On the first anniversary of my mother’s death (May 30, 2018), I am posting this updated and expanded essay, originally published June 18, 2018.
I am not Jewish, but I have adapted the term yahrzeit (a Jewish observance on the anniversary of the death of a loved one) with respect and love.
“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
—Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
After Mother’s Day, her health took a sudden downturn. By May 23rd, I was officially “worried” about her: the drastic weight loss due to loss of appetite, the lack of energy and fatigue, and the uncharacteristic loss of hope had even caused me to slip her a handwritten note: “Don’t give up. We will get through this. Like you’ve always told me, ‘Buck up!’” It wasn’t until she burned the spaghetti sauce that I really became alarmed. Cooking was her thing. A day later, on the Friday before Memorial Day, we drove down to Lexington Market to buy fish for dinner, stopping at our favorite stall for lemonade to drink on the way back to the car. She walked so slowly. But it was a hot day. She slept for most of the ride home. The “fresh” fish she had bought wound up in the trash can; when she opened the package, the fish looked spoiled.
On Saturday, we went to my brother’s house for dinner. She stayed awake and seemed interested in the suspense-filled Denzel Washington movie we watched, but she did not try to take charge of the cooking and barely touched her food. Before we left, my brother made her promise to call her doctor as soon as possible.
Early in the morning, on May 29th, she phoned and asked me to come up to the house to make a doctor’s appointment for her. Within 2 hours, we were headed to the doctor’s office for her appointment. I had to get a wheelchair to take her inside; she was growing weaker by the minute. Immediately, the doctor told us she needed to go to the hospital. I asked the doctor if I should call an ambulance or drive her. He said it was okay for us to drive, and he contacted a colleague in the Emergency Room to be prepared for our arrival.
Halfway through the 4.6-mile ride from Mercy Physicians of Overlea to Good Samaritan Hospital, she slumped in her seat; she wasn’t breathing. While I tried to rouse her, a trickle of fluid dripped from her mouth onto my hand. I grabbed a nearby paper towel, wiped off my hand, and kept driving.
When I opened the passenger-side car door outside the Emergency Room, I was shocked. She was still, and her eyes appeared to be falling out of their sockets. Two guards and a nurse hand-carried her into the Emergency Room. My aunt and I were ushered into a private waiting room.
The Lazarus Moment
After maybe a half-hour, our liaison entered the waiting room and told us they were going to soon move her to the CCU, but we could visit with her in the ER bay. She was alert! NOT dead! We were allowed to follow her gurney ride up to the CCU, where we were ushered into another waiting room while the staff hooked her up to myriad wires and placed a breathing tube down her throat.
After another agonizing half hour, I called the CCU desk, per protocol, asking to see my mother. I had to call them three times before they finally opened the wide double doors and escorted us into her room. Her hands were tied in what looked like white lace boxing gloves, which were tied at her sides to the bed frame to keep her from trying to remove the breathing tube. But, again, she was alert! And her ashen skin had returned to its normal color and texture.
The doctors and nurses were asking me questions about her medical history, and I was answering them as quickly as I could. Glancing over at her, I could see that she wanted a pen and paper to write on. With a little support from the nurse, she clearly wrote, “Slow down!” When the doctors asked me the name of the nephrologist she was scheduled to see later in the week, I could not remember the name. Again, she signaled for pen and paper. She wrote down the nephrologist’s name legibly.
But when I gave permission for them to give her emergent dialysis, she shook her head, “No.” I walked over to her, leaned in as close as I could, and told her she could die without this treatment and asked her to reconsider. She reluctantly nodded her head in assent.
Around 2:30 pm, we went home, my aunt and I. Neither of us had slept in 24 hours, and we needed to eat.
My brother and I arranged to go back and see Mom during the last visiting hour of the night. She seemed to be resting comfortably. After sitting with her for a while, we stood on either side of the bed, rubbing her arms and holding her hands. But she kept pulling them away. Once more, I leaned in, asking her what was wrong. Noticing that she was trying to grab my purse strap, I suddenly realized she was asking where her purse was. I reassured her that I’d taken her belongings home, and she relaxed, grasping our hands tightly in hers. With her tongue, she pushed the throat tube aside enough to mouth the words, “I love you.” My brother and I each replied, “I love you too, Mom.” We said good night to her, believing that she would pull through. It might be a long recovery, maybe not even a full recovery; but we would see her the next day.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream….
