My mother was a badass. Not in a Xena Warrior Princess kind of way, but a warrior nonetheless. She was 5’ 2” but her nickname was “Big Red.” Mom liked bourbon, though she would drink scotch because that’s what my father drank. When I was in elementary school, back in the 1970s, whenever I needed to bring a signed note to school from a parent, my mother signed her name Mrs. Dean Stearns. I found this so curious as a child. Why didn’t my mother sign her own name? Yet she also had the feminist manifesto, “The Feminine Mystique,” by Betty Friedan in her book collection. Mom was quietly complex.
When we were in our teens, one of my brother's friends referred to my mom as “Big Red'' because she was a red head and the enforcer of the parental team that were my parents. The name stuck in spite of her displeasure with it. She didn’t like it at first because I believe she thought it translated to “bitchy,” but eventually she grew to like it, embodied it and claimed the strength in it.
Her nickname didn’t come from her size, nor did it come from her personality, she was really quite sweet, in fact she was voted “friendliest” in her high school yearbook. No, the nickname stuck because she was solid, steady, competent. Dad was often more like a fourth child for her than her co-parenting partner. He had a huge personality and loved to have fun. He would make rash and impulsive decisions that affected the whole family, but she would make them work. She was a rock.
She was slight in stature but had a solid core. One of the last days that she was mobile, I was trying to help her change her clothes with the assistance of her home health care aid, Azjah. Mom was irrational due to Alzheimer's, and she was standing in the middle of her room, refusing to sit down, clutching her walker. Azjah helped hold her steady and tried to assure her that she was okay and wasn’t going to fall, and I was on the floor trying to get her to lift her foot so I could put clean pants on her. I said, “Lift your foot, mom,” and she immediately got a determined look on her face, pulled her lips in tight and pressed her foot into the ground, like a damn tree root, and try as I may, I could NOT lift her foot up off the floor! She was only about 100 pounds, but she would not yield. I had to pry her toes up and sneak the edge of the waistband under them and pull the fabric along the floor under her foot as she continued to press it into the floor. Big Red was not going to budge.
My brother’s and I have been doing all we can to keep each other buoyed up through the last few months as things have deteriorated with mom, but we have been able to be present to the humor of the situation too. Sometimes you have to laugh or you will just cry, so we allowed ourselves to enjoy the absurd moments, like the day she came out of her room scratching her behind and declared, “Someone’s been sitting on my butt.” Or the day she exclaimed, “I’m so frustrated with the clock. Every time I look at it, it says something different!”
Lately, in the afternoons she would wander into the kitchen and help herself to the boxed wine in the fridge, no matter the time of day, on occasion putting wine right into her coffee cup. She didn’t have a refined palette, and was perfectly fine with Franzia boxed Pinot Grigio as her staple dinnertime beverage. But she did love a good bottle of bourbon. My brother, Brad, got a nice bottle a few weeks back, before she got so unstable on her feet, and we decided to let her have a little “bump”of it. She took a sip, made that oh-my-god-thats-strong face and exclaimed, “Well, you know THAT’S there!”
She had an incredibly high threshold for pain, the kind of person who didn’t need novocaine at the dentist. She didn’t even realize that she had arthritis until her knee literally gave out, and she was surprised when the doctor told her she needed an entire knee replacement because of it. Many surgeries followed; knees, spine, neck. She was filled with pins and cadaver bones to help support her deteriorating structure, and she took it in stride. You might even say she was unflappable.
Something shifted in her brain last year. She was in pain from her body being riddled with arthritis but we were able to manage it with the miracle that is cannabis. But one day everything changed. Whatever it was that was blocking her pain receptors went away. The disease of Alzheimer's was eating her brain, and that gift of not feeling the full weight of her pain went away in a flash, and suddenly she was feeling everything. But here’s the thing— she didn’t complain. Ever. If asked she would tell you she was hurting and where, but she didn’t just say, “I’m in pain, help me!” She held it, dealt with it. Those of us close to her learned to read the signs and what would be the best remedy to address it, and we knew that if she was outwardly showing us how much pain she was in, that meant it had to be really bad.
It’s been a long couple weeks. We didn’t know things were going to happen so quickly, and yet at the same time we’ve been suspended in time. The world continued to turn, but we’ve all been in limbo, our entire existence revolving around caring for her. She got on the fast track to the end of the line and then refused to step off the train. We sat with her, gave her morphine around the clock to keep her pain at bay. Her heart was incredibly strong and I lost count of the times we thought she was gone over the last week, only to have her heart come roaring back to life.
The last hour of her life was brutal, and no one should have to suffer the way she did. I will not go into the details here, I’ll save that for another time, but I will say this; I saw her blue eyes, alert for the first time in a week, and there was terror in them, and incredible pain. She looked directly at me and I recognized that she could see me. I got close to her face and looked deeply in them, and past the pain I could see my mothers soul, blazing beneath the blue. I told her I wouldn’t go anywhere, that I was in it with her to the end, and I could see the fear turn to trust and determination. And after she took her final gulping breath, I felt the energy start to leave her body, and I sang to her through tears the song she sang to me when I was a little girl. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey… And when I finished, I got close to her ear and said, “Now you are stardust, and you can go wherever you want.” And she was gone. For hours afterward I could taste the salty sweat from her brow on my lips, the remnants of trying to kiss her pain away.
In her late 30s, mom got a personal checking account and signed the checks with her own name, reclaiming her personal identity again. At 82, my quietly stubborn mother claimed her place between worlds, and held out for seven long days, with no life support whatsoever, before she made her very dramatic exit. Janice Reenee Stearns, Big Red, my mother, passed away at 10:15pm on April 8th, surrounded by her children.