Shirley Osborn, 1929-2020. The end of an era.

Last Thursday my mother Shirley died peacefully after a long slow downward slide into dementia, a condition that was a part of her life for far too many years.  Hers was a very slow but relentless decline, beginning when our boys, now in their mid 30s, were just entering highschool.

While the exact timing of her passing was quite a surprise, as I had been fretting over exactly how to manage things as she became more and more withdrawn, it actually worked out very well.   Due to the pandemic, I had not been able to see her in person much lately, save a single visit about a month ago.  We were only able to communicate via video call since the pandemic reared it’s ugly head and given her condition, those calls didn’t really work out all that well.  However, she always seemed to be happy to hear from me and was basically content.

More than a decade ago I began keeping this blog in order to keep my parents up to date on our sailing adventures. (When I hit “publish” this will be my 971st post) Even then, so many years ago, dementia was taking it’s toll on her and a routine that she and my father enjoyed was for my him to pull up my most recent blog post on his clunky desktop computer and read to her while they shared an evening glasses of wine, or more often two, together.  As they sipped wine and my Dad read to her, they followed along with us as true “armchair sailors, as we made our way up and down the coast and through the Bahamas on our travels.

When my mother passed last Thursday, it was very difficult day for me but as they so often say “it was for the best” as with every passing month she had become more and more withdraw, increasingly struggling to pull herself up out of the mist to communicate.

Unlike so many with this affliction, she seemed very content up until the end and more than once when I visited her in her nursing home, she asked me “Did you pick this place for me to live?” and when I replied “yes, I did” she would say “good choice, I like it here, they are very nice.”

That Brenda and I were allowed to visit her that last time, albeit with surgical gown, mask and plastic face plates, as she slipped away was important as she had always been there for me and then for Brenda and me in High School when we began dating.

Her final decline was so rapid that she breathed her last only a few hours after she had eaten lunch and less than half an hour after we arrived to be with her.   It was a very moving time for Brenda and me and brought back so many wonderful memories.

I recalled the time when I made arrangements with a local marina in Norwalk CT so we could get my parents aboard Pandora.  My friend Chris helped me wheel Mom down the steep ramp, in her wheel chair, onto the dock and aboard.  As we maneuvered her down the steep gangway my mother held the arms of the chair with all her strength, fearing that we’d loose control at any moment and she’d end up in the water.   In spite of her obvious anxiety, she barely said a word.

However all went well and we had a wonderful afternoon on the water.  As a friend of our once said after returning from a day on the water on her own for the first time, “no loss of life”.    Mom’s visit to Pandora in 2007 was her last. It’s a very sad day when a parent dies but I believe that the timing was good for my mom and it was a relief to know that there were none of the heroics that so often play out in the last days and hours of someone’s life with test upon test, taking blood and whatever else is recommended by well intentioned doctors and caregivers.

My father died in December of 2013, shortly after everyone met to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.  We arranged the party on very short notice as his condition was deteriorating and in spite of the last minute change of date, everyone came.Including fully half of their wedding party.  A really remarkable turnout that after all those years and a testament to what friendship meant to both of them. Legend has it that my father, after a particularly rough time out the night before, their wedding, compliments of my mother’s brother, my father fainted at the alter and while he was “out” she is rumored to have added a few clauses to the wedding vows.  Whatever they were, I guess dad stuck to the agreement.
Yes my mother could be quite a character and I recall distinctly, when Brenda and I were visiting them at their home many years ago, for some holiday, she picked up the vegetable sprayer by the kitchen sink (remember those hose sprayers that you pulled up from the back of the sink?) and doused the lot of us, with a laugh, telling us to stay out of her kitchen.   They did love a party. Mom and dad were devoted to family and friends, especially grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  I have always been particularly moved by this photo of mom with our first grandchild Tori.  Tori is now 4 and quite the pistol.  Mom would surely have loved her even more now. Shortly after our youngest, Chris, defended his physics dissertation at Columbia, he visited my parents with us.  I recall mom and dad listening intently as Chris described the intricate details of his thesis on cold trapping of atoms and quantum molecular optics.  Like the rest of us, mom and dad had absolutely no clue about what he was saying but were completely thrilled to hear all about it, never the less.  So many years have passed and as my brother said to me when I called him with the sad news, “It’s the end of an era.”  Yes it is and what a wonderful era it has been.

Wasn’t my mom a babe?   Nice car too.She always told me I had good genes.

I was told by nurses that took care of my mother over the last few years, that every morning, when she woke up, that she would look a this photo, that was next to her bed and say “good morning Bob”.  I guess that just about sums up their marriage. It is said that the greatest gift parents can give their children is a good marriage.  On their grave marker we had inscribed “their marriage was an inspiration to us all”.

Yes, my brother was right, it is the end of an era and so many of us are better for having them be a part of our lives.



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