Time passes quickly now, and it’s hard to believe we’re over four months into this year already, and it’s already time to celebrate yet another Mother’s Day without my mom. Is this really the tenth time in a row that’s happened? Mom passed away in August 2002 and every Mother’s Day since then has been tinged with sadness. Only once, during the time she and I were both alive on this earth, were we ever apart on Mother’s Day.
There are still days when I wake up, especially after having dreamed about times past, and for a split second forget that she’s gone. There are still times when something important (good or bad) happens to me, and I have the urge to pick up the phone and tell her about it. There are still moments when I can’t remember some detail about my childhood, or I have a question about how to do something she did all the time, and I want to ask her about it.
I often wish that she could see this beautiful house we live in now. She would have loved all the light, the big windows that look out on the lake. She would have loved the peace and serenity of our back yard with its view of the water. She would have loved the look of the grand staircase (although not climbing those stairs). She would have been smitten with the huge master bathroom and room-sized master closet – two things she always wanted but never had.
I know she would love to watch all the birds here on the lake, and she would be fascinated by our swallows that nest on the balcony and the cardinals that come to our garden for dinner and the doves that perch on the fence and “coo” at us, and the mockingbirds that entertain us with their songs and the scissortails that dive for insects and then crack them against the fence post and the egrets and herons that strut along the shore and the hawks and the occasional eagle that soar overhead and all the rest. She loved the birds that came to the feeder in her front yard, and one of her biggest frustrations in her last months was that she was too ill to feed and watch them.
I wish she could meet her “granddogs” – my three Japanese Chins. Although Daddy was the biggest “dog person” in our family, I know these babies would have won her heart, too. I wish she’d been here to share my grief at the recent losses of first our Big Kitty and then my Bobble, the cats she did know and used to take care of for us when we traveled.
I think about Mom when I travel now. I think about how I could always leave my pets, my house, or my kids with her and have absolute confidence that they would be safe and well cared for. And I think about how she refused to travel, herself, in her last decades of life. I think about all that she missed out on because of her fear of planes, of boats, of cars. She never flew, was afraid of heights and didn’t like to go up in tall buildings, either. She was afraid of the water because she never learned to swim, was scared to drive or ride on freeways or over bridges, or to go fast (defined as more than about 45 mph), necessitating the plotting of long, slow alternate routes on back roads when she did venture out of the house.
Mostly, though, she stayed home. She said it was because she was a “homebody” but I always thought she had at least a mild form of agoraphobia. Home seemed to be the only place she felt safe. Or at least relatively safe. Even at home, she worried constantly – about something bad happening to her or to her family. I was an only child, and I took off to California after high school on a short-lived flirtation with life in an exotic new land. I’ll never forget my dad telling me years later that he thought Mom was going to go crazy when I was gone, how she worried all the time that something horrible would befall me, how she couldn’t eat or sleep on days I didn’t call.
She wasn’t always that way. I sometimes look at the old photo album I inherited, at the pictures of her and dad in Colorado, at Pike’s Peak, or perched atop the waterfall at Turner Falls, OK, taking home movies. I have memories of childhood vacations to Galveston, Carlsbad Caverns, and the Arkansas Ozarks, when Mom seemed fine with whizzing down the interstates. Back then, she camped in the woods where snakes and bears hung out, braved the bats in the caves, waded in the ocean barefoot with never a thought about jellyfish.
I’m not sure when she changed; it happened gradually. Maybe it came from long years of taking care of her aging parents, my grandparents, and living with the constant worries about their failing health. I once thought maybe my being an only child, her having “all her eggs in one basket,” so to speak, was the reason she was so overprotective and so afraid of losing me, but her fears were much more generalized than that.
Maybe the fear was always there, under the surface. Maybe that’s why she married my Dad, who was one of the most fearless people I ever met. Not in a reckless way, not in the sense that he took unnecessary risks; in fact, he was also one of the most careful people I’ve ever known. But he didn’t worry about things. He assessed a situation, considered his options for dealing with it, made a decision and didn’t second guess himself. He took an almost fatalistic approach; I remember him telling me that he believed all you can do is exercise the best judgment you know how, and what’s meant to happen will happen.
Dad didn’t fear his own death the way Mom did. He talked about it comfortably, casually, as just an inevitable part of life. He stopped going to church when I was a teenager, after being disappointed in the church politics he encountered there and the distinctly un-Christian way too many members of his long-time congregation acted. But he read the Bible and he prayed, and he was one of the most deeply spiritual men I’ve ever known. His spirituality always seemed to me like a mix of the traditional Protestant Christianity he grew up with and the American Indian (as everyone called it back then, now Native) heritage that ran through his bloodlines – that deep connection with the land, with animals, with the afterlife.
I always wished Mom could achieve the kind of peace of mind that Daddy seemed to come by so naturally – for all our sakes. Her fears and worries shaped and in many ways limited my life. They brought me back to Texas from California and kept me here for the next two decades. They made it more difficult for me to move to Arkansas to marry Tom and made me feel guilty about living so far away. They played a big role in my drive to persuade Tom to move to the Dallas area when he was ready for a career change. (I’m not complaining; in hindsight, Texas is and always will be where I belong – but my concern for Mom did keep me from exploring the world more when I was young).
