During my months with my parents when each was dying, I experienced moments of exquisite tenderness, also moments of coolness and irritation and exhaustion and fear. I was as present and as loving as I could be, then, considering the depth of my understanding.

Even before their dying times, I had been visiting my parents more than once a year. They seemed to be growing older so quickly. (I wonder if that is how I appear to my children, or whether they see me the way I feel most days-spirit-filled and young, no matter what my age.) Each time I waved good-bye to my parents, I didn’t know if I would see them again.

My father, Peter Joseph Steincrohn, had been a fine doctor who listened long and well to his patients before examining them. For over fifty years, he was a prolific author and columnist, writing to inform, soothe and help heal. He played the violin with gusto.

My father’s gratefulness for life overflowed into appreciation for the slightest breeze. I remember his joy riding in his convertible with the top down, and how he used to sit by the bay, his eyes staring out somewhere I couldn’t reach, his pen scratching out notes for his books, on legal pads. I can still hear him reading aloud the stories he wrote for me when I was a little girl. “Be happy,” he told me during a good-bye, a year or so before he died. Then he added with not a kernel of bitterness: “And don’t expect anything from anyone. That way, you’ll always be pleasantly surprised.”

My father entered the hospital for a routine prostate operation when he was eighty-four years old. He flew out of the operation like a forty-year-old. When the customary hospital chest x-ray revealed terminal lung cancer, he vaulted straight to acceptance. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said to me “What’s hard is leaving you and Mother.”

During his two years of dying, my father neither clung to a pain that had passed nor dreaded a pain that he knew soon would follow. Between jolts, he often joked and smiled.

A few short weeks before my father died, he and I sat face to face in the bedroom he and my mother still shared. My father was sitting on the edge of his bed. His pajamas hung loosely from his large but bony frame. His long legs touched the floor.

I was sitting cross-legged on my mother’s bed, facing my father. The two of us had been discussing the easiest way he might take a pill hardly larger than a dot of pepper.

The talk ended for a moment. My father rested his chin on his chest and his hands on the bed, to steady himself. I could see that he was gathering strength for whatever he was about to say or do next. I reflected that, inside and out, my father was still the most beautiful man I had ever known.

He looked over at me. Palms up, he shrugged almost impishly, dazzling me a toothless grin-as if to say about his dying, “Well, that’s how it goes!” I knew what soul was, then, and spirit. In that moment, my father was more a hero to me than he had ever been when, without trying to, he had wowed everyone he met.

Not long before his death, my father could barely talk or sit up in a chair, and was too weak to celebrate (in any customary fashion) his fiftieth wedding anniversary with my mother. Having guests in was out of the question. So, to me, it was not acknowledging my parents’ day.

I called members of our family, as well as my parents’ closest friends, and asked them to send anniversary cards and letters to one of our group who had agreed to hold the cards and letters until I picked them up. The day before the anniversary-and what turned out to be eight days before my father’s death-I retrieved the greetings and wrapped the box I put them in, extravagantly, with balloons and sparkles and streamers. Then I brought the box home to my parents.

My father rested in his old recliner while my mother and I sat close, hushed and slowly reading the devotions aloud. This experience was bittersweet-as much a celebration as it possibly could have been.

“Now don’t think our marriage is perfect!” my mother had told me years before. But I knew she and my father had been close.

Every day, my father spent long hours writing in his den, accompanied by Tschaikovsky or Chopin or Brahms or Mahler.

During these hours, my mother enjoyed passions of her own. She painted china, masterfully, firing this china in her own kiln. She played the piano and sang as she used to in New York, the years in the late thirties when she was a radio star on CBS. I remember her fixing broken appliances and furniture (and, when she was younger, restoring antiques). For most of her life she fed the people she cared about, sumptuously, putting all she was into the food she served, day after day collecting coupons for rounds of thrifty shopping.

Nearly every day, too, she fixed lunch to share with my father. Each knowing the other was nearby, gladdened them both.