After 36 hours of worried wakefulness that began on Memorial Day, I slept through the night. Around 5:30 am, May 30th, I was awakened by a phone call from the CCU. Mom had had a rough night, but the doctors were still doing all they could. I cried myself back to sleep, only to be awakened again at 8:18 am. This time, the doctor said they couldn’t do anything more; she was dying, and I needed to get there. After hurriedly dressing, picking up my aunt, and driving 5 minutes to the hospital, we arrived in the CCU at 8:45, only to learn that she had passed away less than 10 minutes before. The doctors and nurses enfolded us in hugs, expressing genuine, deep sorrow for the loss of such a lovely woman. They, too, were in shock that they were unable to save her.
We sat with her briefly, before being asked if we’d like to see her without all the tubes. We were taken to another private waiting area, where we notified as many family members as we could, while the staff removed the tubing, set up a tray with muffins, cookies, coffee, and soft drinks, and called us back into the room. The television was set to a pastoral video with soft music. We were given 4 hours to sit with Mom before her body would be taken to the morgue. But they extended the time by an hour, so that my brother could make it to the hospital.
This had been the head nurse’s inaugural case of compassionate, patient-centered care in the CCU. In a reversal of roles, I hugged the nurse and told her that she had done well, even though she’d “lost” the patient. We laughed through our tears.
At about 2:30 pm, my brother and I walked out of Good Samaritan, had a group hug with our aunt in the parking lot, and drove home to begin preparing to send Mom gently to her good night.
A week after our 3-day Celebration of Life for Mom, I recounted that the previous Monday, the Viewing was already over. The Funeral and Repast had taken place the next day, Tuesday. The Burial Service, with a small gathering of family members, was held that Wednesday.
The 2 weeks between Mom’s death and her services were filled with meetings and phone calls with the funeral home: choosing her casket, her burial clothes (including a high-necked blouse and slippers that had to be purchased, as well as her lipstick and nail polish), and other minute details. I took charge of creating the funeral program book and had it printed myself, to avoid letting the funeral home do it at greater expense. The service was planned under the guidance of Mom’s pastor. We were inundated with food, sympathy cards, phone calls, and visitors. Sleep came easily at the end of each busy day. We shared memories of Mom (What Would Mom Do? Or WWMD?) that made us laugh. We cried in private. There was no real time to grieve. However, after the funeral, the constant activity came to a halt, and we marveled at the silence, mourning our loss and beginning to plan for a future without Mom present.
In the aftermath, I checked phone messages. The night before Mom died, while I was sleeping, the doctors had left not just one, but five messages, describing how much pain she was in during those hours between midnight and 5:30 am, when I finally heard the phone ring—it had been right next to me the whole night. It took me months to reconcile myself with her agony….
The best decision of my life was to retire and spend the last 5 years of her life as Mom’s caretaker, companion, and chauffeur. We spent so much time together, pursuing our shared interests, especially reading books and attending movies, concerts, and other events, in between the many doctor’s appointments. We argued a lot, but I learned to be a little more patient, to listen more, and to hug a lot.
Over the last 2 years, Mom had been preparing me for her inevitable death: organizing and explaining all the paperwork I would need to use, and generally getting her house in order. Privately, I’d begun to plan her services in my head: from the music to the Obituary, I knew how she would want to be remembered. The services exceeded my imagination. For that, and for all the love shown for her and my family, I remain grateful.
Surely Goodness and Mercy followed her all the days of her life,
And she dwells in the House of the Lord, forever.
II. Obituary for Dorothy B. Oldham
Reflections of a Beautiful Life
Dorothy Ann Barber Oldham, the eldest child of her late parents LeRoy F. Barber, Sr. and Lillian J. Barber (nee Randall), was born on October 24, 1932, at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her Earthly life came to an end and her Heavenly life began on May 30, 2018.
Dorothy, also known as Dot, Dottie, Dottie Ann, or Dottie B., grew up in Baltimore with her three siblings, LeRoy F. Barber, Jr. (deceased), Lillian B. Scott, and Florence A. Barber. She was educated in the Baltimore City Public Schools, graduating from Frederick Douglass Senior High in February 1950. She was an active member of the Douglass Alumni Association.
As a girl, Dorothy took piano lessons and dreamed of becoming a classical pianist. She loved to recount the recitals she participated in. She also sang with her church youth choir. Music remained a sustaining force throughout her life, a gift she shared with her own children.
In high school, when counselors recommended that she attend college, she wanted to serve in the military. Instead, she met the love of her life, Oliver F. (Jack) Oldham. After a three-year courtship, they married in 1953. From this union was born Jacquelyn Olivia (Jackie), David Oliver (deceased), and Maurice Leroy (Lee).
