Yesterday morning I sat holding my mom’s hand as she took her life's last breath. The bookends of life, the 2 most significant moments of one’s life, the first and last breath. She was there for my first and I was there for her last.
My mom, Barbara’s first breath came in March-1942 in Belmar, NJ. The daughter of Mary & Jean Perrault. Mary was a factory worker from the age of 8 years old, and Jean a Merchant Marine. They met and 2 days later were married. Together till the day he died in 1970. With their incredible work ethic and their love of food & one another, they opened Mary’s Coffee Shop in Belmar. They also operated a small home farm that fed both family and patrons. My mom, her older brother, the late poet and art critic, John Lucas Perreault (1937-2015) and younger brother Ron Perreault (1944- ) worked both the farm and the coffee shop throughout their childhood. With so much work to be done there was little time for playing and extracurricular activities. She would escape into books and then act out the stories, sometimes alone if her brothers wouldn’t oblige her request to play act.
She excelled in school, skipping grades and graduating from high school in the top 2% of the country. She received a full scholarship to attend Rutgers University. Later, she transferred and graduated from Monmouth College, in Long Branch, NJ. It was in college that she discovered her love for stage acting. All those years of play acting the books she read paid off, she booked lead roles again and again in college and summer stock plays.
At Monmouth College, although not on the stage, that she met my father, Dr. Charles Kaska. Although at that time he was far from having a doctorate, he was a liberal, campus activist. Oh, how exciting this man and this time must have been for a girl from the farm. Excitement, risk, activism, and good looking quickly equaled LOVE for my young mom. A few years later they enlisted in the Peace Corp together. They were sent to Fusagasugá, Columbia. They were married there on April 4, 1968, the same day Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated.
After returning to the states, dad went back to school and mom began teaching elementary school in Howell, NJ. In 1972, they moved to their dream town, Yardley, PA, to start a family.
My mom had always wanted to be a mom, and I must say she was the BEST mom a little girl could ask for. She was patient, creative, understanding and fun. She had a wonderful voice for reading stories, and would get lost with me doing endless arts and crafts. She encouraged all my dreams, entertained all my ideas, and answered my endless questions. Understandably, it was very hard on her when she discovered she could not conceive. Then like magic, she became pregnant, with me. She left work and became a full-time mom.
She made all our meals from scratch, baking never came from a box. She grew all our vegetables in a large home garden. She was my Girl Scout leader, and always met me at the bus stop. She made all my Halloween costumes by hand. It was a magical time, for both of us. She later told me that my childhood years, before the divorce, were the happiest time of her life.
After they divorced life changed, no more idyllic town, home grown garden, or making meals from scratch- she worked not one but three jobs to provide for us. The first two were to provide, the third was to give me dance lessons. By age of 12 I was taking 5 classes a week and on my way to being a professional dancer. She “broke her back’ working to provide me these lessons. I did not understand at the time what she was doing for me. She was just my mom. Now, I see clearly that she gave up her life; her social time, her chance to find a new love, for me my dreams.
Her primary of those 3 jobs was teaching. For the next 25 plus years she worked at Brick Memorial High School, teaching neurologically impaired students. She was the school the Teacher of the Year recipient numerous times. Many called her a “saint” for the work she did with these kids. The same patience she gave me she gave all her students.
She retired in 2010, with big plans of sleeping in (finally after 26 years of waking at 5AM), quilting, traveling to Europe for the first time and eventually she wanted to move to California to be closer to me. She used to call me, and say, “Juliet I found the cutest craftsman’s style home not far from you, for only $150,000. It’s in an area called Compton. Honey do you know where that is? Is that close to you?” This always, and still does give me a laugh. She never made it to Europe, she did move to Los Angeles in 2014 but not of her own doing.
Her whole adult life my mom struggle with food addiction, eventually hitting 300lbs. Unbeknownst to me or her friends she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2009. This is the type of diabetes that can be controlled by diet and exercise. She chose not to control it, or maybe she did try but she could not win the battle with addiction. In 2013, she suffered multiple strokes. It is estimated that daily she was surviving with blood sugar levels of 300-500+, at 600 you go into coma. She never knew she had these strokes. The strokes left her with a type of dementia called vascular dementia. Her ability to form new memories and to rationally process information, was wiped away. In many ways, I lost my mom in 2013.
We moved my mom to a care facility in Culver City in 2015.
In 2017, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. We could not treat it as aggressively as was needed to beat it because of the fragile state of her mind and body. Eventually the cancer took over her body.
On October 26th, she goes on hospice care
On November 15th, they said she had about 2 weeks left
On November 30th, she could no longer take crushed medications
On December 1st, she told me she loved me for the last time
On December 5th, she held my hand for the last time (I continued to hold hers every day till the end)
On December 8th, at approximately 8:30PM the hospice nurse compassionately told me that he did not believe she would make it through the weekend, probably not the night.
On December 9th, less then 8 hours later, at 4:09AM, she took her last breath.
I laid curled up on her bed next to her holding and stroking her hand, crying softly into the nook of her chest. I lifted her listless arm and drape it on top of mine to create the sensation that she was holding my hand. Simon slept on a floor mattress next to us. At 1AM I told him to go home to get some real sleep, her breathing was strong and I was thinking she would not pass for another day. Exhaustion was kicking in, I slid down to the floor mat and tried to doze, but I kept my ears wide open listening for any changes in her breathing patterned. At around 3:30 AM something told me WAKE UP. I sat up and stared intently at her. There was a unique quietness in the room, as I crawled up to prop myself next to her, half my body in a chair, half nestled next to her. It was if we had been transported above all the noise of the city. There was a heavy, palpable peace in the air, I felt extremely safe. The next 20-30 mins went by extremely fast, yet calmly. I knew she was passing away. I told her how much I loved her. I ask her to forgive me. I told her I forgave her. I told her that as soon as she gets to heaven to find her grandchild that is up there as an angle, before they come down to us. I also told her to get that little baby down to us soon. I held her hand, I brushed her hair with my fingertips. I stroked her cheek. Her breathing grew more and more faint. I placed my hand on her chest I laid my head next to hers, and the oddest thing happened I had an uncontrollable urge- calling me to sing to her Silent Night. As I sang I recalled a story my mom had told me about from when I was little. We were living in PA and it was a scorching humid summer night, I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. There was no AC, and I was not sleeping due to the excessive heat and stickiness. My mom was trying to sing me to sleep. All I wanted to hear was Silent Night. With sweat running down her young 35-year-old face my mom sang it to me again and again and again Silent Night, until I feel asleep in her tired arms. I laid here now, with tears running down my face and sang to her:
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother, Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly
Sleep in heavenly
Sleep in heavenly
Sleep in heavenly
Sleep in heavenly peace
She took her last breath, with my hand on her heart, as I sang the last, Sleep in heavenly peace, to her.