Days before my mother left this spiritual plane, she began seeing people surrounding us. She started talking to people in the room the rest of us couldn’t see. One day, as I approached her and heard her talking, I asked who she was talking to. This is what she said.
“I want Mitch Albom to write me a eulogy,” my mom said in an expectant tone.
“Mother, everyone wants Mitch to write their eulogy.”
“Yes, but he likes me. Ask him to write one for me.”
“Mother, I can’t…I…”
She looked at me with dying eyes, mother eyes. Eyes saying, “just do it.”
“But, I don’t want to ask him for a favor like this. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“Lisa, just ask him. All he can do is say no.”
Although these are difficult last days, I have no doubt where you are going next. You’ll be in heaven with a first class ticket.
In case you are overwhelmed by the beauty when you arrive and you find yourself temporarily speechless, here is a piece of paper that you can present to whoever is manning the gates, OK?
It can serve as your official introduction.
We loved you every minute you were with us – and will for all the minutes to come.
God bless you on your journey home.
Hello, my name is Millie Goich, or, if your records go way back, Mila Birach, born March 5, 1926. You shouldn’t need to look me up. My friends tell me my reputation precedes me.
I’m happy to be here. I was ready to be here. I have been dreaming of this place for a while. I’m 85 years old, and people tell me I filled those 85 years with as much love and laughs as one person can expect from a life on earth. Now it’s time to check out the new digs. If you have any space that looks like Las Vegas, you can sign me up. And if you have any Wizard of Oz slot machines, that would be fine, too. I mean, if you can’t get lucky here, where can you?
As for me? Well. I know this: I had a great life. If you measure your success by those you leave behind and how fondly they think of you, I hit the jackpot.
I count three children, two grandchildren, one great grandchild, and an adoring, loving husband from my time on earth, which is a good life’s work no matter who you’re talking about. My kids tell me I always put them first and never thought about myself. They’re being sweet. But my family really did come first. I didn’t mind. That’s how I wanted to live.
In fact, if you’ve got some families up here you want me to watch after – cook, fuss, whatever you need — I can make the time. Making time comes easily for me. I’ve done it all my life.
I think it comes from being loved. My husband and I fell for each other the day we met, at a weenie roast. Sixty-four great years together. Do you know, after all that time, we still hold hands? I can feel his hand in mine even now. Sometimes you just know. I was blessed that way.
I also got to make a lot of fond and funny memories. I teased people. I gave them a little sass. I loved to laugh. I even worked at a donut shop for a while, and traded some back and forth jokes with the cops. Do you know what cops are? I don’t suppose you need any up here.
My kids tell me I was devoted and dedicated and that I never stopped worrying. Well, they’re right about the last part. You always worry about your children. But I’m hoping now that I’m here, I’ll see there is actually nothing to worry about. It would be nice to get that message to the kids. Then again, we can let them sweat it out, if it keeps them in line. It’ll be our little secret.
I do have a couple of questions. Do you keep up with the Kardashians up here, too? If so, I’m prepared. If not, that’s OK, too. However, if you separate the neighborhoods here by political parties, I would like to sleep with the Democrats. Force of habit. Sorry.
Mostly, you can count on me for cooking, joking, Yugoslavian detail work, moral support and endless love. I am kind of like that song, “When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all…”
Like a bridge over troubled water. I love that tune. And that’s what my family and loved ones say about me. If they’re right, who am I to argue? All I can tell you is I had a great life, I lived it on my terms as much as I could, and based on all the smiles – and tears – at the end, I must have done something right.
I’m just happy to be here. I didn’t want to get on the bus going south, if you know what I mean.
If God is reading this, thank you for all you gave me on earth – and for the chance I had to give some of it back. I really do see what you mean when you say to give is to live. That’s how I handled it. And I feel more alive than ever.
So…let’s get this second act started, right?
Beloved wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, relative and cherished friend of too many people to count
This is a tiny book about love, and a mother and a daughter and saying goodbye. You might see yourself in this book, or you might just be here to experience the story. Regardless, I welcome you to take my hand and step inside my parents’ house and share in my mother’s final days with me. Thank you for coming. Make sure you take some cookies home with you when you leave.
“Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh…”
I thought burning my toast was going to be the worst thing that happened today. It wasn’t just the fact that the toast was burnt, it was the last two pieces of bread in the package. I had no back-up plan. While my dad sat at the kitchen table eating his oatmeal, and my dog Angie sat on the floor at his side waiting for table scraps, I tossed the bread in the garbage and cursed my brother under my breath for distracting me with his phone call. My first full day back in my hometown of Warren, Michigan wasn’t starting on a high note. My parents’ toaster was half to blame. Because the toaster didn’t turn off on its own, toasting required staring at the bread through the red-hot slots and, when it looked like it was browned, manually pushing the button to pop it out. My mom and dad never felt the need to get a new toaster. When you’re 85 and 89 respectively, I guess watching things cook isn’t that big of a deal. What else have you got to do? They could see their TV from the kitchen, so while the bread was browning they’d have one finger on the button and one eye on Good Morning America in the other room.
Perhaps if my brother Richard didn’t call with an urgent message to get to the hospital “Now!”, I wouldn’t have started this Sunday with a grumbling stomach and a bug up my butt. My mom had been admitted to the hospital two days prior after a fall at the kidney dialysis center left her unable to walk. I had gone straight from the airport to the hospital the evening before after arriving in Detroit from Los Angeles. My dad and I planned on a leisurely morning at home before joining my mom again at her bedside. Obviously leisurely wasn’t in the plans today and there was some news my brother chose not to share with my dad and me over the phone, but insisted we hear in person. That’s never good. It seems to be status quo in my family. No one tells anyone anything for fear of upsetting them. People in our family have gone in and out of hospitals, have had strokes, heart attacks and cancer, have gone through chemo and remission, all before other family members were told about it. “She doesn’t need to worry,” they’d say in hushed tones, putting their index finger to their lips. My mom had a tumor and 18 inches of her colon removed five years earlier and was home healing before my niece even knew she was sick. She’s sensitive, they say. So they keep the bad stuff from her, hoping she’ll never find out.
But today, while my brother’s urgent “Now!” lingered in the air, I would soon be in on the secret.
“Are you ready?” asked my dad, already standing at the back door with his keys in hand.
“Am I ready? Do I look ready?” I asked, motioning down the length of my body to my pajamas and bare feet. “Give me five minutes,” I added, and went back into my bedroom.
I heard my dad let out a big Huff! as he jingled his keys in his gloved hands, obviously frustrated that he couldn’t leave right away.
My parents always had a way of guilting me into not being late. They were never late. Ever. My mom packed for vacations a week before she was leaving. The airport? She’d leave seven hours ahead of take-off, “just in case.”
So today, as my dad stood in the doorway with his coat on muttering under his breath, I hurriedly threw on the same clothes I wore on the plane the day before, tossed my little dog, Angie, into her carrier bag, pulled a baseball cap over my frizzy curls and headed back into the family room.
“Okayyyyy…let’s go,” I said, rolling my eyes, feeling more like a 15-year-old than a woman on the brink of 50.
As my dad pressed the button to the left on the wall, next to his Parking For Serbians Only! sign, the electric door lifted and the morning sun poured into the garage, followed by a biting gust of wind and a swirl of snow. It had started snowing about an hour earlier and a blanket of white had accumulated on the driveway. The wind whipped the trees and tossed the snowflakes, reminding me why I left this northern climate 16 years ago. Living in Los Angeles for more than a decade, I rarely ventured home to Michigan in the winter. I don’t ski, I’m not a fan of winter sports and I have spent far too many hours on airplanes warding off panic attacks waiting for planes to de-ice before taking off. Detroit was far more appealing to me in May than it was in December.