Dorothy lived a life of devoted Service to God and Man, through her relationships and work with her family and friends, her community, and her church. She was a working mother, employed by the Social Security Administration for 29 years. As a data entry clerk and later, as an administrative secretary, Dorothy was highly regarded for her accuracy, dependability, and integrity, even with a 10-year break in service to raise her three children.
During her hiatus from SSA, she became involved in her community of Lauraville/Morgan Park. She was a member of the VIP Chapter of the Child Study Association. In the mid-1960s, she was asked to take over as a Girl Scout Leader for an all-black troop that was relocating from the Morgan State College campus. She successfully integrated that troop into the existing, mostly white troops of Lauraville. With her co-leaders, she took the girls on many camping trips, which she thoroughly enjoyed, and she instilled in the girls love and respect for the values and tenets of Scouting. She later served at the state level of the Girl Scouts, attending conferences in Dallas, Texas.
Dorothy served with distinction on the PTA and as a substitute teacher at Garrett Heights Elementary School. She and Jack led many PTA events at the school, including the annual Garrett Heights Fair, and the rebuilding effort after a fire at the school in 1969. She was a member of the Lauraville Improvement Association, which last year featured her in an article in the LIA Newsletter.
Her greatest joy was serving God as a lifelong member of Metropolitan United Methodist Church. She faithfully served in nearly every capacity available to her. She was the Church Office assistant for Rev. Ernest P. Clark. For many years, she was Membership Secretary for the congregation. She served on the Administrative Board, Council on Ministries (Chairperson), the Greeters, the Records and History Committee, the Evangelism Committee, and the Friday night Prayer Ministry. She was a member and past president of the United Methodist Women. Awards for her church work include the C. Y. Trigg Award, a Seasoned Citizens of Metropolitan Award (2015), and a 2005 Fulwood Foundation Award. Dorothy attended numerous Bible Study courses; she continued those studies at home, reading her Bible and devotional texts daily.
She developed her own ministry of communication, faithfully sending birthday, anniversary, sympathy, and encouragement cards to her Metropolitan family each month. She made frequent phone calls to them as well.
Dorothy also found time to have fun with family and friends. She and Jack hosted many cookouts, dinners, and parties. She loved going to movies to see the latest films; to art museums, especially the Reginald Lewis Museum and the Maryland Historical Society; and other cultural institutions and events in Baltimore. With family and friends, she traveled to many states on the East Coast, took road trips to South Dakota, Florida, and Canada, and vacationed in the Bahamas. She bowled in both duckpin and ten-pin leagues, and she enjoyed playing pinochle and Solitaire. She read many books, newspapers, and magazines on a wide range of topics. Her favorite magazines were National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine. She also enjoyed crossword puzzles, sewing, and crochet.
She kept a positive attitude through all life’s up and downs and continued the most active life she could during her own illnesses. Despite having COPD and being a 5-year survivor of stage 1 lung cancer, she maintained her own home, did her own grocery shopping, cooking, and laundry, grew a beautiful rose garden, and made sure her lawn was cut and trimmed by her lawn servicer. She kept up with friends and family via phone, email, and even Facebook.
After a sudden downturn in her health, God saw fit to call Dorothy home from her labors.
In addition to her siblings and children, she leaves to carry on her legacy, 4 grandchildren: LaNyce Oldham, Maurice Oldham, Jr., Devin Connor, and Kierston (Keke) Phillips; 3 great-grandchildren, LaNyia, Sheldon, and Lyncoln; sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Jeanne and John (Sandee) Saunders; sisters-in-law Mamie Oldham (New Jersey) and Dorothy Oldham (Ohio); uncle, William Allen; and a host of nieces and nephews, great-nieces and -nephews, cousins, and friends.
Now, these events feel like a distant dream. But Mom’s spirit and love have been remarkably strong over the past year. I’ve made many changes in my life: writing more poetry and presenting two readings; adjusting to having more time for, and taking better care of, myself and my home; and most recently, I have taken on a leadership role in a community organization (IFO in Reservoir Hill) that I would’ve known nothing about if Mom hadn’t asked me to attend a certain MLK concert more than 3 years ago! (I have a feeling she was setting me up to embrace this community I’ve joined—it holds family and neighborhood history for us!)
But I do wish she was here to share these blessings with me.
May the name Dorothy Ann Barber Oldham continue to be a light for me, our family, and for her many friends.