There are good people on earth, and then there are angels on earth. My mother, Judith Joan, was the latterI’m the youngest of her five children, and I was the luckiest because I got to see her at her very happiest time in her life. But that’s what makes her story so tragic.

My mother moved with me to South Bend from Ann Arbor when I accepted a job at Notre Dame in 2007. Retired, she only planned to stay a short while to help me get adjusted to my new life, but she ended up staying for the rest of hers. While I was acclimating to my new job, my mother began to attend daily Mass at Notre Dame. There, she made friends with a group of regulars who attended the same morning Mass every day. Some were elderly with no family of their own, so my mother made it her mission to take care of them–driving them to doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping for them, driving them to and from Mass, helping them with their finances. She never asked for anything in return, and in fact, there were many people that she helped that I didn’t know about until after she passed away and met them at her funeral.

My mother volunteered at the University’s Parish Center–but when I say “volunteered,” I mean she basically moved in and started working closely with the staff to make improvements to the facility, updating the processes and improving the way things were done. She was welcomed with open arms by the staff, all of whom grew to love and respect her tenacity, her faith, her work ethic, her warmth and her compassion.

At 64, my mother was running rings around me–constantly busy either ironing clothes for the Church altars, helping her friends from the church in their day-to-day needs, volunteering twice a week at the Dismas House, organizing the Senior Lunches every Thursday at the Center and helping Paul Eddy manage the Parish Center. I never saw her so happy–so fulfilled. With her five children grown, my mother found her purpose in life, and she was elated.

It was 4:13 p.m. on February 28, 2010 when my cell phone rang. It was the Notre Dame Fight Song–my mom’s ringtone. I didn’t answer because I was at a work event in Chicago. But a few minutes later, something gnawed at me, and I checked the message. It wasn’t my mom, it was Paul Eddy. His tone was serious, his message brief: “Angela, this is Paul Eddy. Please call me as soon as you can.” I dialed his number, hands shaking, knowing I was about to hear something bad. When he answered and I told him who I was, I could hear him shutting his office door through the phone line. My gut flipped. “Your mother is in the hospital. She had a seizure at work. She has cancerous lesions on her brain. She’s at St. Joseph Hospital.” I don’t remember what I said to him, or what I said to the people around me. I just remember grabbing my things and getting to my car, and trying to find my way to the highway so I could begin making calls to family. At that moment. I was the only one who knew my mother had brain cancer, and I was jealous of everyone else whose lives were still normal. I called my sister and my brother, and I called my aunt–my mother’s sister. I asked them to make the rest of the calls as I sped along the Toll Road toward South Bend.

When I got to my mom’s room, she began to cry. “I’m so sorry to do this to you,” is what she said. She was just diagnosed with brain cancer, and she was worried about ME. She told me she wanted me to be in charge of all of her medical decisions and her financial affairs. At that moment, we switched roles, and I became her caregiver–a job I would hold for three months. On March 3, 2010, the oncologist viewed my mom’s scans and actually said the phrase “You need to get your affairs in order. You have less than a year to live.” That was the only time my mother cried, and it lasted all of 20 seconds. Again, I was mired in the knowledge that I was the only one besides my mother whose life had just been upended–no one knew yet, and I had to tell them. I don’t remember very much about the rest of that day. Or the next, or the next.

My memory of the next three months is spotty still. But my mother did not want to be hospitalized and she did not want anyone else caring for her. She wanted me and my sister, Paige. I took a leave of absence and with my sister, cared for my mother for the rest of her life. First, the doctors said they wanted to use radiation to shrink the cancerous tumors in her brain to “help her quality of life.” Do not ever agree to this! The radiation to her brain altered her personality, transforming her into a two-year-old on speed. She was reckless, almost burning down her apartment by trying to light a cigarette with a rolled up piece of paper towel. She assumed different personalities depending on the day. The steroids she was on–also to shrink the tumors–gave her energy to burn, and she would only sleep in five minute increments every few hours. She made ridiculous demands, began to speak very vulgarly, and with the filter of common sense removed by the radiation, she would tell my sister and me awful things that I know my true mother would never want us to hear. Eventually we stopped the radiation, but not before it made her hair fall out. She wanted to attend Easter Mass, but her head looked like a baby chick–small tufts here and  there. So we got her a nice hat. Later that day, she asked me to shave her head completely. Her hair never grew back.

It was time for Hospice to get involved, and she was prescribed several drugs to keep her comfortable, including liquid morphine. She began slowing down, taking more naps, requiring a wheelchair to get around–which she absolutely hated. The last insult was when we were forced to rely on adult diapers to get her through the night. Two months earlier, she had been the vision of health and vitality. Now, she was wasting away, bald and in diapers. I hated God, and I told him so.

I do not know the exact day my mother fell into a coma, but she was on her couch. I don’t know what my last words were to her before she disappeared. I don’t know what her last words were to me. My sister and I kept vigil over her, taking turns sleeping next to her, checking her breathing. We called her priest, with whom she had already planned her entire funeral, and he gave her her Last Rites. We held her hand, which wasn’t really hers anymore. Her breathing became labored. Then came the “death rattle”– something no one warned us about. Unable to move the mucous through her lungs, her respiration was beginning to fade. At 3 pm on June 3, 2010, exactly three months since the doctor told her to “get her affairs in order,” my beautiful, vivacious, loving and compassionate mother was gone. My sister and I picked her up off the couch and carried her to her bedroom. We called her dear friend, a deacon in the church, to come be with us. He brought Holy Water, with which we all washed her feet and hands–a Catholic tradition. We cried over her body. I don’t remember who called the funeral home. I only remember reaching my house and sitting at my kitchen table and saying the words “my mom is dead” out loud and how odd it sounded.

My memory of the days after are spotty. I have flashes of speaking with the funeral director about her funeral. I remember picking out a simple cotton dress for her to be buried in–something she requested. I remember seeing her for the first time in the casket and saying to my sister how good she looked. Her funeral was at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Notre Dame’s campus. My only memory of it is sitting in the front row, right next to her casket, and touching it with my hand. I don’t know if I cried or not. I still do not remember the service. This June marks five years since my mother has been gone. The pain is still sharp. The loss is still shocking. My heart is still broken.

Yet, in caring for my mother in her last days, as tragic as it was, it was a gift. It made me stronger. It made me more assertive. It helped me decide what things and people are important in my life and it taught me the rewards of giving back to those in need. My mother was an avid gardener. I remember being surrounded by beautiful flowers my entire life. I never gardened until after my mother died. All of a sudden, I knew things about flowers that I never knew before. I became an avid gardener, spending hours cultivating the perfect flowerbed, walking through it every night, just as my mother had done with her own. In her death, I became my mother’s daughter. And I feel her with every flower I plant.

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