I buckled Angie’s carrier into the backseat then climbed into the passenger side of my dad’s Jeep Liberty SUV. This was my mom’s side of the car and it seemed odd that I was sitting there and not in the back seat with my dog. Dad in the driver’s seat. Mom in the passenger seat. Kids in the back seat. Isn’t that the way it always was and always should be? I stared at my mom’s used tissue wadded up in the cup holder and got a foreboding sadness as my dad turned the key to the Jeep’s ignition. My dad — a loyal Chrysler employee even 25 years post-retirement — only drove Chrysler products. We rarely mention my Toyota Prius around him. It inevitably brings up lectures of “The Japs” and World War II and buying American and recessions and depressions. I’d rather talk about the fuel efficiency, but he’ll have nothing of it.
As my dad backed down the driveway, the Liberty dovetailed a bit as he shifted from reverse to drive when he reached the street. We headed toward the freeway, the main streets slick from the new-fallen snow. I forgot how nerve-wracking it was to be in a car with my dad. At 89, he drove like a 16-year-old boy. Revving up to speeds about 20 miles over the speed limit, he has always had a habit of racing to the car in front of him, then slamming on his brakes just as he was about to make contact with the car’s rear bumper. This day was no different. Each time he’d speed and stop, my feet inevitably found their way to the dashboard, pushing down hard as the red lights in front of us grew closer. My hand clutched the handle above the passenger door and I could feel my fingernails burrowing into my palm, anticipating the moment of impact that we miraculously missed every time. I knew better than to say anything. My dad wasn’t a fan of backseat drivers and never took to criticism of his automotive handling skills very well. Perhaps that’s a cockiness one develops after building cars for 30-plus years.
Trying to keep my mind off of the driving — and the “Now!” that awaited us at the hospital — I attempted to strike up a conversation with my dad that would bring both of our minds to a different place. Talking to my dad one-on-one was always a very stilted venture. Most of our conversations during my life took place with my mom as a go-between. A sort of translator between the two of us. When I would call home, and my dad answered the phone, before I could even get out a “hello,” he’d say, “Here’s your mother,” and hand her the phone. We never had much to talk about, I guess. And that morning wasn’t any different.
“Soooooo…” I said, drawing out the word ‘so,’ hoping that it would trigger a topic, or at least six or eight more words to complete a full sentence. “I see they remodeled the Taco Bell,” pointing to the fast-food restaurant our family frequented often.
My dad, just as awkward in his response said, “Yeah, it’s been a couple years now. Your mother likes Taco Bell. She likes those Chalupas. That’s some good Mexican food, that Taco Bell.”
“Those Chalupas are good,” I added, wishing we could actually pull through the drive-thru and order a couple.
Before moving to California, Taco Bell was the only Mexican food I had ever eaten. Warren, Michigan — a suburb of Detroit — isn’t known for its ethnic diversity. Nor its culinary dining experiences. With restaurants with names like “J. Edgars On Hoover,” it was a buffalo wings and meat and potatoes kind of town. Blue collar cuisine. Dinner rolls presented in plastic baggies. Three-dollar breakfast specials.
As we continued toward the freeway, we passed my high school. It, too, had received a facelift since last I visited. But the giant dome we once climbed on our senior year and spray painted was still intact. I couldn’t even fathom climbing on top of a building now, let alone destructing property or spray painting without a mask. Even though I knew it was wrong to do back then, the 16-year-old me never thought about consequences. Or heights. Or toxic chemical fumes.
Thankfully the freeway had been salted, as my dad sped down the ramp onto Interstate 696. With my mind completely void of any further conversation, I reached down and turned on the radio. Faith Hill’s “Come Home” poured from the speakers, foreshadowing the afternoon’s topic of conversation.
After a 35-minute drive, we arrived at Grosse Pointe’s Beaumont Hospital. Grosse Pointe, Michigan is located on the shore of Lake St. Clair, bordering the city of Detroit. The two cities are a stark contrast: Detroit, urban and gritty; Grosse Pointe, sparkling in its storied glory. The Grosse Pointes, as they are collectively referred to (they’re so fancy, there isn’t just one, but five communities in all: Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Shores, Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Farms), are known for their money and quaint small-town feel. Lakeshore Drive is home to some of the stateliest mansions in the country. Big money. Old money. Dodge and Ford kind of money. I always envisioned myself marrying a doctor or the son of some sort of shipping magnate or furniture store chain owner and living along Lakeshore Drive. I’d have a boat, three children and a lot of brightly colored Lilly Pulitzer clothes in my closet. Instead I moved to California, married a rock musician, found solace in a 1,100 square foot house in the stifling hot San Fernando Valley and never saw my uterus reach its full rental potential. And black became my clothing color of choice. I’ve never ruled out that boat, however.