I can hardly imagine what my mother suffered, watching my father wasting; the food she had prepared for him their fifty years together had kept him hearty for so long. There is no doubt in my mind that all the love she put into her cooking outweighed the ill effects of every piece of carrot cake and babka and cheesecake crowned with strawberries-and of every fried latke. For my mother to have stopped feeding my father the day he asked her to, must have felt to her like the killing of both of them.

My father died with deeper philosophical understanding than my mothershe was the “practical one.” His particular good fortune was having my mother by his side, loving him on. There was extra pressure on her during his dying time because, for two years of it, my father had not wanted her to tell anyone he was ill-not even their close friends. She carried that burden courageously, with only me, long distance, to share it with.

My mother received her terminal diagnosis of multiple myeloma soon after my father’s death. Once she had her diagnosis, I called her every evening. I knew the calls were markers in my mother’s life, now that my father was gone, and that they helped launch her into each following day.

I wanted my mother to know by how I sounded on the phone that these were no duty calls I was making. Always, her voice was cheery, hearing mine, like a child’s would be, hearing the bell of the ice cream truck.

“I was just thinking of you!” she would say. Then she would hesitate slightly when I asked her how she was feeling. That hesitation was more an answer to my question than the “I’m okay” that followed.

I don’t know how my mother managed to be so brave, for so long, invaded as she was by disease. It was true I was flying down every few weeks to be with her. And she did have interests-and good friends. (These good people, who were much younger than my mother, had become my friends, too, over the decades. They were supportive during both my parents’ dying times, providing kindness and follow-through as steadfastly as the closest kin might have provided them.)

But many days the house felt unbearably empty, my mother told me. She said she talked out loud to my father’s picture, for company.

I made her promise she would tell me when she couldn’t get along without my help.

“I don’t want you to worry,” she kept saying.

“This is the only way I won’t,” I answered her. I said it would be her greatest gift to me if I could trust that she would call me when she needed me.

The week before the call came I must have sensed it was on its way. I snipped every loose end in my life and held back from beginning even the least demanding new project. When the phone rang and my mother, who for all her life had been clear of mind, said: “I’m falling a lot. I’m not sure how to take my medicines anymore. Can you come down?” My arms were around her within two days, and with her I stayed until she died.

For nearly six months, I lived with my mother in the modest little home in Coral Gables, Florida she had shared with my father for thirty-five years. Surrounded daily by suburban sprawl, I reminded myself to be truly present for my mother and not dwell on the sea and mountains of Maine that still enchanted me.

As she approached death, my mother was less present for the music she had always loved-and for me. Her thinking grew increasingly muddled. More and more, she repeated questions she asked me, forgetting what I had answered or forgetting the question itself. Still, she was present enough to know how I was responding to her during these spells.

At first, each time she repeated herself, I reminded my mother of what she had already told me. Then, to the relief of both of us, I treated everything she said to me as new information. The times she was clear, but worried about me, I was able to kid her, melt her-that tiny, withered phenomenon she had become-into laughter and warm smiles.

Every afternoon, I walked for an hour in Miami’s Fairchild Gardens, refreshing myself with glimpses of alligators cruising in the shallow water, flights of egrets and, one surprising day-a tree filled with hummingbirds. I hoped to pass along to my mother the good I gleaned from being in this place.

Like my father had been, my mother was grateful for every attention and she, too, held few expectations. Gradually, she was sprouting new attitudes from the deeper, richer, looser self she was becoming. ?”Sure! What the heck!” she would say when faced with a decision to tap savings. “Go ahead! Let’s do it!”

One evening, very near the end, a woman who had begun staying over at night to help me care for my mother, tiptoed from my mother’s room and (not knowing my father’s name) told me that my mother had been talking to a man named Peter, who had told my mother not to be afraid-that he would be waiting for her. (According to this helper’s report, my father looked dashing- the way he had looked when he and my mother were newly married.)

My mother had never expressed hope to me that someone would be with her to guide her beyond her death. I’m not sure she had even considered this to be a possibility. Even so, she found my father before she died-or he found her-and he eased her in ways anyone would be grateful for. This happened though my mother had not particularly believed in God, had little connection with nature and, though passionately curious about matters of earth, had showed little interest in anything beyond her familiar dominion. (The encounter with my father was never mentioned to me. As far I know, my mother did not speak of my father to anyone again.)

Weeks before she had begun to stay in bed full-time, my mother asked me to help her sort through some of her things. Now, without my saying a word, she encouraged me to keep on, concerned that thirty-five years of accumulation would be too great a burden for an only child to manage.

This suggestion tempted me. I pictured beginning to clean out drawers and closets at the farthest fringes of the house, out of my mother’s sight, that contained the least personal aspects of her life. The dying would come soon, I sensed. I knew I would feel uneasy staying any longer than necessary in the house where my parents had lived together for so long, and then one by one had died. But I also knew that by touching my mother’s possessions too soon I would be rushing her dying in some real way.

What I did was reassure her that I would be all right. I told her that the job of going through her things would be done with respect. To put us both more at ease, I asked a friend of ours if she would help me when the time came, and our friend said yes.

Two weeks before she died, my mother, Patti Chapin Steincrohn, who had performed for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, lost her ability to play the piano. My mother’s voice had been gone for years. Now her fingers that once had flown over the piano keys, stumbled over them as if they belonged to a kindergarten child.

All her life, my mother’s singing and playing had stirred listeners to tears. My mother and I had sung and played together, often, from the time I was old enough to speak-for my father, mostly, but also during musical evenings in our home while I was growing up.

Now, stunned and sorrowing, my mother took her hands from the piano as if they weren’t her own. Then she looked at me. We both knew this was the last time she would be touching the keys.

“You’ll get it back,” the nurse said who was present for this loss. But sometimes well-meaning people speak too quickly. The nurse had never seen my mother singing and playing. She didn’t know what it was.

My mother said nothing. I said nothing. We just kept looking at each other. This was the moment she and I were closer in spirit than we had ever been.

Early one morning, my mother’s breathing told me she was going to die soon. No helper had arrived yet. I sat on my mother’s bed; I kissed her face, took her hand and sang to her and talked with her.

When she started to choke suddenly, I grabbed the phone and called a nurse friend who knew us both well. My friend talked me through the steps that would help my mother ease past choking, back to the dying rasp.

Death came soon. My mother, whom I had both loved-and held back from-a lot of my life, died the finest way she could in her only child’s care and willing presence.

If it were happening all over again-the months I spent with my mother before she died-I would not be as afraid of the changes she was rushing through. I would kiss her and hold her hand more often, and hug her more than just once in a while. Times it wasn’t too painful for her, I would lie on her bed and put my arms around her, the way I had held my children when they were little and frightened-even if she were in a hospital I would do these things. I would match her sounds, breathe to her rhythms and watch over her when she was sleeping, not just sit in the chair in her room to keep her company or arrange her meals and her life for her. I would stroke and rub her hands with the pure lavender oil that might have relaxed her. I would invite her, when she became terribly weak, to answer with a nod or a whisper or a flick of a finger when I asked her questions or offered her choices, so she wouldn’t have to spend her energy, unnecessarily. These considerations, I gladly would have given my father as well.

My time with my parents had given me opportunity to journey within and listen for the gifts the silence offered. I felt badly-as well as grateful-that their dying, and their pain, had been the source of this priceless education. Today I am happy to care for others in their honor.

Soon after my father’s death, my mother and I made a memorial party to celebrate him. We invited everyone who had loved and admired my father.

My former husband came, and his wife, and his parents. My father’s hospice nurse joined us, as well as friends and family who had been close to us for many years. My husband flew down.

My mother sang. Did I? I don?t remember.

The food we made was well-received. My mother and I served graciously. It was a good finish.

Four years later, my husband came to Florida for the memorial party I was preparing for my mother. In the tangle of emotion that can follow a death, we argued dreadfully. During the argument, a door opened in my mind; with my husband still sitting in front of me, I swerved into the truth of my mother’s life.

