It seemed appropriate that on this, the Feast of All Souls, I should finally write something about my mother, Doris E. Hoyle, affectionately known as “Deb,” who passed away last April at the age of 91. I always called her Mommy.
Grief certainly is a mysterious thing! I thought I understood how grief progressed after I lost my father in 2003, but the course it has taken this time has been totally different and frankly, confounding. I believe after 6 months of mourning, it is finally beginning to come to the surface.
I hardly shed a tear when my mother first died. I attributed that to being in “battle mode”; our family had battled for the last 6 years to keep our mother comfortable and in her own home. She descended slowly into dementia and her body grew frailer and frailer. The last 18 months before her death were especially difficult, careening from one crisis to the next, from home to assisted living to nursing home. When I hear of others going through this, I pause now before giving advice on what to do. You can’t know what to do and you don’t accept it until you’re in the middle of it.
My mother was an exceptional woman. Full of life and vigor, gifted with insatiable enthusiasm and curiosity, and blessed with a wonderful sense of humor, she could light up a room. In the 1930s she attended Walnut Hill College Preparatory School in Natick, MA (now a performing arts school), and then, like her 2 sisters before her, attended Wellesley College where she majored in botany. She often commented that her Walnut Hill years were among the happiest in her life; I’ve seen the evidence in her photo albums and yearbook. She was to use that education in the work world, first as a medical lab assistant in a Boston hospital before getting married, and later, returning to Wellesley College to work in the Botany department. Among other things, she helped with the flower arrangements for the annual Boston Flower Show.
My mother was a member of a prominent family in Lynn, MA, the Breeds (the battle of Bunker Hill took actually place on Breed’s Hill). The entire Breed clan dates back to Allen Breed, who came over to this country from England in the late 1600s. The Breeds have an active family association and several family plots at Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn, with complete family trees dating back several generations.
Mommy loved flowers, nature, dogs and cats, her ‘Sox’ (the Red Sox), politics, reading, traveling, and she loved to learn. She was curious about everyone and loved observing people, especially the neighbors!
She had an animated voice which she used well in school productions, taking on the humorous character roles in plays at Walnut Hill. In her later years, her voice sounded rather like a parrot! In fact, when she tried to sing “Ode to Joy” to my cousin’s parrot, he went nuts! He was totally in love.
Most of all, she was a devoted wife of 54 years to husband Herb, and loving mother to myself and my older sister and brother. She was totally involved in our lives and intensely interested in everything we did. She offered such comfort when I was sick, sad or depressed. Mommy was my best friend and confidant. She would listen and offer advice, and she’d share deeply personal things from her life. I feel a connection to her that is like no other.
She was not a believer; she was an explorer but near the end, she was totally hostile to talk about faith. She fought tooth and nail even in the end, in a morphine haze (with a sedative), having been put on hospice care after her heart rate became so irregular that it was not really fixable (and her electrolytes were totally out of wack). Hospice meant the discontinuation any food or fluids. It took 5 agonizing days for her to pass and I must confess that it felt like we’d pulled the plug. It was not a peaceful passing as she was very agitated. But that was par for the course for my mom!
I prayed for her all the time that she would come to know peace by knowing our Lord. In the ER, the nurse asked me if we wanted a priest. I said yes. And it happened to be the one priest that I knew she’d be okay with, Fr. Giggi, who had given the last rites to my dad. He gave her last rites. But in the end, I knew ultimately it would be her decision. I kept kissing her and whispering in her ear as she lay dying that she needed to keep the door open because Someone was waiting for her on the other side, Someone who loved her very much. I asked her to trust me, that I was not delusional, that it was all true.
After she died, I asked for a definitive sign. I was expecting I would see Mary like I did with my dad (I saw icons of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in places I didn’t expect to see her and took them as a sign that my dad was okay). Instead of seeing Mary, I saw signs which were less definitive, requiring more faith on my part. The first sign was that her funeral was one of the most beautiful I have ever witnessed. She wanted her service to be at the Unitarian Church where she had once been active (she stopped going after my father died). It was held in the small chapel and it was standing room only. The flowers were the most exquisite I have ever seen (she wrote out her wishes and spent half the paragraph describing the flowers she wanted). The weather was breathtakingly beautiful and I had never seen the sky so blue. All of God’s creation was at its Spring peak (and everything was at least 2 weeks early). A chipping sparrow sang in a tree right above my husband Rich’s head as he read the prayers for burial at the cemetery (he is a deacon and helped preside at the service). Since Mommy so loved the outdoors and especially flowers and birds, I took it as a sign that she was with God and thus okay.
During the service, my sister gave a beautiful eulogy, and then we asked others if they wanted to share. My brother-in-law, a true Alpha male, got up and spoke. He is a consummate storyteller and gave a most heartfelt, and at times, humorous eulogy, even choking up at points. He and my mom had a complicated relationship but they loved each other dearly. Then, neighbors from her neighborhood got up and spoke! Everyone said such wonderful things. My poor mother, in her despair, anxiety and dementia, felt that she was unlovable. Not true! She was very well loved. After the service when the chapel was empty, I went up to the casket, kissed it and said, “I told you so! I told you were loved!” God graced me with a tremendous sense of joy that day; I never shed a tear.
God graced me with another sign a few weeks later in the form of a letter from McLean Hospital. My mother had asked that donations be sent to that hospital in lieu of flowers. I sent in my donation and wrote a letter explaining our connection with the hospital. They wrote back a lovely note and listed all the people that had donated. Immediately upon seeing that letter I heard the phrase in my head, “Love begets love.” My mother had loved well in her life and now she was meeting God for the first time.
Now, 6 months later, I’m still not shedding a lot of tears. But I visit the cemetery frequently and drive past the old homestead even though it’s been sold to a new family. My sister and I explored her family history, visited the Breed family plot at Pine Grove Cemetery, and drove past her old homestead in Swampscott. I have lately been going through her family albums, reading her diary and going through her school yearbooks.
I miss Mommy terribly but she is not far away. My head and heart are full of her, and her genes are in my body. I know she is with God and I talk to her frequently. She has empowered me with her spirit and my life has gone through so many positive changes since she passed away. Ironically, I probably have the best sense of well-being that I’ve ever had in my 54 years. I only wish I could tell her in person but someday we will meet again. And she will be as beautiful and happy as she was in those Walnut Hill years, full of life and vigor, humor and love. I can hardly wait!