Rest in peace, Sue Mulkey
Around the first of the year I asked my 88-year-old mother Sue a daunting question: “Are you ready to go?” This once powerful, dynamic, high-energy woman had fallen several times over the past few years, breaking both her ankles in one of them. As she’d slowed down and become less self-reliant, she also became more and more withdrawn and reclusive, spending most of her time in her recliner, the phone and TV set her primary connection with the outside world.
Mom briefly pondered the question, then answered, “No, not yet.”
Nonetheless, a few months later, I believe Mom decided it was time to go. And she did.
Mom fell and broke her leg and hip at her home on May 3, yet somehow managed to get to the phone to call Nancy and Mike, who immediately took her to the Harton Regional Medical Center emergency room. The next day Mom had successful surgery, and two days later she was moved to the Life Care Center next to the hospital to rest and rehabilitate. Mom seemed to be making excellent progress when Nancy got a call on the night of Sunday, May 19 reporting that she’d had a stroke and was being readmitted to the hospital.
As a result of the stroke, Mom was completely paralyzed on her left side and couldn’t swallow. She could still talk though her words were slurred. Nancy was with Mom most of this time, and Shonnie, Gracelyn and I got to Tullahoma on Tuesday. The next day, Mom seemed content and happy just to have us all around her, while the hospital staff worked diligently with her to get her to swallow to no avail.
Thursday morning Mom was unresponsive to any stimuli. Unconscious with no movement on either side, Dr. Bills confirmed that she had had another stroke and had also developed pneumonia in one lung. She seemed very peaceful and ready to take the next step in this journey we call life.
Nancy and I hurriedly contacted family members to let them know that we thought Mom was in her final days in her bodily form. Art and Eve came immediately from Knoxville, where they’d been visiting with Eve’s Mom. Larissa and Annie and her family had already spent time with Mom. Mark arrived on Friday, Chris on Saturday and Dylan on Sunday.
Dr. Bills had spoken with Mom about her living will during her previous hospital stays, and he was aware that she did not want to be kept alive artificially with no hope of recovery. On Friday, when it was apparent that Mom was at that stage, Nancy, Art, Dr. Bills and I all agreed to remove the oxygen and IV fluids and allow her to pass on naturally and peacefully. From that point on, someone was with Mom 24 hours a day, with Art, Nancy or I sharing daytime duty and one of us spending each night with her. I was with her early Sunday morning when, at 4:30 a.m., Mom took her final breath. There was a part of me that wanted to cry out to the nurses for someone to do something. But Mom had made her decision. She had lived a full and fulfilling life, and her time in this well-used body was complete.
I called Art, Chris, and Nancy, and they came to her room at once. We held each other and wept. I read a poem, and when Dr. Bills arrived he offered a compassionate prayer. Then Nancy stayed with Mom until Vanderbilt University Medical School arrived with its ambulance to take her body for research as she had designated years ago (and as Dad had previously).
Mom had informed us that she did not want a memorial service or funeral for herself. However, since family members had come from around from the country to be with her and some were scheduled to depart on Monday, that Sunday evening we held a family celebration of Mom’s life at our family home. We shared photos of this extraordinarily beautiful woman during various stages of her life, and there were sadness and tears mixed with consolation and laughter as we recounted tales of growing up with Mom and Dad at our family home at 911 Bragg Circle in Tullahoma, Tennessee. In the midst of death, there was more life in the old home on this night than had been seen in many years.
Just a few weeks after Mom died, I spent a few days with my brother Art and sister Nancy at our family home going through all the stuff that had accumulated there over the past 60 years. Photos, videos, letters, newspaper clippings, greeting cards, scrap books, info about ancestors and lots of other things, including our great-grandmother’s extensive and eclectic salt and pepper shaker collection. A bittersweet experience—sweet in that my brother, sister and I had a wonderful opportunity to spend time together and connect at a deeper level than perhaps we ever have . . . and bitter in that this may be the last time the three of us will be together at the home in which we grew up.
Art and I stayed at our family home, and it was a bit strange realizing we, along with Nancy, were now the family elders.
One night while there I found myself involuntarily praying the prayer I’d recited every night as a child:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
God bless Mommy and Daddy and Butch and Nancy and . . . (a long litany of 30+ relatives).
Though my spiritual path has diverged considerably from the vision of hellfire and damnation instilled in me at age 10 by a malevolent Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, it was still comforting to pray my youthful prayer in my childhood home that night. It had been a wonderful place to grow up. Each of the kids had their own private bedroom, which was pretty unusual in those days. Dad built a basketball court in the side yard where all the neighborhood kids (and they were plentiful) came to play. There were lots of woods nearby for exploring and, sometime, camping. There were vacant lots nearby that we’d mow, lay out the bases, choose teams and play baseball (or football) for hours on end. You could ride your bike almost anywhere you wanted to go without getting on a main road. It was an excellent place to spend one’s childhood.
And Mom and Dad had been generous with us in many ways. Beginning family life in Texas with only a few pieces of hand-me-down furniture, by the time we got to Tullahoma we’d achieved solid middle class status as our home on Bragg Circle declared. We were well cared for, had stylish clothes, a little spending money and cars when we turned 16. Thoroughly used cars, but cars nonetheless, which was also pretty unusual. In addition, they had instilled in us a passion for sports, the importance of progressive politics and a sense of fairness and equality for all. Furthermore Mom protected her children (overprotected some might say) with the ferocity of a tigress. Word around town was you don’t mess with the Mulkey kids unless you want a confrontation with Sue Mulkey.
On our first day together at 911 Bragg Circle, Art, Nancy, Larissa and I cleaned out the attic and arranged the memorabilia from decades gone by for kids and grandkids so each could claim it. Annie came by to get some ancient artifacts that were hers. Claudia came to get Dylan’s. I boxed up some books for Lilla and Brandon. Chris had already taken Mom’s kitty home with him. And there were salt and pepper shakers for all! The next day Nancy, Art and I talked with attorneys, bankers, financial advisers, realtors and auctioneers reviewing Mom’s estate and how it would be handled. And on the third day, we continued to sort through the souvenirs of important personal events and experiences as well household items, clothing, etc. Art got Mom’s pristine ’99 Chevy Blazer (only 10,000 miles on it!) running and decided he’d claim it. And we spent some time visiting with Claudia, Kyle Copeland, Bobby Jernigan, Vera Koger and Kay Gebault.
On the last night (Wednesday) we three would be together, we had dinner at the Celtic Cup, continuing to reminisce and thoroughly enjoy one another’s company. The next day I packed up some of my memorabilia, some household items, some toys for Gracelyn and a few other things and headed back to Asheville . . . pleased that my brother, sister and I had had bonded so deeply, melancholy about the impending sale of our family home and filled with questions about when and where our family would gather again.
This, of course, has been a challenging time, and I know I’m not the only one who feels a deep sense of loss now that our mother/grandmother/great-grandmother is no longer physically present with us. But regardless of our religious/spiritual beliefs, I think we can all agree that Mom (and Dad) will continue to live on in our hearts.
Note: A big thanks to my sister Nancy for providing the chronology of events around Mom’s death.