My mother died on Wednesday afternoon, July 9, surrounded by family and friends. Evelyn Lancaster took her last breath hearing us tell her how much we loved her. It was beautifully peaceful, albeit painful, knowing that we would never again hear her voice, see her smile or feel her embrace.
But we will forever feel her love.
Mother had experienced a steady decline since entering Erlanger hospital on June 8 after multiple unexplained falls. Diagnosed with eight inoperable brain tumors, Mother fought hard to live. Doctors had given us some encouragement, saying radiation treatments could offer a 50 percent chance of shrinking the tumors, thus giving her more time on earth. But fate had different plans. Mother never made it to her first treatment.
My mom’s final journey was a roller-coaster ride. Some days she’d make progress and other days regress. Still, we never gave up. Our goal was to get her to radiation treatments for that chance to survive.
In late May, when I realized Mother’s health was declining, I opted to take medical leave of absence from the newspaper in order to take care of her in my home and, as it turned out, by her side throughout her care at Erlanger, Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation and St. Barnabas Healthcare Center. And, though this sounds crazy, it was a pleasant experience, thanks to incredibly nice people.
The staffs at each of these institutions were phenomenal. Every person who came in contact with my mother, from the people who cleaned the room to the doctors, treated her with the utmost respect and kindness. They laughed with us; they cried with us. Even in the end, at Lane Funeral Home on Ashland Terrace, where the staff went beyond our every need, my mother was honored.
Her death came fast. Just two months ago, Mother was babysitting my granddaughter (and her great-granddaughter) Evie, 4, her namesake (Evelyn) at least twice a week. She often took Evie and her sister, Tilleigh, 7, out to eat and shopping, and the girls spent at least one night a week with her. She was seemingly in good health, especially for an 85 year old. She was physically active — worked out in the yard, cleaned her house, and played with the great-grandchildren.
What we didn’t know was that tumors were slowly invading her brain. In retrospect, there were subtle signs, including her left leg that didn’t move as swiftly as the right. Turns out, seven of the eight tumors were located on the right side of her brain resulting in stroke-like effects on the left side of her body. She had been to medical institutions on numerous occasions for testing but it wasn’t until June 8 at Erlanger that a mass was discovered on her brain.
I will never regret choosing to spend the last 42 days of Mother’s life at her side. I hadn’t spent that much time with her since I was in high school. We spent every day talking about the past, the future, our family, our love; we even gossiped.
At Siskin, I went with my mom to physical therapy most every day. I was amazed at how dedicated the physical and occupational therapists are at helping their patients improve. My mother was encouraged to work hard and praised by each therapist for her efforts. Mother never backed down to a challenge and never complained.
It was evident, though, from the first day at St. Barnabas that my mother’s life was nearing an end. She was no longer making any progress and her strength was quickly fading. Sitting up in a wheelchair became a challenge. It was at this time that my daughter told my grandchildren that “Nannie’s” life was coming to an end.
Tilleigh understands death. Evie doesn’t, and William, 22 months, doesn’t have a clue. Still, they all wanted to visit their great-grandmother at St. Barnabas despite her declining condition. She was barely communicating, but it was evident that she could hear and understand us when we talked to her. She perked up when the kids visited, waving and smiling to them when they walked in the room. By July 8, Mother could no longer speak, but she’d squeeze our hands to let us know that she understood what we were saying.
I called close family members and friends on the morning of July 9 to see if they’d like to be with Mother on what was likely to be the last day of her life. A dozen people came. We surrounded her bed and everyone had a special moment with her. But it was Tilleigh, Evie and I who sang to her during her last minutes. Just seconds before taking her last breath, she heard her precious little great-granddaughters, and me, singing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Que Sera Sera,” two of the many songs that Mother always sang to us.
The girls chose to sing about Rudolph because it’s our family’s Christmas anthem (my late father was a dedicated fan of Gene Autry, who released the original recording about the famous reindeer), and it makes us happy. “Que Sera Sera” is a song Mother loved. Singing it to her on her deathbed wasn’t easy, but hearing two little voices accompanying me was a joyous sound. I know my mother loved it.
When Mother took her last breath, Tilleigh, wailing, collapsed next to Mother, holding her hand, begging her not to die. My daughters were consoling her while I held Evie. I was crying, too, when Evie looked at me and said, “Mom, Nannie is not dead. She’s faking it. She’s just sleeping, Mom.” (My grandchildren call me “Mom.”)
“No, baby, Nannie died. She’s with Papa (my late father),” I told her.
Right at that moment, for whatever medical reason, it appeared that my mother sighed.
“See! See! I told you. She’s not dead!” Evie said. “Open your eyes, Nannie.”
I seriously didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was almost a comic relief. It was definitely a moment that had everyone in the room speechless. I guarantee you that, if Mother heard Evie say it, she loved it.
Then, the realization that Mother had just died had everyone crying again.
Evie cried, too.
Several days later, at the funeral, it finally hit Evie that Nannie wouldn’t be coming back. It happened during the service, when my daughter, Karah, and my son, Kit, spoke about their grandmother. They told in beautiful detail about the life of their beloved grandmother and the admiration and love they have for her. It was as though Evie grasped their words and realized Nannie was truly gone.
Evelyn Lancaster, my beautiful mother who loved her family with all her heart, handed over the responsibility of being the family matriarch to me just days before she died.
“Take care of yourself, sweetheart,” she told me. “And watch over Tilleigh, Evie and William. Be there for them.”
And, just minutes before she died, I vowed to do just that. I may never fill her shoes, but I’ll never stop trying.
Contact Karen Nazor Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6396.
Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...