By Linda Chavez
Death is never easy to accept, much less embrace, but it taught me that the end of life need not be frightening. She lived 90 years — the last three of them in my home — healthy, independent and happy, despite a life that others might have regarded as difficult, if not tragic.
She was born Velma Lou McKenna in Sheridan, Wyo., in 1921. Her mother’s family were pioneers who came west by covered wagon. Her father was the son of Irish immigrants and left his wife and four small children to find gold in Alaska — and never returned.
My mother, then barely 2 years old, went to live with an aunt and uncle, while her sister and two brothers were sent to Sioux City, Iowa, to be raised by three maiden aunts.
Over the course of her life, she lost all of her siblings — one in childhood — and three of her four children, one at age 6, another at 15 and one in middle age. Yet she remained an optimistic, cheerful woman capable of charming everyone with her stories of growing up in Wyoming.
In an era when many women spent their lives as homemakers, she always held a job outside the home. Her earnings kept us out of poverty and made possible my education. Sometimes it meant working in bars and restaurants where the conditions were less than ideal. But she met a fascinating array of people in the course of her many jobs.
She spent time with movie stars Elizabeth Taylor and Linda Darnell (whom I am named after) when they traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., and got gangster Mickey Cohen out of a jam once (a favor for which he repaid her with two dozen long-stemmed yellow roses and a hand-written note). When she was night hostess at Stapleton International Airport’s restaurant in Denver, she met a young Senator, John F. Kennedy, who impressed her with his good looks and intelligence.
By the time I was in high school, my mother had become an assistant buyer in the finest clothing store in Denver, Neusteter’s. Her job meant that even though we didn’t have much money, I always had beautiful clothes. If a designer outfit didn’t sell or a model stained it during a photo shoot, my mom would get it for me at a bargain. One year, I ended up with a striking red coat worn in the Rose Bowl Parade by former Miss America, Colorado native Marilyn Van Derbur.
My father was killed in a car accident when my mother was just 57, and despite still being quite a beauty, with her natural blond hair and cornflower blue eyes, she never considered remarrying. Instead, she spent her remaining years a devoted mother and grandmother. My three boys fondly remember her visits when they were growing up; she would take them to the movies, teach them how to ride the bus, drive them around Washington — and usually get lost.
But their closest time was over the last three years, when she lived in my home. Having grown frail and mostly blind, my mother couldn’t quite manage on her own anymore, so she moved into an apartment in my house. She still insisted on preparing her own meals and shopping for her favorites: ice cream, brownies and frozen enchiladas. She got to know all nine of her great-grandchildren (the youngest born just before we moved back to Colorado this past summer), and each of her grandsons came to see her in Boulder before she died.
She spent her last days in a nursing home after breaking her hip in October. But her spirit never changed. I visited her every day and she always had a smile for me — and a list of treats she wanted me to bring her: more brownies, Christmas cookies, a hamburger and fries. But nothing ever tasted quite as good as she remembered, and she began to whither away.
I spent the last 16 hours of her life at her bedside, stroking her forehead and holding her hand. Her beautiful eyes were wide open, but she couldn’t talk. But I knew she could hear everything around her. When visitors commented on how beautiful she still was with her bright eyes and flawless, unlined skin, she’d lift her eyebrows as if to say, “Really?”
Finally, I told her that her husband and children were waiting for her, and that my little sister Wendy had been waiting so long to see her mommy again. She exhaled one last time, and she was gone. It was serene and affirming — and filled me with a sense that death is not so scary after all but the culmination of a life well-lived.