Mom’s Death: Letter to a Friend

By: Gretchin Whalen, daughter of Kate Bertram


Her dying was quite merciful and the home burial was miraculous.


Katharine and I came up on Sunday—and Mom breathed her last the following Wednesday. Scott and Ella had come the day before. Mom was very weak, down to 94 pounds and could not get up to talk much. They baked French bread Saturday from her recipe—when they showed Mom the loaf, she said, “beautiful” and a little later she tried to get up, “to slice and butter the bread.”


She did not say many words to me—nor were they needed. When she had not moved in many hours, she raised her face and kissed me.


The morning she died, after a hard night, it was like transition in a birth. Scott turned her on her side, as she used to like to sleep, and she got very comfortable, her color came back, she breathed normally with her mouth closed—a peaceful deep sleep. Her beloved caregiver, Linda, was there; when she was leaving, Linda said to Mom: “I love you always and forever.” A hawk came and sat outside Mom’s door.


Scott was baking bread again. It was one of those amazing 70 degree days in December. He came out and said, “I think Mom’s gone.” It was deeply peaceful and beautiful.


Just then Mom’s newer caregiver, Debbie, came; she had met Mom only the week before but they had a powerful connection. Mom had come out of her silence and shown Debbie her books and told her about her life—a new audience!


Debbie knew all about how to wash and dress Mom and she knew how to let us proceed at our pace as we needed.


Kim had gone to town, so we called and he came back. I got to pick Mom’s clothes—her warm red wool socks, the red thermal shirt I had gotten her, her favorite old sweater vest (Pendleton, grey & pink). The dark blue sweat pants with pockets for Mom’s handkerchief—she would never go anywhere without one because her eyes teared; and her slippers, more comfortable on her old gnarled feet… her favorite blanket. People had told me that once a person stops breathing, they are gone—but that was not my experience.


The nice woman came from Hospice to declare Mom dead. We all sat around the table there in Mom’s little house and ate fresh-baked bread and drank tea and coffee. Mom lay beautifully at peace in her bed there in the same room.


Then we moved her up into her old bed in the cabin room where it was cooler. Beautiful light there; her face was radiating love and light and so it was until her burial. I could put my face next to hers and feel her love.


Kim and Scott and a friend built Mom’s box from boards her best farmer friend had given her. They pulled her on the farm trailer behind the tractor—Mom’s best friend Regina’s husband had dug the grave with his backhoe. It was a beautiful warm day—violets were blooming in the fields.


Kim played guitar and sang a hymn he had picked and had a friend read the 23rd Psalm, which is one Mom liked; she could recite it all of course, with her phenomenal memory. I like the part: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…”


She was buried on her farm, right next to where she used to have her big garden, under an apple tree she grafted years ago. The place looks out over the rolling back hay fields, and there will be lots of summer lilacs and maybe a few gladioli left from their hey-day—when the time comes—blooming.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker