out each book because I kept finding little scraps of paper in Mom’s handwriting stuck inside most of them.
I laughed at some, got teary reading others, and felt both she and Dad there with me. It was then that I realized how meaningful those last months I got to spend Fridays with her were. How much we had shared. We got to say, “I’m sorry.” We got to say, “I’m grateful for you.” We got to say, “I love you.” We got to know each other as we are now while still remembering all we had been. My Mom got to witness my delivery from addiction and my healing through faith. I got to witness her remarkable grace.
At the time, I didn’t know it would be our last moments together in this life. I didn’t know that the last time I hugged her neck and told her I loved her before departing, would be our last goodbye. Though missing her is something I do every day, I have no regrets, for I heard everything I needed to hear and said everything I needed to say as I spent those precious Fridays with Mom.
As she had done in life, Mom hand wrote her last wishes to us on notebook paper. In them, her legacy of faith and unconditional love is evident.