Last year around this time, my mother died. On Valentine’s Day, actually. She had been in the hospital and then a nursing and rehab center for five weeks with the final phase of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – what used to be called emphysema. For those who loved her, it was a very sad time, but for my mom, it was a release, an end to suffering. As a 50-year smoker who had never wanted to quit, she had long since made her peace with death.

From the day she went into the hospital, she knew she wouldn’t go home. When I saw her a week after she was admitted, her doctor came to visit and spoke of Mom’s going home within a few days. Mom replied, “I can’t imagine going home.” At the time I thought she was just still tired because she hadn’t been getting enough oxygen from the portable tank she wore at home.

But Mom knew, and was preparing us for the leave-taking that was just a few weeks away. Each of us – my two brothers, my father and I – had time to process Mom’s message and come to understanding in our own way, a real blessing that I have come to appreciate more deeply in retrospect. My brother who lives near Hartford, Conn., an hour from my parents’ home, was first to get it, in part because he was able to spend more time with Mom, and perhaps also because he was more ready to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

I don’t know how it was for my other brother, who lives in Colorado, but I took longer to understand, because, although I knew Mom’s health was failing and had been for some time, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her. I couldn’t imagine her not being there.

I remember when my perception of what was happening changed: Maureen had given me a weekend in New Hampshire as a Christmas present, which we’d scheduled for the last weekend in January. We had just checked into our room Saturday afternoon when I got a call from my cousin, who had come up from Georgia to see Mom.

It was clear from talking to my cousin that I had to get to Connecticut; we checked out and headed for my parents’ house. When we got to the rehab center that evening, Mom was pretty out of it with the morphine she was on to keep her comfortable. Always thin, she was now bony from not eating, barrel-chested from the effort it took to breathe. I thought she looked like the photos I’d seen of people in German concentration camps during World War II. And then I was ashamed of the thought.

That was when I realized for certain that my mother was not going to get better, not going to go home; that, in fact, she was close to dying. And I wanted that release for her, an end to her struggle for air.

The day Mom died, two weeks later, I sat with her in the afternoon. I sang a few songs – I don’t remember what now – as much to soothe myself as her. Mom was attached to a machine that blew oxygen into her lungs, essentially forcing her to breathe. Lying on her side, her eyes open but fixed in a stare, so frail from lack of food, she seemed already to be somewhere else. I sang and talked anyway, believing, hoping she could hear me in that far-off place. I told her it was OK to let go, that I would miss her but my brothers and I would take care of Dad. After 56 years of marriage, he was the least able of our family to accept losing her.

It was painful and peaceful and sad, and I’m glad I had that time with her. A few hours later, the rehab center called and told us she was gone.

Before she was hospitalized, Mom had told me she wanted me to have her piano, a Chickering baby grand her father had bought when she started lessons as a child. I had taken lessons growing up, but hadn’t played in decades. This fall, I had the piano brought to Maine, along with some other items from my parents’ house.

It fits perfectly in our living room, which had looked quite bare at one end before. And I am really happy to have it. My mother played Schumann and Bach, Mozart and Beethoven on it, sophisticated, challenging pieces. I pick out the melody lines of hymns with one hand. But I get great enjoyment from it, and I think Mom, wherever she is, is glad that I’m playing.

She said to me not long before she died, “You’ll always be with me.” I know she’ll always be with me. Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom.