I heard the "scuff, scuff, scuff" of her shoes scraping on the pavement as she wheeled her grocery cart to the car. It was the first time my mom's walking reminded me of my grandmother, and it left me a little melancholy. Mom was getting older, approaching her 89th birthday; I knew it logically, but it took eons to reach my heart.
Her mind was sharp. She was independent, capable, and had an active social life. She still lived at home and drove, although she’d had her first car wreck at 88 ½ years old. A pretty good track record in over seven decades of driving.
Watching her gingerly place first one foot, then the other, squarely on stairs as she climbed them, I realized the tremendous effort it took for her to do things I took for granted. I suddenly understood why she spaced out her errands.
It can be disconcerting to watch a parent age. Although, in Mom, I saw strength in frailty. Humility in wisdom. She lived her golden years with grace and humor, and I was thankful to have a parent who could bravely look reality in the face and not be the first to blink. I never had to take her car keys away; she offered them before she turned 90. She knew it was time. She wasn’t knocking on death's door, but she was in its subdivision.
When I was younger, and even into my 30s, I tried to pretend that she'd be here forever. If ever she brought up her dying, my response was, "Shhh! Stop it! You're immortal." When that didn’t work, I’d wish she'd been younger when she had me, so I could’ve known her longer; Mom and Dad were older than most of the parents of my classmates. Because of the 8 ½-year age difference between me and my brother, Doc, I once asked Mom, “Was I an unplanned pregnancy?”
“You were an answer to prayer,” she responded.
Many saw Mom as a saint. Often, my friend Rosebud would ask that I pass along a prayer request to Mom. “She has an inside line,” Rosebud explained. Mom and I laughed about that, but it may have been true. A few years ago, Mom received an email from a friend who’d been dead for five years; the message suddenly appeared in her inbox, for the first time. That was excellent post-mortem connectivity on her friend Betty’s part.
The week after Mom’s funeral, I decided to go through her little black book, and found a couple of friends I hadn’t contacted when she’d died; I’d forgotten to check her book, even though she told me not to call people she hadn’t seen in years.
“Oh no, I haven’t seen them in so long. I don’t even know if they’re still alive,” she explained one day as we went through her people-to-call-upon-her-departure list. In spite of my objections to her editing the list, she downplayed her death the same way she refused to let me host birthday parties for her. “It’s just another day,” was her mantra.
But the week after her departure, I called one of her long-time friends, Lew, with whom she’d lost contact. Strangely, he’d been thinking of Mom the same week she died. He didn’t remember meeting me years ago, but I made a date to visit him in his home. At 97 years old, he was retired from his career, but still painting. It was a special time of talking about his work days with Mom at Star Furniture – he, an advertising manager, and Mom, an advertising copywriter. After looking at his artwork in his studio, I was honored when he gave me several pieces to take home. The next time I visited, I took Flash and Cowboy with me. Spending time with Lew is a delight, and Mom would be thrilled about our new friendship. I wish we’d called him while she was still here.
There are days when I merrily go about my daily tasks, not giving much thought to how much I miss Mom. Of course, “merrily” never applies to sorting clean socks or wiping up water on Cowboy’s bathroom counter for the one-millionth time that day, although I’m thankful for the feet that fill those socks and the clean water we have. I’ve come a long way in being grateful for the things that cause “messes.”
On other days, I think of Mom at unexpected times. Such as, when my gray hairs are renegade, and my morning trek to the bathroom mirror is like a fright show - I resemble Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown in Back to the Future. Or when I read about a new therapy or biomedical intervention for autism; we both did our more-than-fair-share of research on health-related topics. Or when I have an ailment she had, and I want to call and tell her, “I’ve joined your club.”
It’s not Mother’s Day that’s the worst. It’s all the ordinary days that leave me longing to hear her voice.
