“I just need to tell her I love her,” sobbed my husband as we drove toward the airport. The one-way airline ticket had been purchased a mere 30 minutes earlier and we’d scrambled to throw necessities into a suitcase. I threw in a small pillow and blanket not knowing if and where he’d be sleeping that night. His flight was scheduled to land in Great Falls, Montana at midnight.
At 2:24 pm that afternoon, Thursday, January 14th, we received an email from Jon’s dad with this subject line: Your Mother.
Your mother slipped on the ice this morning and hurt her head and tailbone. She was at Sister Murray's getting out of the car. A couple of men came to help her back into the car, and she drove home. The bump on her head has bled some, and she has gotten out of bed a couple of times and gotten herself into the bathroom and back, but she has pain and nausea and only wants to be in bed. She hasn't felt it necessary to see a doctor or go to the hospital, but I'm watching her closely and will take her there if she doesn't improve.
Recent temperatures had been warmer and had begun melting the rather large amounts of snow that blanketed Helena, Montana. Karen had gone to the mall to do some walking and after completing her customary three miles, she planned to stop at the home of a woman in her ward to pick up a legal document that Carl had agreed to help with. Sometime that morning, a very cold Montana wind blew through town turning the sidewalks and streets into a veritable ice rink.
Expecting Karen’s visit, Sister Murray looked out her front room window. She saw Karen’s car and moments later noticed Karen lying on the slippery sidewalk. Two neighbors came to assist her and though a call was placed to Carl, Karen insisted on driving home.
“My mom’s in the hospital in a medically induced coma,” Jon said privately to me when he got home from work, his expression revealing his obvious concern. He quickly told me of a brief conversation he had with his mom earlier that afternoon when he’d called home to check on her after receiving his dad’s email. He mentioned that she was dry-heaving and struggling to talk, but didn’t feel medical attention was necessary. On the train ride home, Jon talked to Lucy and she told him that his mom was in the hospital, but he didn’t know much more than that.
Two missionaries were already seated at our dining room table, invited as our dinner guests that night. The food was hot and ready to be served, so we sat down to eat with them though our minds and hearts were wanting to be elsewhere. Once the missionaries were fed and gone, Jon’s attention turned immediately toward his mother’s condition. After trying a few sisters, he again reached Lucy, who was equally shaken. The information was still somewhat uncertain, but we understood the situation to be dire. Karen was being flown to Great Falls for emergency brain surgery. Jon hung up with Lucy and booked the next flight out of town.
A long and sleepless night followed. When morning came, I received word from Jon that the surgery had been successful. When Karen fell, she hit the back of her head. The force caused her brain to bash into the front part of her skull, resulting in a massive brain bleed. She was in intensive care, but she had survived the surgery. We were told the next few days and hours would be critical. We would have to wait and watch to determine the long-term effects of the injury.
Over the next 48 hours, all of her children would arrive at Karen’s bedside. She underwent frequent neurological tests, where she would be asked to perform simple tasks and answer basic questions. Though the initial progress seemed painfully slow and many nonsensical answers were given to even the simplest of questions, by Sunday, we knew we were witnessing a miracle. Karen became aware of her circumstances, she could recognize all of her children and carry on coherent conversation. She could feed herself and draw a clock with all the numbers in the right places. Karen could play games on her iPad, watch TV and comment on the quality of the hospital food.
Wearing yellow gowns and gloves to prevent the spread of MRSA.
For the first time in over 20 years, the original Hatch family was gathered together enjoying their well-established bonds of love for one another while in-laws and grandchildren were home anxiously awaiting regular updates. Modern technology allowed us to stay informed through group text and engage in conversations over Facetime.
Sunday night as we spoke to Karen, she was alert enough to ask Caleb if he was excited to go to college.
“You look great!” I remarked, taking note of her drastic improvements. “Thanks, Tara.” she replied dryly and with a large touch of sarcasm. Aware that half of her head had been shaved and a massive stapled incision ran down the side of her scalp, in addition to her hospital gown and make-up-less face, she was certain that she did not look “great.”
Each time I spoke to Jon, he seemed optimistic. The recovery would be long and it was decided that each of the siblings would take turns spending time in Great Falls to support Carl and Karen in the rehabilitation process. Jennifer and Emily would stay for now, and the other siblings would return home to tend to work and family.
Before leaving his mom, Jon watched her miraculously walk out of the ICU with the aide of a walker. Her progress had improved such that she was being moved to a lesser level of care. Once she was settled in her new room, Karen kissed Jon’s cheek and wished him well at an appointment that Alyssa had with a surgeon the next day. It would be Jon's final goodbye.
