Hilltown Postcards

A Brief Life

My saddest moments as a mother

We followed a nurse as she wheeled Jacob’s incubator into a small room at the hospital’s neo-natal unit. The doctors agreed he could die. Whatever tests they did confirmed our baby’s brain did not function. Only the machines and medicines had kept him going these sixteen days.

I stood beside the nurse as she lifted Jacob onto a padded table. He still had his breathing tube, but she had disconnected the IV drip and wires used to monitor his tiny body. She let me dress him for the first and last time. Hank handed me the paper bag we had already brought once to the hospital, and he returned to his chair, stone-faced, but his eyes gave away his misery. His hand rested on the seat of the empty chair beside his.

I removed the neat pile of clothes Jacob’s older brother wore when he newborn. I slipped the cloth diaper, folded into a small square, beneath his bottom, pinning the sides with pins with plastic ducks near the fasteners. The nurse held the nightshirt, the kind that crosses in the front, then snapped. The soft white cloth hung on him, as did the flannel nightgown I sewed. That baby was nine pounds when he was born and didn’t wear it very long. Jacob weighed less than two because he was born nearly three months too early.

The nurse lifted Jacob as I spread a flannel blanket and the quilt I had made, laying him in its center, so I could pull the corners into a tight package. I always bundled my babies this way, sometimes in several layers, old-fashioned perhaps but I thought it made them feel secure. After being contained inside me for so long, I offered them this transition.

For Jacob, this is the way he would be buried, wrapped in these soft, white clothes. He wouldn’t know or feel them. But these things mattered. 

I told the nurse about the bag that would go with him to the funeral home. It contained toys our other children chose to put in his casket. I wept when they brought me the toys, the smallest ones they had: a stuffed rabbit, a matchbox car, a chew toy, and a rattle.

Jacob was ready, and I sat beside Hank with our backs to the window and doorless entry to the rest of the ward. The nurse removed his breathing tube. I expected a small gasp, but Jacob did not make a sound. She placed him in my arms, and I held him as I had done during my visits here. I looked into his small, still face as the nurse explained that even without the respirator his heart would continue beating. She would come back to check.

The nurse wanted us to know our son could not have gone on, that we had not made a mistake letting him go. “It’s not because his heart is strong,” she said. “It’s from the medicine. I just wanted you to know that.”

I held him and then when Hank was ready, he did. We took turns.

Jacob’s heart beat two hours more. 

This was the first time I witnessed death firsthand. I only knew three blood relatives who died in their old age. I was a child then, and after the news was told, I didn’t know how to feel, except for my grandmother, who I saw every day and would miss. I thought it would make my parents sadder if I was sad.

Now Hank and I waited with our infant son as he died. We cried openly. We talked mother and father talk, kissed his face, and cried and sang lullabies. We talked about his brothers and sisters. We said nothing, waiting, wondering how long his heart would last.

The nurse returned several times, bending over us as she listened to his heart through a stethoscope.

She shook head.

“Not yet,” she said.

Sounds from the other room distracted me. A baby in the neo-natal unite was having a seizure. People were tending to him. No one came into our room except the nurse. They must have all known. This must be the room where parents wait for their infants to die.

I felt Jacob’s body lose its warmth. The skin of his face darkened. The nurse checked again, but his heart beat still.

We kept going, finding new things to say, things that we hope would comfort his spirit. I felt his body grow colder. The blankets or the heat from our bodies did nothing to warm him. His skin was violet. Our baby did not look as if he was sleeping or at peace. He wore the same expression he had since he was born. Empty.

Finally, the nurse confirmed what we already knew. Jacob was dead. She took him in her arms, and we left the room, crying hard, holding onto each other. That was April 23. Jacob lived sixteen days.

Two days later, we buried Jacob at the North Cemetery on Cold Street in Worthington. We invited no one. It would be just our five children and us. The late morning sun shone through the branches, bare still as Hank drove to the cemetery. Daffodils rose through the dried bleached leaves near the headstones. 

The man from the funeral home arrived in a boxy tan station wagon. The director, the father-in-law of the building contractor who Hank worked for, said he would handle the funeral at no charge. The hospital would have taken care of his body, but we said no. It was not enough.

I watched the man from the funeral home walked around the rear of the station wagon. He opened the tailgate. A small, white box was in the back. With its lid and embossed cardboard exterior, it looked more like a gift box than a baby’s coffin.

“Where are the flowers?” I asked.

“Flowers? I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t have flowers.”

“I ordered a blanket of flowers.”