Mom’s fears limited Daddy’s life even more. He loved to “go,” whether it was a few miles to visit friends and relatives or a road trip across the country. But he didn’t want to leave Mom alone. Pretty much the only trips he got to take in his later years were when he went with me to visit my daughter in Arizona, where she moved after high school to join her future husband, and then – just a week before he passed away – up to Waukegan, Illinois with me, to attend my daughter’s wedding. Mom, of course, stayed home both times.
But most of all, Mom’s fears limited her own life. She spent so many nights tossing and turning because she was worried about something – that the mole on her back might be cancerous, that one of her grandkids might get hurt on that field trip, that one of us would be in an automobile accident. She spent just as many days feeling lousy because of the lack of sleep. She had headaches, often, probably related to the constant stress she put herself through. She was more overtly religious than Dad; she attended church regularly right up to the end of her life, but she didn’t have the easy faith that he had. She wasn’t able to just “let go and let God,” to put it all in the hands of her higher power. She believed that she believed, but it seemed she wasn’t quite sure. Maybe it was a trust issue. Maybe it was just the way her neurons were connected.
I won’t say maybe she was right to be worried, because worry doesn’t accomplish anything. It paralyzes you and keeps you from living. But of course, she was right in thinking bad things would happen, because sooner or later, bad things inevitably do. In September of 1996, on the day before my birthday and the day Tom and I were scheduled to move back to the Dallas area after almost two years of living in Little Rock (years during which I called Mom almost every day, and drove back home to see her several times a month because, although Daddy came up to visit us often, she rarely did), a week after Dad gave his granddaughter away in marriage, Mom called me at 4:00 a.m. with some of the worst and most surprising news she or I could have imagined.
I’ll always remember her exact words and tone of voice when I answered the phone, still groggy. She said, “Debi, your daddy has … died.” Her pitch went up at the end, making it sound not exactly like a question, but more an expression of incredulity. As if she was telling me that the sun had blinked out forever or that a giant asteroid was about to hit the earth. In a way, those weren’t too far off the mark. The light that had shone and warmed her life since she married him when she was 15 years old was gone, with no warning, and she must have felt as if her world was about to shatter into a million pieces.
Knowing Mom, she must have imagined and worried about this hundreds of times before, and now it was reality. I half expected that she would be one of those people who passes away a few months after losing a spouse – but Mom surprised me. She kept on going, she handled it, she kept calm and carried on. And yet, in a way it wasn’t a surprise. There had always been a spark of inner strength there, that came out on those occasions when a true crisis hit and she got too busy to think about her fears. That was most often when one of her friends or relatives was in need. When taking care of others, she shone. Now she had to take care of herself, because Daddy wasn’t there to do it anymore. And she did.
They say that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Sometimes even that which eventually does makes us stronger, too. Mom had worried all her life about coming down with a fatal disease. She worried about cancer most of all. She was terrified of it. In 2001, after a series of hospitalizations with various symptoms, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. The irony and unfairness of it was that she had finally quit smoking (after 50 years) a couple of years before. The tumor was already large, and had spread. The prognosis wasn’t good, but she held onto hope. And oddly, that diagnosis seemed to change her completely – but not in the way you might think.
In the years since Daddy had died, she’d grown pessimistic and negative a lot of the time. She didn’t do much, took a lot of naps, watched TV, seemed to always suffer from some low level depression. After she found out she had cancer, instead of giving up in despair, she seemed to become more optimistic and cheerful than she’d been in a long, long time. It was as if now that the thing she’d feared most had happened, it had freed her from the constant worry about whether it might happen. And now, for the first time in more than a decade, she found a reason and desire to live. She wanted to go places. She was okay with traveling on Stemmons Expressway, one of the busiest and fastest in the metroplex. She was okay with the high overpasses. She got philosophical. She started sounding more like Daddy. Facing death for real instead of just inside an imagination that tormented her, she finally started living again. I think those last months before she got physically unable to get around were probably some of her most content.
Mom finally did find peace, I think. And I’m glad she did. I’m glad I was there with her for that last year. As physically demanding and emotionally heart-breaking as it was to be her caretaker through the home hospice experience, to watch her body and mind deteriorate and see her reduced to utter dependency, as awful as it was to see her struggle for breath and see the fear return to her eyes on that last day – but mercifully briefly before she slipped into unconsciousness – I’m glad I was there. I’m glad my son was there. I’m glad my daughter was there, having just flown in from overseas where she’d been stationed for the past two years. I’ll always believe Mom hung on just to get to see Kniki one more time, and she did – and then passed away in the wee hours of the next morning.
Letting Mom go was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. Being there when she made her transition from this life to the next is one thing I will never, ever regret. I think about her on Mother’s Day, and every day. She made me who and what I am – even if sometimes her contribution was to show me what I didn’t want to be. I don’t want to ever let my life be ruled by fear the way she did for so long. I think I’m more like Dad in that respect, and am consciously trying to be more like him. But sometimes I see her in me, too. Sometimes I feel the fear trying to take hold. And that’s when I fight back by stepping outside of my comfort zone – like last year when I went to Belgium, Denmark, and the U.K. Like scheduling a cruise for this coming summer. Daddy might be my role model, but Mom taught me a lot about living, too. Most of all, she taught me to do it before it’s too late.
And where she is now, she doesn’t have to be afraid. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you.