By Monday night, Jon had returned to us, but the group texts from Montana were already starting to show concern.
Tuesday morning, Jon and I took Alyssa to University of Washington to meet with a surgeon about her elbow injury. As we drove toward Seattle, we were being informed that Karen had become much less responsive. We came out of the appointment to find many more texts with discouraging news of her regressions. Everything about that day felt unbearably heavy.
Alyssa was faced with the weighty decision of whether to have surgery—a hard decision at any age—but perhaps more difficult at just fifteen years old. Having this injury had already delivered a devastating blow to our determined gymnast and now Jon and I were trying to talk her through this major decision while our hearts and minds were clouded with worry and dread. We could hardly concentrate on anything more than the state of Jon’s beloved mother and the news did not get any better as the day went on.
We would later learn that Karen’s decline was due to a stroke she had suffered sometime on Tuesday.
Though we continued to plod through the motions, on Wednesday I found myself in my office at work, unable to focus on my job and knowing Jon felt the same way. I checked my phone compulsively. I was eager for updates but dreaded the news they carried.
“Do you know how hard it is to be here at work while my mom is in the hospital dying?” came a text from Jon.
No one at my work knew anything of the circumstances of our family. I didn’t feel closely connected enough to any of my coworkers to let them into my broken heart. Besides, if I started to share, I might not maintain my composure. When Jon’s text came in, I momentarily lost control of my emotions. I had to teach a group of first graders in a matter of minutes, so I rushed to the restroom to tend to my tear-stained face. I abruptly brushed off the only staff member that spotted me. I finished teaching and went home.
As I sat on the couch warming myself by my portable heater with my phone in my hand, the text came.
Unfortunately mom is not going to recover from this. She has two large areas of her brain that have died and she would never be able to speak or understand again. We are waiting for hospice to come and talk about how to let her go.
For a brief second I was numb, but in the next moment, I thought of my husband who I knew had also just received the same group text. I dropped my phone and melted into a loud, ugly sob. I hated that Jon and I were separated in the moment he needed me most. I knew I couldn’t take his pain away, but I longed to hold him and let him cry in the safety of my arms.
Jon sent this reply to the group text:
I love you all too!! I keep typing something and I have no words. I’ve had to go find a private room in our building because I can’t stop sobbing. I am so appreciative we all were able to be with her and one last Sunday night together as a family. I will never forget that tender mercy we were granted.
Within minutes, I was making my way to Seattle so I could bring him home. We cried the whole 25 miles and discussed how and when we would tell our children that their grandmother was going to die.
Their reactions were as varied as their personalities. There were many more tears and very heavy hearts. We discussed together as a family the preparations we’d need to make to attend Grandma’s funeral that was tentatively planned for the next weekend.
By Thursday morning—one week after the accident—I went to work with eyes that were practically swollen shut from all the crying and lack of sleep. I could no longer keep it from my coworkers as the sorrow and strain were written all over my face. Plus I needed to make arrangements to be gone and look into how many days of bereavement my contract allowed. Karen was being moved to hospice care, but we didn’t know how much longer it would be.
Friday morning, we received word that Karen was opening her eyes a bit and seemed to be reaching periodically with her left hand.
“We don’t know who is here to get her, but someone’s here.” Carl lightheartedly told us via Facetime. referring to her reaching hand.
The family had begun to tell Karen that it was OK to go. It was unknown if she could hear us, but we wanted to believe that she could.
I got finished with work early on Friday, which is a very rare occurrence. I felt an inexplicable urgency to get home quickly. As I pulled out of the parking lot, my phone started to ring with a Facetime call from Maureen. I knew Jon would answer it on the home computer and I also just knew I needed to be there with him. I sped home and literally ran through the door to witness what Jon would describe as the hardest moment of his life.
His mom’s eyes looked vacant, but they were open and tear-filled as Jon spoke to her. Her breathing was extremely labored and rapid. Jon struggled through sobs to express his love, while also telling his mom that is was OK to leave us. She could hear us. I’m sure of it.
The next call that came was to tell us that she was gone. It was just after four our time on Friday, January 22nd.
More tears were accompanied with a sense of relief and peace. We were consoled that her struggle had ended, that she was again reunited with her siblings and parents and that she no longer had to linger in that terrible state of limbo between life and death. Still, the weight on our hearts was heavy. So heavy.
We’d been at the gym, dropping our girls off when we received the news. We then crossed the street to Men’s Wearhouse to buy a suit for Jon to wear to his mother’s funeral. He also began preparing the talk he would have to deliver. I made arrangements with the school counselor for my two high schoolers to miss semester finals. I also wrote several days of sub plans, which is never fun, but quite a bit more daunting while wading through clouds of grief.