He apologized again. It was not his fault. I should have asked about it when I called the florist. I felt tears start again. The man’s face was red.

“It’s OK. We’ll get it later,” Hank said.

It wasn’t okay, but there was nothing we could do. I nodded, and Hank bent to pull the coffin toward him. He cradled it in his arms. Our oldest daughter burst into tears. Hank gave me a stricken look. The other children were silent. They had never experienced death, except the one of a pet. They were sad about their brother because we were sad, but the baby inside the box their father carried was some sad mystery.

But our daughter was fourteen. She helped me with the other babies. She was there when two were born. She understood.

It was time to be brave. I lifted the youngest onto my hip.

“Let’s all hold hands,” I whispered to the others, and we followed Hank in a crooked line over the dry grass.

The man from the funeral home stayed behind.

Our son’s grave was in the cemetery’s newest part, up from the tilting gray slabs for Worthington’s earliest settlers, their names and dates worn away by the elements, and the middle where the relatives of the town’s natives now rested. 

The day before, Hank and the two older boys dug his grave. It’s not the custom in our town, but the cemetery commissioner agreed when Hank asked. Work makes him feel better. He couldn’t do anything in the hospital to help our son. But he could wield a shovel to carve a box-like hole large and deep enough for a baby’s coffin from the rocky, clay soil. The three of them were gone a few hours. I stayed home. I could not watch.

Hank placed Jacob’s coffin on the ground. The children clustered close to me, the tops of their heads shining in the sun, as their father pulled a paper from his jacket pocket. He read the words he wrote the day before about Jacob and what he meant to us. 

I listened, stunned by my sadness and the simple but profound words of my husband. Hank ended his speech. Birds, moved by their spring homecoming, called from the trees. He bowed his head. We waited. Then he stooped to set the box inside the hole. He placed the paper on its lid. He stood. Our sad eyes met.

Hank turned to get the shovel he had left near the pile of dirt. We watched as he filled the grave, the dirt and pebbles drumming lightly over the white coffin, until a soft mound rose. Then we walked downhill toward the car. The man from the funeral home came to wish us well.

Remembering Mom

Eulogy for My Mother

My mother, Algerina Medeiros, left this world Aug. 26 at age 99. For two days, family and people who knew her gathered in her hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts to celebrate her life. Here is the eulogy I wrote and gave at her funeral Mass. It will tell you some about this inspiring woman.

We’re here today to celebrate the life of Algerina Medeiros, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, and to many people in town, “Mrs. Hawk.”

Our mother had a humble beginning, growing up in Acushnet with parents who had emigrated from Madeira and grew or made everything they needed. She loved school, wanted to be a nurse, but as was common then, had to drop out of high school to work as a stitcher in one of the textile mills to help out the family. 

At age 24, Mom met Antone Medeiros on a blind date, they fell in love, and the two were married six weeks later. They were together 67 years until our father’s passing in 2015. Ever the practical person, Mom had instructed to put in her obit that the best years of her life were the ones in which she was married. 

Mom and Dad were indeed partners, raising four children in the home they built in North Fairhaven. Mom was proud she laid the wooden floors, but that wasn’t her only contribution. Over the years, she used her talents to create braided rugs, paintings, artfully finished furniture, and more, taking night classes at New Bedford Vocational. Then there was the large vegetable garden they grew.

She was a stay-at-home mother until we were school age. Then she worked as one of the cafeteria ladies for Fairhaven’s schools until she retired as supervisor. 

Family was important with frequent visits to our extended relatives and helping out with the grandkids. She was the humble mother who wanted her offspring to do better than her. And she stuck by us no matter what.

Mom was a person interested in life. She loved being involved with Dad’s many pursuits. You would find her on the sidelines watching and keeping score for any team he played or coached. Then there were the Portuguese feasts, especially Our Lady of Angels, and town celebrations. I can recall her and Dad spending hours digging for quahogs and clams in West Island.

For many years, they were involved in the shows put on by St. Mary’s. Dad along with our brother, Tony, were among the headliners. Mom, who had a good singing voice, was in the chorus. She also used her amazing skills as a seamstress to create costumes without a pattern. Her costume creations continued for our father’s appearances during town events. The upstairs in their home is filled with them.

Mom was an inspiring role model, as shown by the many family members who express themselves creatively. For me, she became one of the characters in the mystery series I write.

Mom was a person who enjoyed games of chance and frankly, she was lucky at them. She went to Bingo games when that was popular. She loved taking the bus with our father to play the slots at the casinos in Rhode Island. Of course, there were trips to Las Vegas, as well as other places such as Hawaii, the Azores, and Madeira. Mom was a curious traveler who kept diaries about their trips.

