Lee Erika Maher [Courtesy photo]

Lee Erika Maher took her last breath on Jan. 3. She died snug in her bed, at home, surrounded by people who loved her, without pain or fear.  

Maher immigrated from Germany when she was eight years old. She, her little sister Renate and their Mutti caught the last boat out of Genoa, Italy, just as the ports closed at the start of WWII, traveling to meet Otto, who was already in the U.S.

Maher imprinted on her daughter the vivid memory of them standing on the crowded deck of the ship as it entered New York Harbor holding her sister’s hand. As the Statue of Liberty came in to view, everyone cheered, knowing they had made it to their new home, the best country in the world.  

As a first generation American, she raised three boys and a daughter to not take what they had for granted. She taught her children to reach for fairness, prize justice and to stand their ground when they need to. She hated using the word out loud, but loved her children all fiercely and completely.

Maher showed the importance of growing brilliant morning glories along a fence that only a few people would see. She encouraged her 12-year-old daughter to raise orphaned baby rabbits, squirrels and birds for release back into nature, letting her discover how love and consistency worked together. She showed her daughter how to dig to the back of the bush to find the best blueberries on a hot summer day, and how heavenly running into Lake Michigan felt after picking many buckets of those berries. She dragged her daughter to every damn museum and theater in southwest Michigan, leaving her with an aversion to art that falls into pretension, but a deep appreciation for beauty and creativity.

A spiritual agnostic, she didn’t have much use for formal religion, but brought her children to more than a few churches, to settle into the pews in the balcony with her and listen to one of her best friends play the organ, as the light shone through the stained glass. She also showed how to tend people as they died, caring for her husband, and then oldest son, Kevin, in her home when cancer claimed each of them.

Maher skipped the manipulative part that flavors so many mother/daughter relationships. She was who she was, and expected her daughter to be the same. About 13 years ago, she sent her daughter an article about dementia, with the parts pertinent to her underlined. Nine years ago of her own accord, sensing she was going to need some help in the time ahead, she left her home of 50 years in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to move into a cozy trailer home next door to her daughter. Her journey into the jungle of dementia went deep in her last years, actualizing the fear of losing the self, and becoming completely dependent on others.

Thankfully and mercifully, as her memory went, the separated moments of day-to-day life that became her new reality showed themselves to her as funny, sweet and even beautiful. She remained in her little home, the yard secured so she couldn’t wander away, with amazing caregivers who visited every day. And as the lines between memory, other people’s reality and what was on the TV at that moment blurred, she didn’t find it terrifying, but instead, pretty OK. 

A few weeks ago, on Christmas Day, her daughter put a baby doll wrapped in a blanket that one of her caregivers had given her into her arms. Her face was pointed down, and her daughter thought she might have nodded off.  As she looked up after a long minute, though, her daughter realized she was crying — not something she did a lot of. “Oh,” she whispered, “It’s a baby.”

Maher’s daughter, Eve, is thankful for her kids, Zane and Lulah, who accepted and loved their Oma, no matter how her brain was functioning, in turn discovering that old age and death is not something to be afraid of; and for her husband, the best son-in-law ever. 

And, at this ending, Maher’s family is grateful, and her daughter so glad that she got to be one of her babies.