We drive to Helena every Thanksgiving. This drive felt different in every way as we anticipated arriving at Grandma and Grandpa’s house without Grandma in it. Though the grief was ever lingering, an overwhelming love enveloped us as we gathered with extended family to celebrate a beautiful life.
Jon’s sisters helped Carl make funeral arrangements. Carl selected the music and speakers and prayer givers. A casket was chosen and a funeral program designed. Pictures were gathered for display and Karen’s body lovingly dressed for burial. Flowers, cards, gifts and visits from friends came regularly at the house. The number of loved ones that traveled near and far—some great distances—were a testament to the person that Karen was.
Jon had prepared a slideshow to honor his mom. We gathered as a family and cried together as we watched these snapshots of her life and were reminded of the moments we enjoyed with her. We then celebrated Sam’s birthday and watched him open the last birthday card that Grandma had signed.
As a family, we finalized funeral talks, rehearsed musical numbers, laughed heartily and cried continuously. For me, above all, the most prevailing emotion was love.
The Grandchildren rehearsing their numbers for the service.
While anticipating Friday’s viewing at the mortuary, I had imagined in my mind an intensely somber scene, but to my surprise, it didn't feel that way. To me, it felt almost joyful. The reunion of friends and family was wonderful to be part of.
Grandpa explaining to Daniel that Grandma's spirit had gone to heaven.
Sadie and Natalie visited Grandma frequently throughout the night.
Jon was thrilled to see a dear friend from high school that he hadn't seen in many, many years.
During the viewing, many of the boy cousins gathered in a chapel--the next room over from the viewing room--where they discussed topics ranging from politics and history to faith and religion. The scene, I’m sure, made their grandmother smile.
The funeral services the following day felt much more sorrowful, but it was beautiful—every last detail. It was a fitting celebration for Karen's beautiful life.
The Fred Parker family--Karen's brother. Jon spent many hours working on their ranch in Drummond, Montana. Many of them traveled great distances to attend.
The ward provided us a wonderful luncheon that was attended by many family and close friends. Sitting around a table with Jon and watching his interactions with his beloved Parker cousins was a highlight for me. Their bonds were clearly evident even though they hadn’t seen each other in many years.
The luncheon was delicious. Jonas was partial to the rolls, of course. I love this picture of Jonas and Sam, with the picture of Jon and his mom on our wedding day in the background.
Adorable Henry. Love him.
Carl talking to the Doty cousins--Children of Marie, Karen's sister.
These boys are to Caleb what the Parker cousins were to Jon. They are his "brother cousins" and we could not love them more.
Jon and his cousin Jason were born just three weeks apart.
Following the luncheon, we traveled to Karen's gravesite in Sheridan, Montana.
I met Carl's brother, Jack for the first time at the funeral. Their coats provide the perfect representation of their contrasting personalities.
Karen's patriarchal blessing promised her "many sons." I remember her telling me years ago that she was always confused by that since she had five daughters and only one son. But once her grandchildren began arriving, she knew her blessing had been fulfilled. Indeed, she was blessed with many sons—11 grandsons and just 4 granddaughters. Once we arrived in Sheridan, Karen’s final resting place, we watched her "many sons" carry her casket to her gravesite. Jon then dedicated the grave and we shivered in the bitter Montana winter as we placed roses atop the casket as a final goodbye.
Yes, three sisters have the same coat. When they purchased them, they were convinced they would never be together in the winter. Maybe this is another coat analogy--it shows their unity as sisters. Their bonds are certainly strong and these children loved and honored their mother completely.
Were it not for the icy wind, we may not have been able to leave so soon. Aunt Jennie provided us dinner at her nearby ranch.
Three of four Hatch siblings: Uncle Jack, Carl and Aunt Jennie.
This is Jackie (Jack's daughter) who is the oldest Hatch cousin, with Sarah who is the youngest.
Grandpa sharing a bit of history of Jennie's ranch in Sheridan.
After leaving Jennie's, we couldn’t bear to drive by the cemetery without one last visit.
View of the Sheridan cemetery from the road.
By then the casket was already in the ground. As Jon would later say time and time again, “It seemed like such a lonely place in the ground,” and it was difficult to leave her there. But leave her there we did, because we know that though her body rests there, her spirit is alive and well. She is free of pain and worldly care. She has been reunited with loved ones and she is there to help us from the other side when we need it.
Our family was overwhelmed by the love and support offered by friends, coworkers and loved ones. Below are the two bouquets given us by our coworkers:
The challenge for each of us is to go on in life without Karen. That is the part the hurts the most. We miss her terribly and seek to find comfort in our faith that we will one day see her again for "Families are Forever."