But often, as I’m driving or sorting those socks or in the middle of a full-blown Mom Meltdown, I hear her. Plain as day, her voice enters my psyche - not only words she previously said to me, but words I know would reflect her heart. Many times, they are words of hope, mostly regarding Cowboy and the strides he has made over the years. Strides that I somehow forget in the midst of new or revisited challenges.
Suddenly, hearing her voice, my reality is brighter, and I feel lighter.
Other times, I have a big decision to make, and covet her wisdom. Rather than giving advice I didn’t ask for, she waited until I asked for help, and then her words brought clarity. Now that she’s gone, I rely on the Lord for guidance more than I did before; too often, I called her before I called on Him. Perhaps He understands; surely there were times He needed the calm reassurance of His earthly mother’s words and love.
But just as much as missing Mom’s compassion and wisdom, I miss her smart aleck ways. In my teenage years, I’d repeatedly left a thermometer on the bathroom counter after using it. It was the old fashioned kind that could break and spill mercury droplets. One morning, I saw a note on the counter, next to the thermometer.
“Research has proven that the likelihood of breakage of a thermometer is reduced 99 percent by returning it to its case and placing it back into the cabinet.”
Mom couldn’t simply say, “Put the thermometer back in the cabinet.” No, that would’ve been too boring. She also spoke fluent sarcasm, a trait passed on to both of her children.
Flash married me for my mother; he adored her. She was a friend to him, and a mother-in-law who didn’t butt in. For years, I expected to see Flash building on that extra room I’ve always wanted – so he could move Mom in with us. He often quipped to her that she “walked on water,” until one particular day. We’d gone to her house, and she had baked a big batch of cookies. We ate quite a few. When we got ready to leave, Flash suggested we take some with us, but Mom explained that she needed them for Doc and his family, who were coming the next day. Flash responded, “Oops, Ma, your feet just got wet!” But, in spite of her fall from grace, they remained close throughout their relationship.
She was close to all of her family, and we’re all changed for having known her. Even in her dying, I’ve been changed. I don’t know how, but the grass seems greener. My creativity has awakened, and I appreciate the arts even more than before. Contrary to my long-standing proclamation, “I love all music, except songs sung in a foreign language; I can’t understand them,” I’m listening to Andrea Bocelli, in English and Italian, on a regular basis.
My childlike ways have come out to play. I’m going on amusement park rides again, within reason, of course – no point in tempting gravity too much. Even more alarming, I recently joined my first exercise class in 36 years, and am learning to play tennis. I had my first deep-tissue massage last week – a painfully wonderful experience, and I’m doing more self-care, more often. Following Mom’s lead, I suppose I want this body to hold up as well as hers did.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided it was time to make some new friends, and deepen relationships with a few acquaintances who are fellow moms of special needs individuals. My circle can always be wider, and it’s been exciting to branch out. In the same vein, I’m seeking to make more lasting friendships with people I’ve only slightly known at church.
I’m finding myself more disciplined in ways I’ve longed for – studying my Bible regularly, watching less television and reading more, and keeping a gratitude journal. Most of all, I’m showing myself the same kind of compassion that Mom showed to me. I forgive myself more often, realizing that 99 percent of success really is in “showing up” for life, and knowing that “success” has a completely different definition to me than it did three years ago. I get to decide what “success” is for me; nobody else can do that.
I still wish Mom were here, but not like she was. Not with her failing body. I’d never want that for her. And so, while she is having the time of her life in Glory, I’m called to have the time of my life here. To live my life abundantly. After more than two years of deeply grieving Mom’s decline, and losing her last year, I feel like I’m waking up. I’m present in my own life again, perhaps more than previously. And I’d better make the most of my time here.
To that end, I’ll be spending this Mother’s Day like I did last year – going to watch Mom’s favorite baseball team, and mine, the Houston Astros. What started as a way to honor her memory is now a new Mother’s Day tradition.
During the game, I know I’ll hear her familiar voice - okay, her familiar shouting - as she root, root, roots for the home team, from the best seat money can’t buy.