As my dad slid into a parking space at the hospital, I wiped the sweat from my palms onto the pant legs of my jeans and climbed out of the Jeep, thankful we arrived unscathed. I slipped Angie’s bag over my shoulder and pulled my scarf over my face as we walked toward the hospital’s entrance. “Fuck, it’s freezing here,” I said to myself as the wind seemed to instantly harden the tears in my eyeballs. “Fuck” was the only word one could use to describe Great Lakes winter cold. “Heck” just didn’t cut it. “Yikes” was an understatement. Why did I always forget how numbingly frigid Michigan winters were? It must be some sort of survival mechanism — the same one that makes you forget how crappy an ex-boyfriend was after you’ve broken up. All your brain can remember are the happy times and sunshine.
The sliding automatic doors opened to a whoosh of warm air as we stomped our wet boots on the floor mat and made our way to the front desk. “Millie Goich,” we informed the receptionist, as she gave us our guest badges to gain admission to my mother’s floor. Shielding Angie’s bag with my elbow so the security guard wouldn’t see I was bringing a dog into the hospital, the three of us headed upstairs to room 216.
Like a tiny rag doll sitting in a giant hospital bed, my mother looked like she had aged 20 years overnight. Her 70-pound body was swimming in her nightgown. A giant black and purple bruise, caused by the port for her kidney dialysis, covered her chest. Her once thick head of pepper and salt hair (still more pepper than salt) seemed sparse, the curls gathered to one side revealing an oversized ear on the other. A shoulder bone poked through the upper arm of her nightgown. Her collarbone was so pronounced, it looked as if you could rest a book on it. She was so fragile, I hesitated to even lean on her when I bent over to kiss her cheek. I settled at the foot of the bed holding a shivering Angie in my arms, and my dad sat at my mom’s right side holding her hand. My brother, 14 years my senior, who had been at the hospital since earlier that morning, was sitting in a chair across from us. “How’d you sleep, Mother?” I asked, as cheerily as I could, while fixating on the solid blue circles under her vacant eyes. “Have you tried to walk yet?”
Most of my adult life, I called my mom by the formal name of Mother. I’d refer to her as, “my mom,” but always called her Mother. Both my brother and sister called her Mother as well. And my dad, Father. I don’t know how that started, or why. We weren’t a fancy family. We were from Detroit, for goodness sake, not a wealthy, aristocratic suburb. But it’s what we called them and it stuck. It was uncomfortable to refer to my parents in any other way.
Ignoring the questions in front of her, my mom — never one to mince words — replied in her Edith-Bunker-meets-Fran-Drescher-voice, “I’m done with dialysis.” Not “Hello.” “How are you?” “How was your morning?” But, “I’m done with dialysis.”
My eyes darted to my brother for clarification, then back to my mom. “You don’t need dialysis anymore?” optimistically misunderstanding the underlying meaning of her statement.
“I’m done with dialysis. I don’t want it anymore. She waved her hand dismissively in the air and said, “Just let me go. I want to go.”
My head started processing the information like the inside of a computer. Stringing together ones and zeroes. Processing. Processing. Trying to grasp what that meant.
‘Go. Just let me go.’ She was saying she wanted to die.
My. Mom. Was. Going. To. Die.
I got it. I totally understood. She was saying she could no longer live with the fatigue and nausea and discomfort that the three-day-a-week treatments burdened her with. Who could blame her? One good day, one bad day, another good day, another bad day, a third good day, another bad day. At 85, she was finally ready to call her own shots. Who was I to argue? Though I understood it, it would be days before I could actually wrap my mind around the truth of it all.
