We Say Goodbye to Our Matriarch
First, a little background: In 1973 American TV audiences were introduced to a groundbreaking 12-part documentary series on PBS entitled An American Family featuring the Louds, an upper middle class family in Santa Barbara, California. This was considered the first reality TV series. Keeping with its irreverent tradition of satirizing American culture, Saturday Night Live in season four, episode six, created its own Loud family, starring Jane Curtin as Mrs. Loud, Bill Murray as Mr. Loud and their daughters, Gilda Radner and guest host, Carrie Fisher with supporting characters played by John Belushi, Dan Ayckroyd and Garrett Morris.
I’ve often referred to my family of origin as the Loud Family. Not because of any dysfunctional behavior, but because we are literally loud. Six children plus my parents, Richard and Ethel Lenzke, grew up and lived in a small, post-war Cape Cod home in Racine, Wisconsin. When we gather together, because most of us are very auditory and storytellers, we talk competitively and we get louder and louder. If one were to record our conversations they’d sound like a David Mamet script, characters talking over each other with no pauses in between.
Beginning Thursday, January 21, 2016 our family convened in our hometown to stand vigil as our beloved mother, Ethel, was taken to the ICU following a heart event where she died and was revived by the hospital staff and intubated with a ventilator. She had been in the hospital since Saturday, January 16, when she fell at home and was hospitalized. On Thursday she was to be released home when her heart stopped.
Whether we were surrounding our mother in her room in the ICU, talking in the hospital waiting room, or in transit between the cafeteria and back, we were loud. We tried our best to respect others and talk in hushed tones, but we always default to laughter and tears as we tell stories and use words to connect and comfort each other. Our affection for each other is exuberant. Add to the mix our father who is hard of hearing and though we do our best to modulate our volume, we seldom succeed in being quiet.
On one of our trips to the cafeteria after our family members from Colorado arrived, we talked excitedly, and of course, loudly. As we passed people in the hallway they looked at us wide-eyed like we were some kind of force of nature. I think my sister Tami’s purple hair added to the attention we were receiving and I jokingly said to the observers, “We’re the Loud Family, and we have a reality TV show!” The onlookers searched for movie cameras, yet seemed to believe our masquerade.
Once my brother Rick arrived from Colorado, we began the conversations about our mother’s end-of-life wishes led by Rick and sister Kelly who were my mother’s medical powers of attorney. My mother, knowing that our father would have a difficult time letting go of her and make decisions in his state of grief, chose my brother who was the family executor and sister who had escorted them to all of their medical appointments.
Deciding when to remove the ventilator and stop the intravenous blood pressure medication that was keeping her heart pumping was the most difficult decision, since we were committed to respecting our mother’s wishes for end of life, and helping our father understand that Mom wasn’t coming home. We had nurses, respiratory therapists and cardiologist who advocated for our mother, father, and family and were providing the most compassionate care that we could have wanted.
Our family had numerous conversations about the logistics of when to remove the ventilator and how we could support our parents and each other. My sister-in-law Nancy texted our niece, Taryn, who is an RN and has worked in Hospice to interpret some of the vital signs on the monitor and after some difficult conversations with the medical staff and each other made the decision to remove her from the ventilator and all medication except for pain management to make her comfortable and pain-free.
On Saturday, January 23, after conferring with a nurse practitioner who communicated with our mother’s cardiologist, they wrote the order and Mom was removed from artificial means of life support. She was able to breathe on her own supplemented by oxygen. After her heart rate became elevated and blood pressure dropped, gradually her strong heart took over and her heart rate dropped and blood pressure increased. Though she most likely had suffered some brain damage as a result of the earlier heart event, before removal of the ventilator she had periods of alertness and was able to recognize and acknowledge our words and presence.
Hours passed and everyone in the family had an opportunity to individually say their goodbyes. A Catholic priest provided her last rites and a Chaplain said prayers for our mother and family members. Mom received a beautiful prayer blanket which comforted our father and family as much as Mom. Later that evening at 9:44 p.m. with my sister Tami holding her hand, our mother and grandmother, and father’s wife expired as she took her last breath.
The entire family in Racine reconvened in the ICU, said our final goodbyes as we were cared for lovingly and compassionately by the ICU nurse, Matt, and the Chaplain who returned to bless and pray for our mother. I said the Serenity Prayer joined by my family to help us accept her death and let her go. We were most amazed by our father who we had feared would be devastated by the finality of this day and had battled waves of denial about her impending passing. He did remarkably well buoyed by the love and support of his family and medical team.
Family members in Las Vegas, nephew John and niece Taryn, booked flights to join us for the funeral. My sister Tami and I who live in Madison returned home for a day and a half to prepare for the funeral and take care of arrangements at home and work. My niece, Casey, returned to her home in San Antonio to collect her family, her partner Ben and Casey’s three children and drove back to Racine. I drafted Mom’s obituary, the family collected photos and we gathered again in Racine to plan the funeral, make photo memory boards, and celebrate our mother’s life.
