SOUTH PORTLAND – My mother died last November. Knowing that her children were spread out between Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Maine, she was adamant that none of us rush back across the country when she died, but rather have a celebration at her beloved Maine camp on the lake when it was convenient, which we did last week.

She was very organized and had everything written down, from the songs to be sung as we spread her ashes, to the menu for the reception after the memorial Mass.

I had said goodbye to my mom relatively easily this winter when she died. She was 95 and had been in the nursing home the past two years. During the previous six months, her dementia had increased so she really didn’t know who I was and could not get out of her bed or her chair on her own.

I was sad at her passing, but heard myself say, “She had a full life and a great run.” And I truly believed it.

My siblings and I worked hard preparing the summer celebration she wanted; getting the tent and chairs, arranging the food, creating the program, organizing the music and in general preparing for the celebration. And I thought I was ready.

However, I got ambushed, a term my hospice nurse sister-in-law later explained.

Friday night before the Saturday celebration, we had a dinner for the 50 or so people who had come from out of town for the events. We had great pictures of my mom enlarged and placed around tables under the tent. We had created an iPod playlist of her favorite songs: big bands from the ’30s and ’40s and other songs she loved.

I was rushing around lighting table candles before people arrived, and I turned quickly and saw the pictures and heard the music and collapsed in a puddle of tears.

I realized that I hadn’t said goodbye to that mother — the one who was vibrant and wonderful and gracious and all the things that mothers are supposed to be. It was easy saying goodbye to my 95-year-old mother, but not so easy saying goodbye to the beautiful woman of 50, 60 and 70.

The next day we had a wonderful memorial Mass with hymns and readings she had specified in her plans. There were beautiful eulogies, and her first great-grandchild at age 3 brought the gifts down to the altar (with his father’s help). We then returned to that lovely lake and continued the stories, laughter and music way into the night.

Someone told me that one purpose of a celebration of life is to be able to forget the hospital and perhaps nursing home stays and remember the glory days of your loved one. We certainly did that for my mom.

I suspect I will be ambushed again in this year of grief my family is going through — but now at least I am prepared and can keep my tissues at the ready.

Cheryl Stitham White lives and writes in South Portland.