I often wondered how this particular movie would end. Would I receive a late-night call from my brother saying my mom had passed away? Would my dad call in tears saying my mom didn’t wake up one morning? For years, every time the phone rang in the middle of the night, my heart would race, fearing someone on the other end would tell me my mom was gone. The end had finally been written. And I was strangely okay with it. For now.
I wondered if this is how my mom thought she was going to make her exit. Did 17-year-old pixie spitfire Mildred Birach — voted Best Dressed her senior year at Southeastern High School in Detroit, with her perfectly manicured nails and platformed, open-toed shoes — ever imagine that, nearly 70 years later, she would lie in a tattered nightgown in a hospital bed calling her own death sentence? Do any of us ever think about that day? We’re rarely privy to our final fate. And it’s probably best that way. Millie Goich most likely wouldn’t have imagined it would have been her kidneys that ended it all. Cancer maybe. Some complication from all those years of smoking, perhaps. But kidneys? Probably not.
But what she did know was that she was ready to roll. My mom was going to die. We weren’t sure when it would happen, but knew it would be at some point in the near future. It was something I couldn’t quite comprehend when it was plopped right there on my lap in front of me. The person who let go of my hand when I took my first steps, the person who released the back of my bicycle seat when I pedaled on two wheels for the first time, the person who grounded me when I got drunk on Mad Dog 20/20 in high school, the person who sat on the kitchen floor with me when I sobbed my eyes out over a boy, the person who told me I was the most precious gift she ever received and that she was so glad I was born — that person told me she was done. Fin. Over. The end.
At the announcement, I surprisingly didn’t even shed a tear. I just looked at her and nodded my head in agreement. It certainly wasn’t the response I would have thought I’d have had when my mom told me she was going to die. Years earlier when I first moved to California and started acting lessons, one of the things I learned was how to cry on command. We were taught to think about a sad moment in our past, or the possible death of a loved one, in order to muster up tears. I always used the fictitious death of my mother to elicit a watershed. But today, when it was actually laid out before me, not a tear was in sight. And I tried. Believe me, I tried. But somehow I think I absorbed my mom’s peace of mind and, instead of weeping for the loss I’d be facing, I embraced the sense of calm that my mom finally had found. I looked into her eyes — a shade of grey-blue clouded by cataracts — and said, “I support your decision.” She shook her head in acknowledgement and, emotionless, without saying a word, looked up at the TV as Vanna White revealed three Rs in the puzzle that was a “Thing.”
And with that, I fished through my purse for my phone, texted my boss and said, “I’m not going to be in for a while.”
And so began Day One of what would become a 14-day vigil. Millie Goich — The Farewell Tour.
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MY MOM: Did someone just come in?
MY SISTER & ME: Why, what do you see?
MOM: The same man who was here earlier. In the suit coat. He looks like a doctor. He’s holding a piece of paper.
US: Is he talking to you?
MOM: No. He’s looking around, just looking around.
On Day 11 of my mom’s 14 Day journey, she saw two men standing at the foot of her bed. They were standing together, not saying anything to her. They just stood there “inspecting” the situation.
I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife or Heaven. Prior to this I had a single experience in college with a “spirit” that spooked me for many years to follow. But as I grew older, I became more skeptical. So did my mom. She wasn’t necessarily a religious person, or a believer in ghosts or spirits. So when she started having conversations with “people,” I listened. And listened carefully. I believe that what she saw was real. And I believe that someone came down to escort her to her new world, with her official passport to Heaven in hand.
It isn’t unusual for dying people to interact with others in their final days. Most often it’s someone they know; sometimes – as was the case with my mom – it was a stranger. Sometimes the interaction is joyful, sometimes quizzical. But to the person dying, who and what they’re seeing is very real.
