10/07/2012 11:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2012

Fading Away: A Lesson in Life, Death, and Reconciliation

About mid-August, I got the phone call from my big brother that I was dreading. "Mom is going down, and she wants to see you," he said. The confrontation I had been avoiding for months was upon me, and I wasn't going to get out of it. It was time. I made arrangements to fly home.

I'm one of those siblings... the middle of three kids with an older brother and a younger sister. And I, apparently, was the troublemaker; at least that is what I heard most of my younger life. Born in the early '50s and growing up in close proximity to Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, I wanted to be a fighter pilot and an astronaut. My father, a pilot during World War II, had left the Air Force to become a Methodist minister like my mother's father had been. After a few years, though, when I was still very young, he returned to the Air Force, ultimately becoming an employee of the company that built the B-36 and B-58 bombers, and the F-111 and F-16 fighter jets. We marked time in our family by what airplane that Dad was helping build as an industrial engineer.

The war in Vietnam overshadowed virtually all of my formative years, instilling a morbid sense of my own mortality early in my life. I always expected to be drafted into the war, so I told my dad that I wanted to enlist in the Air Force. Shortly after he, along with my uncle, who was career Air Force, shocked me by pulling me aside and telling me they didn't support the war, and that I should "sit this one out." I took their advice, and my draft number in 1971 was above the cutoff. I was to remain a civilian.

I came of age during the ascendence of rock and roll and flower power, which I embraced, playing in bands, drawing, painting, and trying to grow my hair. Being the middle child in our family, I was at a demographic disadvantage. My brother was brilliant, and could do no wrong. My baby sister, six years my junior, was the apple of my parents' eyes. I was the black sheep, different from my siblings, questioning everything and always in trouble for something I had done; most of the time I was in trouble, I couldn't figure out why. I think my Mom began fearing that I was going to be a failure in my life, so she always had a negative reaction to any new activity or interest, hounded me about my appearance, my attitude, my friends; the more she hounded me, the worse I would get. I would occasionally ask my Dad about why she hated me; he would always make some excuse about the stress she was under, or that she was going through the "change of life." Near as I could tell, her "change of life" lasted about 10 years.

When I graduated from high school, I had no college plans, no future, no ideas. I had planned to go to the military, and when that door closed, I had no plan B. I did a semester in junior college, working nights delivering newspapers. I hated it. My mom continued to stay on me to make something of myself. I finally gave up, moved out, and never came back.

I eventually got a bachelor's degree at night, working days, luckily (for me) ending up in the oilfield. I clicked with it, and my career took off. I'm still in the energy business more than 35 years later. I maintained close ties with my parents, though I would joke that I made a policy of living at least 250 miles from any living relative. Then my father got sick, dying in 1985. For me, my father was the glue that held me to the family. When I lost him, I drifted away, especially from my mother, because our relationship had never developed into one of affection. I would see her on holidays, but it was uncomfortable; I was always relieved when it came time to part ways.

Because my sister took responsibility for caring for her, mom was able to age in place in the house where I grew up. She was surrounded by grandchildren, keeping her young for years. Eventually, her health began to fail, and end of life care began, both in and out of hospitals. That was when I got The Call.

I flew to Fort Worth, only making time in my schedule to fly in, have lunch with my siblings, see Mom, and then get the hell out of there before nightfall. It was good seeing the two of them; it had been a long time. We talked about how long Mom would hang on, next steps, and what to do after she passed. Surprisingly (I'm not sure why), they listened closely to what I had to say. Then we visited Mom.

She looked terrible, showing the signs of years of suffering and illness, but her mind was as sharp as ever. She would joke that, inside this old decrepit body was a young girl trying to get out. We talked and laughed for about an hour, the first time the four of us had been together in years. The conversation, though, was punctuated by doctor and nurse visits, with frank discussion about hospice and what she should expect next. She took it all in good humor. Then it was time for me to go; we had to look at a managed care facility that provided hospice care before I was to run to the airport. She looked at me and asked if I had anything to say. It all came out at once; I burst into tears, unable to speak. She apologized for the years she was hard on me, saying she only wanted me to be successful. It didn't matter what words she used. I understood her meaning, and forgave her.

A week or so later, while I was on a business trip, her pastor called my cell. She told me that Mom wanted to talk to me and handed over the phone. Mom was barely understandable but was clear in her message; she wanted to say good-bye. We talked and wept for about 10 minutes. She said she was tired and had to go. I told her that I loved her. I knew it was the last time we would talk, and it shook me to the core. Mom hung on for several weeks more than any of us had anticipated, including her.

Mom finally passed away peacefully on Sept. 26 at around 10 p.m. My sister and the hospice nurse were with her as she faded away. We began planning for the funeral. I had planned to go to Fort Worth a day or so before the service, but my wife convinced me to go immediately. I'm glad that I did. It gave me the opportunity to be with the family and to attend the wedding that night that my nephew and his fiancé had planned for months. For me, it was a bittersweet experience of joy amidst the sorrow.

During these days, I was able to spend time with my siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces. It was strange being now one of the oldest in the family, rather than just another of the kids; that time was as important to me as were those last conversations with Mom. During one lunch together, my sister opened up; I learned that Mom had been as hard on some of her grandchildren as she had been on me. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted off of me, realizing that it was not just me; I wasn't really crazy. My mother, who really wanted best for all of us, possessed a character flaw where, in her effort to make us all better, was overly critical of those in which she saw failings. My brother, who was listening to this conversation, related to me that he never understood why Mom was so hard on me or some of the grandchildren. He then related one of the most important lessons of this whole experience:

In early September, Mom stalled on her journey home. Her vital signs stabilized, and her decline slowed. She told Bill that she didn't understand why she was hanging on. He told her that he had an idea why; perhaps she needed to make amends to the grandchildren she had been so tough on. She agreed, writing each one a note, asking for forgiveness and telling them that she loved them. Shortly after, she passed away. Her race was run.

On the night before the funeral, there was a visitation for Mom. Old friends and family came, though she was the last in our family of her generation. All of her peers were gone, but it was a healing time for all. Our final goodbye came that night, having decided to have a closed-casket funeral. We each spent a few moments before her body, and I helped the funeral director prepare the casket for closing. The finality of that moment came flooding in. I then realized that one of my nieces, Anna, was by my side, comforting me. I was supposed to be comforting them, but at that moment, I was the one in need of comfort.

This whole experience was a healing one for me. I recommitted myself to my family, vowing to make the weddings, graduations, and other family events that now mark the time.

It was a life lesson I won't forget.