A birthday present that has been long overdue
In loving memory of Barbara Heffintrayer: A son's tribute
Last Feb. 1, I spent the day with my mother at the nursing home for her birthday. She unwrapped her presents, asked how school was going, and we made plans for her to come home for Easter. Had I known that was going to be the last birthday I would ever spend with her, I would have said and done so much more.
In my 30 years, I've lost friends and family members, but nothing could have ever prepared me for the emptiness that results from losing a mother. Every single cliche I had ever heard about loss rang true, as food lost its taste, and sleep became a distant memory. I found myself sitting alone, listening to the same song on repeat, unable to make sense of what I was feeling.
I've always been able to handle highly stressful situations, but with my mother's passing, I folded like a beach chair. I couldn't even think in complete sentences, as thoughts were reduced to single words. The void that was created is just ... unexplainable.
At the same time, I think about how fortunate I was to have such a loving presence in my life. While that void may never go away, it represents my mother's amazing capacity to love, so there is definitely beauty within this sadness.
About my mother
Barbara Heffintrayer was one of the most engaging women a person could ever meet. She had a huge heart, an amazing sense of humor, and a keen ability to always look at the bright side of things. Her outlook is worth mentioning because she wasn't dealt the best of hands, but she played them as best as anyone could.
Going back to her youth, she was legally blind, and she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. As she grew, so did the list of ailments; she had endometriosis that was so severe, it made it all but impossible to bear children.
With all those crosses to bear, she never complained, and she never let them get the best of her. She went on to receive her master's in English, graduating magna cum laude. She met my father, and they married. A few months later, she became pregnant, and her resolve was put to the test.
The consensus among her doctors was that, due to her illnesses and age, having a child was not a realistic option. Her psychiatrist added that her mental illness would prohibit her from being able to effectively parent. Despite these views, she gave birth to her only son at the age of 38, and I'm living proof that they were extraordinarily wrong.
She was the greatest mother I could have asked for.
During the summer of 2001, after I was discharged from the United States Army, my father became disabled, and thus, my parents needed around-the-clock care. I did my best from the outside, but after my mother's first stroke a few years later, it was clear I needed to move back home.
Over the past nine years, she somehow survived three strokes, multiple heart attacks, several bouts with pneumonia and a host of other issues. Her health was clearly declining, but she maintained her sense of humor.
One day, I noticed my mother was leaning to the left, and her speech was slurred. I went through the F. A. S. T. protocol and realized she was having a stroke. I grabbed the phone, but before I had a chance to dial 9-1-1, she asked me if she could finish her hot dog before I called.
My girlfriend Kristen tried to hold back laughter as I explained to my mother that time was an issue, and that the hot dog would be there after she got out of the hospital.
Once the paramedics arrived, they were aghast to see my mother trying to quickly finish a hot dog mid-stroke. She laughed and simply said, "I'm really hungry."
Who does that? I mean, we're all terrified, and she's sitting there joking about hot dogs while having a stroke. It was surreal, but it's a testament to the type of woman she was. The worse things got, the more she tried to make light of it.
By 2008, her conditions had hit a point where I could no longer care for her, and she was moved to a nursing facility. In her final two years, she was diagnosed with COPD and coronary artery disease, and her diabetes had gotten so advanced that she had no feeling in her feet, and little in her hands.
June 8, 2010
I was studying when I received a call from the nursing home, stating "there had been a status change." I asked if my mother was dying, and they said "You need to come here now."
I called Kristen, and she left work so we could head over. I told my father, and asked him to come, but he was still too sick to leave the apartment.
Once we entered the building, the doctor informed us that my mother had taken a turn for the worse, and her oxygen sats were plummeting. She explained that all they could do is make her comfortable. When we made it to my mother's room, anything I had resembling composure was immediately shattered.
This wasn't a close call, and there was no chance of survival. She was laying in bed, hooked up to oxygen, gasping for each breath. She couldn't speak, but she could get a word out here and there. I held her hand, and I whispered in her ear how proud I was of her, and what a great mother she had been. She smiled and a tear rolled down her cheek.
Considering how little time she had, we called a priest to administer the Last Rites. Afterward, I called my father and held my cell phone up to my mother's ear. I could hear him crying, telling her how much he loved her, but she couldn't say anything besides the word "love."
It turns out the doctor had underestimated my mother's willpower, because 30 minutes turned into five hours. This gave us a chance to have some of her brothers, sisters, and friends stop by and see her one last time. At one point, we were all sitting silently, looking at the oxygen sensor.
I guess my mother realized how scared we were, so in an effort to lighten the mood, she blurted out "hot dog" with a smile on her face. I have to admit, it was perfect timing.
As the hours passed on, I found myself alone, holding my mother's hand. There was so much I wanted to say, but I just looked at her and smiled. I've never seen a person more at peace while facing death.
As the numbers on the oxygen sensor continued to decline, the finality of everything began to set in. She became less and less responsive, but she somehow continued to fight. Seeing her like that was ... horrible.
God help me, but I began to pray that she would go easy instead of putting up a fight. I just couldn't bear to see her like that.
At 9:45 p.m., my mother squeezed my hand as she took her last breath. I closed her eyes and informed the doctor that she had passed away. The staff went into the room to take care of everything, so we went outside and began making calls to let everyone know that she had passed.
Just like that, she was gone.
In the wake of my mother's passing, her family really stepped up to take care of everything from funeral arrangements to planning the memorial service. My friends and family showed so much love and support; it's hard to quantify with words.
Time may heal wounds, but not this one. It never goes away. The pain, the emptiness, the sadness: it's as present as it was the moment she passed. I guess instead of healing, you just learn to live with it.
She was a great mother, but also a great wife, sister, and friend. I sincerely hope that wherever she is, she can see the impact she had on so many lives, and how we find so much inspiration in the way she led her life.
My mother had always encouraged me to write, and her greatest hope was that I could somehow turn writing into a career. Thanks to Tony Di Domizio and Patch, she can smile knowing that I've taken the first step.
Happy birthday, Mom. Every word I type, and every sentence I speak, is a direct result of your passion and teaching. I only hope that I have made you proud.
Keith Heffintrayer is a writer for Montgomeryville-Lansdale Patch.
This article and all comments will be printed and dropped off at her grave by Keith and Kristen.