My mom saw the same man twice that day. At one point he was there with someone else; the next time he was there alone. But it was the same person. Same description. She didn’t seem to be hallucinating. She truly believed she was seeing someone. Maybe it’s not until our bodies start failing that we can truly see the other side. Maybe once our body is half in this world and half in another – and we’re weakened from illness – we allow the spirits in. Perhaps we’re too firmly planted on this plane in our current life to interact with anyone else. Like a video game, we’re not able to advance until we’ve performed a certain amount of tasks on this Earth.
I tried to get my mom on camera talking about these people. But every time I’d start the video, she would stop talking. Maybe this information isn’t intended to be documented. Maybe the dying aren’t suppose to tell us or we’re not supposed to know. In which case, I probably heard enough. The man. The clipboard. His buddy. The foot of the bed. What more was there for me to to be privy to? The part that was intriguing was that my mom said, “He’s just looking around.” Did he see me sitting there? Or did he only see my mom? Maybe the spirits could only see the dying. The clipboard probably contained my mom’s information. Maybe height, weight, a photo of some sort. Stats and “accomplishments” on Earth. Maybe this gentleman was there to gather this information; a greeter sent down to assess the situation. Perhaps he – like an insurance adjustor – just came down to check out the scene. The business at hand. He came down to see if she was truly ready to go. Then he went back “up there” – or wherever he was from – to meet with the angel bosses who would then send her official escort down a couple of days later.
I wondered who my mom’s escort would be. Would it be my grandmother? Would it be a stranger? Maybe they would send my mom’s sibling who died shortly after birth. Maybe it would be the “handsome gentleman” my mom had been talking about – the short one who made her smile.
One thing I knew for sure, someone was in the room with us. This wasn’t a hallucination. She saw these gentlemen with her heart. That was enough to convince me that, indeed, they were there.
My mom traveled in and out of sleep the rest of the afternoon. More relatives came and left. More food was served. The hospice worker arrived early in the evening to clean her up for bed. Carla, the nurse, took out my mom’s dentures and soaked them in a cup full of blue mouthwash that was sitting on the coffee table. She changed my mom’s diaper, slipped a clean pad underneath her hips, placed the oxygen hose back into my mom’s nostrils and kissed my mom on the forehead telling her she’d see her the following night. My mom told Carla to take some cookies home for her daughter. Carla thanked her, packed a Christmas-themed tin full of nut rolls and peanut butter balls, then left for the evening.
Mentally, my mom was still present, but I could see that things were starting to shift. She was sleeping more, communicating less and starting to wander off in her thoughts. She’d rally for awhile, but then her mind was transported to another place in time. It was as if she had one foot in the present, in her family room, and the other in the future, running through a green meadow, with our former family dog, Buffy, at her side.
Up until that point, her exit had been textbook. I knew that within a day, our communication would cease. It’s a very strange concept to know that within 24 hours you’ll never hear this person speak again. While I still had her there, and she was still somewhat able to comprehend, I flipped through my mental Rolodex to think if there were any last-minute outstanding issues that needed to be discussed, words left unsaid, apologies that needed to be made. Yes. There was one. The Skyhawk Incident.
Whether or not I should go there was the dilemma I faced that evening. For 33 years, my mom believed that “A goddamned woman at the golf course” had hit her beloved Buick Skyhawk. I never had the heart to tell her that I was the one who put the three-panel gouge in the passenger side of the car during an afternoon of fun, sun and boys with my girlfriends.
And tonight, as I readied myself for my confession, my mom looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to disrupt the loving moments we had shared over the past few days with an admission of wrongdoing. But I felt an overwhelming need to repent and apologize for my teenage transgression.
As I held her hand, I prefaced the admission by telling her how much I loved her. I’m sure she could feel my pounding heart through my fingertips. What seemed like an hour of silence passed before I finally got up the nerve to say, “Remember that time the Skyhawk got smashed?”
She interrupted my confession, by looking lovingly into my eyes. She brushed my bangs off my forehead, and let her hand linger on my cheek. “You’re such a good girl. You’ve always been such a good girl,” she said, as a tear made its way down my face, settling in the corner of my mouth.
I took a deep breath and said, “That goddamned woman at the golf course.”
She nodded her head and we left it at that.
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