In addition to the compassionate care our mother, grandmother and father received from the staff at Wheaton-Franciscan – All Saints Medical Center, the team at Draeger-Langendorf Funeral Home provided a concierge-level of planning for the visitation and burial service. It was personal and the funeral director, a high school friend of my sister Tami, had known my family and been to our home. Over the course of the preceding days and up and through the burial and afterwards, my family, yes, the Loud Family, shared memories, stories, and laughed between the tears. As we looked through family photos we laughed at the bad hair and fashion and reminisced about the many shared times together. Though we, like most families, are not perfect, our love for each other runs deep.
My brother Rick and sister Kelly with my father planned the funeral. On Wednesday, January 26, 2016, we were joined by friends and family to celebrate our mother, grandmother and wife. Mom was the matriarch of the family, the glue that held us all together. When the family came together to say one last goodbye before the visitation we were amazed by the work the funeral home did in a short period of time to capture our mother and family’s spirit. Almost as if for the first time, we saw our mother’s love in each smile and the bright light in her eyes of every photo and the slide show. She was surrounded in her casket chosen for her favorite color, pink, by beautiful pink flowers and arrangements. Family members wore pink shirts, ties, or accessories to commemorate her.
In addition to the memory photo boards and portraits we collected, our family put small objects in the casket with her that held special memories, a pink tulip, miniature wooden shoes, her crucifix, a recovery medallion, a Grandmother’s charm bracelet, a Las Vegas Police Department patch and more. We stood in a receiving line and people began arriving to pay their respects.
One of the attendees remarked, “Why is Paul Newman’s photo on the memory board?” We laughed. For years Mom had a large blow-up black and white poster of Paul Newman down in the basement by the washer and dryer. The only color in the poster was Newman’s blue eyes. Mom would grab some laundry and head downstairs and say, “I’m going to visit Paul now!” The day before when Dad saw Paul Newman’s photo he remarked, “Mom liked Paul Newman a lot, but I got my shoes under her bed before he could!”
This is a heartfelt thank you to all who came to say goodbye to our mother and grandmother and my father’s wife, and comforted us in our time of grief. Again, our father did amazingly well as he welcomed people and gave and received hugs and condolences. We were filled by the love and affection expressed by our friends, extended family, and coworkers. My sister Tami and our family were especially grateful for our friends and my former partners who traveled from Madison to pay their respects to our family and to support us. Some of our friends have known both Tami and I and our parents for decades. This meant a lot to our father who asked our friends to care for us as we grieved.
A Priest provided a moving blessing and prayer for our mother, and I read an updated version of an essay I wrote for my mother two years earlier on Mother’s Day entitled, A Grateful Daughter. My niece Casey, who spent a number of years living with my parents, gave a moving tribute. After the visitation family and friends retreated for a light meal and drinks at a favorite pub, Buckets, where family events had been held in the past. The pub is owned by a neighbor we grew up with. Everything seemed to fall perfectly in place.
The next day, in a family-only service, we buried our mother. Afterwards, we gathered for a lunch at Mom and Dad’s and our family’s favorite pizza place, the renowned Wells Brothers Pizza, also a venue for birthday and anniversary celebrations. The great grandkids reserved seats for our father. My grandniece Nala said, “I have to sit next to Grandpa, so I can take care of him and make him feel better.” We returned to our childhood home, hugged, laughed and told more stories, between the occasional tears.
On Friday, some of us gathered at my parent’s favorite neighborhood restaurant for breakfast and throughout the day, family members who needed to return home to Castle Rock, Colorado, Las Vegas Nevada, and San Antonio, Texas, stopped back at Dad’s to say their goodbyes and beat the winter storm heading east.
As family members headed home, Tami, Dad and I witnessed the most beautiful sunset, with the most amazing pink and blue clouds, the shade of pink my mother loved, and blue like my father’s (and Paul Newman’s) eyes. We couldn’t help but speculate that Mom had something to do with the sunset. It was a sign that she was watching over us and wishing us safe travels. Tami posted a photo on Facebook, and soon other family members at home or on the road commented that they too saw the same sunset and posted more photos.
Saturday morning, before Tami and I packed up and assisted Dad with final to-do’s we were awakened by a pink and blue sunrise like the sunset the night before. Tami later commented that Mom was sending us off on our journey home to Madison. Dad was ready to say goodbye to us as well. He was anxious to return to his daily routines and establish new ones, which would provide him some comfort. With his help, we selected a photo of Mom that he could talk to when he needed to.
Mom’s birthday is February 20th. That weekend, on Sunday, we will gather as a family to once again celebrate the life of the woman who loved us unconditionally and who we loved whole-heartedly, and whose flower garden flourished every year with Dad’s help. Her legacy lives on in her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. We will converge again Memorial Day weekend and plant her garden in her memory with flowers purchased from the donations at her funeral. Her garden and her family will flourish in the light of her everlasting love. I will forever be her grateful daughter.