She was a voracious reader, stocking up on books at the Millicent Library and tag sales. She stayed up late with the TV on, keeping up with the news and her favorite shows, but usually working on a puzzle like Sudoku or playing solitaire on her tablet, perhaps with a cat on her lap. She was likely one of the Standard Time’s most devoted readers.

I mentioned earlier our mother was a practical person. That meant we had to be extra early at any event to get a good seat. She was also the ultimate bargain hunter. When driving in her later years, she would only take right-hand turns. Besides Tony’s house and visits to her sister, Ernestina, she had three destinations: Wendy’s, Wal-Mart, and Market Basket. 

And I have yet to meet a person who loves lobster as much as Mom. 

A few years ago, Mom entered a convalescent home when she could no longer live on her own. Now she was more of an observer than a doer. We family members who lived far away missed our weekly phone calls. But she got pleasure from her visitors and from reading her newspaper. And she still maintained her smile and keen sense of humor. 

I could tell you more about our mother who lived to be 99. I am sure you have your own stories.

Algerina Medeiros showed that you don’t have to be rich or famous to live a full creative life. She will be missed.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: My mother holds me when I was just a little bitty baby.


My Mother Is 99

On April 2, my mother, Algerina is 99 years old. That’s a very long life filled with creativity and a curiosity about the world around her. Let me tell you about her.

Her parents emigrated from the Portuguese island of Madeira. They met in New Bedford, Mass., worked in the textile mills, and bought a house and land in a nearby town, where they kept a large vegetable garden and goats. A great deal was expected of my mother and her younger sister, Ernestina. Although a good student, my mother was forced to drop out of high school to work in one of those mills. Her sister had to take care of the house.

As a young adult, Mom continued to live at home, thinking she was going to be an old maid, a term we don’t use today. She was 24 when she met my father, Antone on a blind date. They were married six weeks later. It was a very long and happy marriage that ended when our father passed at in 2015 a few months short of his 93rd birthday. Mom always says their years of marriage were the best of her life.

They had three other children besides me: my sisters, Christine and Kij; my brother, Tony. There are lots of grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.

My father was active in their town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, especially with sports, whether playing or coaching it. My mother would be there watching. Both were heavily involved in St. Mary’s annual shows, and my mother put her sewing talents to great use creating costumes for them both. (Her costume-making guaranteed me a starring role in my school plays. The prom gowns she sewed, including the one with the glass beads on the bodice, are in a trunk still.)

It’s unfortunate my mother had to leave school because she loved learning. She wanted to be a nurse, and seeing how she cared for our father in his last years, she would have been a caring one. She was a big reader. When we were kids, she took us to the library twice a week for an armload of books she read in bed. 

Mom took adult education classes in such subjects as millinery — I wore feathered hats with veils to church — jewelry making, cake decorating, painting, you name it.

She and Dad enjoyed traveling, especially to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Madeira, and the Azores.

I have fond memories of the long days we spent at the beach on the weekends. Mom would make clam fritters. (She and Dad dug for clams and quahogs in season.)

She loved eating lobster.

Until she had to give up her license a few years ago, Mom drove to three places to eat and shop — Wendy’s, Walmart and Market Basket, taking only right-hand turns. She had a bit of a heavy foot. Hank joked she drove like she was in the getaway car of a bank robbery.

My mother enjoyed gambling and winning, whether it was Bingo put on by one of the local churches or playing the slots at the casino. She had a head for Sudoku, a puzzle that mystifies me. A loyal newspaper reader, she still has a subscription to the New Bedford Standard Times.

My mom’s not the meddling kind of mother. She let her children find out things for themselves. I am certain there are times she was mystified by the decisions I made and the directions I took, but she kept that to herself.

Mom is also the inspiration for the mother, Maria in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. I give that character a lot of my mother’s interests and personality. She’s nosy and helpful solving crimes. My mother liked that.

On Friday, my son Zack and I paid a pre-birthday visit to Mom. She now needs special care and help, certainly understandable given her age and health. She was happy to see us, as we were happy to spend time with her. When we both sang “Happy Birthday,” she joined us. She still has her sense of humor. When she heard somebody say “Hey!” she responded with “Hay is for horses!”

There’s so much more I could write about my mother, but this post gives you an idea.

Happy 99th birthday, Algerina. Thank you for being my mother.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s a formal photo of her taken a number of years ago.