Now, suddenly, as if I were my mother, herself, I felt her waking the morning after my father died-maybe for one moment, in half-sleep, imagining my father was still with her. I was my mother saying good-bye to me at the airport a month later. I was my mother going home to an empty house.

Becoming my mother, not just musing about her, I loved her without reservation. Sobbing deeply, to the point of wheezing and almost having no breath, I felt myself experiencing the emotions my mother most likely experienced during her marriage. Suddenly I realized how much she had withstood, living with my charming and loving but childlike father-how radically her life had changed, following her brief, but blazing, career in New York City.

My mother’s hard work at home, her bearing of all strain, her financial help, had provided a space for my father to be as light as air. I loved my father no less for this, in that time out of time, but my mother more.

At once, I told my husband what I was experiencing. Later I reminded myself where we were and why we were together, and I prayed we could reconcile. Next morning, the fitting words and touch were there for both of us; we moved together into the light of that second memorable memorial day.

The more mindfully I sorted through my parents’ things, the better I felt and the more I accomplished. Almost right away, I found an old reel of film in a bedroom closet. The silent footage captured my parents outdoors, dancing cheek to cheek when they were young. it caught me, sparkling and lively in my crib at six months old. I saw my grandparents (whom I had hardly known) walking in and out of their house speaking what must have been Yiddish. I had this film made into a video to put into the treasure box of our family’s history I had been creating for my children.

A week after my mother died, I took old CBS recordings of my mother singing and accompanying herself on the air, to a local radio station. By turns weeping and thrilling, I picked my favorite (and the least crackly) selections from the records and asked that these be put on a master tape. I had many cassettes made from this master, and passed out the cassettes to everyone who loved my mother.

Soon after, I found my parents’ love letters. Sitting alone at their kitchen table, I read their letters while listening to the tape of my mother rendering the love songs she had sung for my father and for me, for as long as I could remember.

In a month, the house was in order except for a final garage sale that a friend would be supervising. In Maine, I had recently pared down my possessions, so I kept only those few goods of my parents I would be able to look at and remember them by. My children, in their choices, did the same.

It was when I was ready to make the long drive home from Florida to Maine, (and not earlier as nearly everyone had urged me to) that I put notice of my mother’s death in the newspaper. For many months, I had tried to find the right words. At the appropriate moment they came.

I took out a little ad on the obituary page of The Miami News. Saying the following, I respected my mother’s wish that I not mention her age:

“Patti Chapin Steincrohn. Died 1990.

For all of us who loved her, she still sings.”

In the middle of the night-months after my mother died-I sat up in bed, having dreamed of her. In half-sleep, but still aware, I heard my little girl voice cry out to ask how she and my father could have left me so often in the care of strangers. I heard my strong woman voice speaking my regret that we had felt so distant from each other during much of our lives together. I heard my sadness for all my mother had carried in her marriage.

I know I reached my mother that night in a real way, clearing out room in myself for even more loving memory of her. Though my mother’s love for me had not been perfect, though my love for her had been less than I had longed for it to be, that night there came a belated-and somehow mutual-atonement.

In Maine, the February after my mother died, I co-produced a short segment for a community radio Valentine’s Day show. This segment included a live interview in which I interwove a telling of my parents’ love story with selections from the master I had made months before of my mother singing.

© Copyright Maggie Steincrohn Davis 1999 All Rights Reserved


  • Maggie Davis is an author, publisher and volunteer community caregiver living in East Blue Hill, Maine. In 1993, after being published in New York and elsewhere for nearly two decades, she created Heartsong Books to move her books into the world in person-to-person ways that reflected the all-embracing vision expressed on their pages.

    Maggie Steincrohn Davis is co-founder of Neighborcare-a joyful band of volunteers offering free-of-charge, health-related assistance in thirteen towns and beyond since 1995. Read The Neighborcare Story here at the Empowering Caregivers Site.