When I was in high school my friends and I were in and out of each other's homes several times a week. At the time I'm sure we thought our mothers were old. They weren't, but when you are young anyone over 30 seems ancient. Of that particular group of friends only two of them still have their mothers. Four of us lost our moms to cancer and my mother was the first to go. This year she has been gone 25 years. She was 51 at the time of her death, seven years younger than I am now.
In the 25 years since her death, the pain of losing her has diminished somewhat, but nothing can replace the ache in my heart that her death created. I didn't just lose my mother, I lost my best friend.
Just as we don't get to choose how we die, we can't predict how we will be remembered. I don't know if my mother would be surprised or not by what I remember about her, but I think most of it would please her and the rest of it she would laugh about.
5 Things My Mother Loved
1.Gardening. So many of my memories of her involve plants and the growing process. She loved flowers and our house was surrounded by Petunias, Gardenias, Iris and Roses. She had a green thumb when it came to plants and every summer she and my grandmother would raise a vegetable garden together. At the end of the summer they would tackle the messy endeavor of putting up corn. I can still see her in the kitchen, getting the corn off the cob with something that resembled a cheese grater. She ran the corn over it and it sliced it off and fell in the pan. There would be corn all over her, the cabinets, the kitchen window and even on her glasses. Corn is sticky and cleaning it up wasn't easy. But every year without fail we put up corn until the freezer was full because she knew we all loved it.
2. Books. She loved to read and once my brother and I were old enough to go to school, mom went to college. Mom and dad married when she was only 16 (he was 26) and I was born the next year. Three years later my brother came along. It was hard for her to raise us while going to college and she never failed to stress the importance of an education to me and my brother. After she finally got her degree she became a teacher and eventually she became the sixth grade reading teacher. It was her dream job. Over the years many of her students have contacted me to tell me how much she meant to them and what a good teacher she was. Every year at the close of the school year she hosted a party for her classroom at our home. Many of her students have told me it was one of their most cherished childhood memories.
3. Traveling. Mom loved to travel and always wanted my brother and I to soak up as much "culture" as we could. Probably the trip that made the biggest impression on me was the time she and two of her friends went to New York and mom invited me to tag along. I was about 19 and other than beach vacations I hadn't traveled very much or very far from our home in Kentucky. Neither her nor her friends had ever been to New York either and every place we went was an adventure, even getting there. We took a cab from the airport to our hotel and what an experience that was! I rode up front and mom and her friends were in the back seat. I watched their faces during the whole ride. Their eyes were as big as golf balls and they were holding onto each other for dear life as the cabbie switched lanes, honked, swerved and yelled curses at other drivers. The hotel where we stayed overlooked Central Park and we ate lunch at Tavern on the Green, took a carriage ride through the park and did a few other touristy things. What I remember most about the trip (other than the cab ride) was the night we went to a supper club for dinner. Before I go any further with this particular memory you need to know that we are from a very small rural town that has a church on every corner. The town was so small there wasn't a stop light or a fast food restaurant. To say we were sheltered would be an understatement. Anyway, i don't remember what we had to eat but I do remember what our entertainment was; topless ladies doing a provocative dance. I thought my mother and her friends were going to have heart attacks. I was shocked too but one of my duties as a teenager (so I thought) was to always act cool. So I acted like it was no big deal and laughed myself silly at my mother's horrified expressions.
4. Food. Not only did mom love to eat, she loved to cook and she was even better at that than she was gardening. Anyone who ever ate at our house (including all my friends and my brothers) always raved about her cooking. She never ever made anything from a mix. Never. Every night the table was laden with a meat, vegetables and home made biscuits. Cakes. Pies. Cookies. It was all wonderful. I still have all of her recipes and from time to time I get them out and read them even though I know most of them by heart. Her kitchen always smelled delicious and she always had extra food for anyone who dropped in, no matter what time of the day it was. She was queen of the kitchen and although my grandmother and aunts were all good cooks, none of them could hold a candle to mom.
5. Family. One of the hardest things about loosing someone you love who is so close to you is that every baby that is born, every holiday, every wedding, every birthday and graduation that occurs after their death, reminds you that they aren't with you. My mother didn't live to see my twins born or any of my brother's children. I hate it because I know how much she would have loved them and I hate it because the only way they will ever know her is through pictures and stories of the past. One of the most poignant moments of her illness happened one night when our second son was about two and a half years old. Justin, our son, was crying and fussy. It was bedtime and he needed to go to sleep. Mom was there and ask if she could rock him. By that time she was weak but still able to do a few things. She took him in the bedroom and I could hear her singing softly to him. I waited a few minutes until all was quiet and went to check on them. I knew she couldn't lift him into his bed so I was going to take him from her and put him to bed but when I got there she motioned for me to leave them alone. They were sitting in the semi-darkness and I could see she was crying. I backed out of the room and tried unsuccessfully to swallow the lump in my throat. She wasn't just rocking him to sleep, she was saying goodbye to him. It's one of those scenes that stays frozen in your mind for as long as you live.
The Last Goodbye
None of us knows how we would react to being told we had a year left to live but typical of my mom, she taught me just as much if not more during the last year of her life as she did when I was a child. She didn't complain or rage against the fates. She relied heavily on her faith, took things one day at a time and fought with everything she had, unfortunately it wasn't enough. One of the last things she said to us before the ambulance came and took her to the hospital was, "I tried so hard" and she had. Even after she arrived at the hospital and she could no longer speak she continued to fight for every breath all the way up to the very end. I had never seen anyone die before and I didn't know what to do or how to act. I was an emotional wreck and terrified of what was happening. Watching her struggle for one breath after another was surreal and I felt frozen with fear. I prayed and prayed harder. Then it suddenly came to me that she wasn't fighting for herself, she was fighting to stay with us. I couldn't let her do that. I walked over to my mother's bedside, leaned over and whispered in her ear. "I know you have fought hard, mom," I said, "but it's okay. You don't have to fight anymore. We are going to be alright. Try to imagine big fluffy white clouds floating on a bright blue sky, pick out one and become that cloud. Just relax and float away." Within a few minutes her blood pressure dropped and she was gone, or as I prefer to think, she floated away.
25 Years Later
The grandchildren she never got to see, as well as the ones she did get a chance to spoil, are now grown. My two oldest children have children and my brother's oldest son is engaged to be married. There have been countless events that I have attended that I would have given anything if she had been there with me. But that's the thing about being a person who loves so much and so passionately, she may not have been there in body but her spirit was with me and that ache in my heart just reminds me she's there.