At 7:00 a.m. on 21 August 1985, I stood outside of my childhood home in Jennings, Missouri, watching two silent men load my mother’s wasted, lifeless body into the back of a barren vehicle for her last ride away from the house in which she had shed tears, dodged blows, and nurtured children.
My brother Stephen wanted to make the ride to the funeral home with her remains. To this day, I sometimes swear he did but I cannot honestly remember. I know he tried.
The moment when my mother died culminated a year of craziness for me. I had been driving to and from Kansas City nearly every weekend. Alcohol had been my nightly companion, in an apartment which I shared with a dope-smoking bank teller whose wife I could have become, had I not known us to be wholly unsuitable for one another. We stayed together because he knew I could not bear my mother’s death alone.
I worked in the prosecutor’s office at the time. My mother found my job to be enormously satisfying for her as a parent. She felt that I had established myself. She bought me a navy blue suit, a few fancy blouses, and a pair of grey leather pumps with a tiny gold piping which it pleased me just to admire. I tripped in the shoes whenever I wore them but I never told my mother. She thought they made me look like a real lawyer.
I spent many hours sitting with my mother during her long decline. In early days, our talks took place in her garden. She’d sit on a small stool, turning the dirt with a trowel, showing me tender shoots of asparagus or lettuce, reflecting on the virtues of the fertilizer, sometimes sighing with the growing fatigue of her cancer. The winter before she died, our time together took place in her living room, my father always hovering nearby. We talked of nothing, of everything, of always, of never. I hear her murmuring voice still but the words elude me.
As she declined, the last summer, we spent more and more time in the bedroom which had been crafted from the dining room to make a nursery when my baby brother Stephen had been born. Eventually, we had a hospital bed brought into that room for my mother. We nestled the coffee table under the window and set her stereo on it. We spun her favorite records — Willie Nelson, Dvorak — and I read to her. I’m sure my sisters did the same, but we visited in turns, relieving one another as often as we could. I don’t know about their conversations with her. I only know what she and I discussed. And the memory of her words has faded. Mostly I recall her soft brown eyes, her papery skin, and the music which surrounded us.
In one of my last moments with my mother, she fixed her eyes on a space over my shoulder and spoke to her father. I found that particularly haunting because he was till alive at the time, though beset with Alzheimer’s. But she said, clearly, despite her semi-comatose condition, What’s that, Daddy? What? She listened. Then her foggy eyes focused for a brief moment, and she fixed their gaze on my face. She told me, Daddy says I have to wait for the last of them to come before I can go home.
A few hours later, in the middle of the night, my sister Ann arrived from Minnesota. My mother had waited. She died that morning.
I was not there when my mother died. I will always regret that. I had left the small house to go stay with my cousin Theresa Orso Smythe. There would not have been enough beds had I remained at my parents’ home, but in retrospect I do not why that mattered. I could have slept on the floor, in a chair, on the couch. I could have stayed awake. I suppose I might have thought that my sister Ann deserved some time alone with Mom. I don’t recall being so noble, but it’s possible. Whatever prompted me, I left. My last sight of my mother’s frail form fills my mind and at times, overwhelms me with sorrow.
I’ve lived half my life without my mother. I’ve married three times and divorced as many. I’ve birthed and raised a child. I’ve moved from state to state. I’ve changed jobs, struggled to survive in the face of my failures, and found a few moments of satisfaction in helping others. I’ve sat by the deathbeds of both of my in-laws, who treated me like a daughter and whose passing meant nearly as much to me as my own mother’s death. Nearly.
From time to time I still move towards a phone thinking to call my mother to share some little news with her. Recently I gave her old phone number out as mine without thinking.
I do not look much like my mother. I have her grit, her relentlessness, and her curly hair. In stature, I resemble her. But my blue eyes look nothing like hers, nor my little button nose, nor the curve of my cheek. I do not see her when I look in the mirror, no matter how hard I strain.
My mother had a difficult life. She married badly. She dropped out of nursing school to do so, which impaired her earning power all of her life. My father’s alcoholism meant that our childhood home groaned under the weight of chaos. Many times I came across my mother sitting over a checkbook, coffee growing cold in a cup before her creased brow and her tense shoulders. Once she came into the living room where my brothers played Grateful Dead on the stereo we acquired with S&H Green Stamps. She told them, I was listening to the music thinking, ‘Well, don’t fuss, they could be out robbing banks.’ Then I looked at my checking account balance and thought, ‘What the hell are they doing sitting in there listening to music when they could be out robbing banks!!!!’
My mother’s sense of humor sometimes got her into trouble. She once told a woman in church who wanted to shush my mother during Bill O’Fallon’s famous pro-choice sermon that the woman’s mother should have had an abortion. But she had a heart bigger than the Grand Canyon. She never turned anyone away from her table, regardless of how little food we might have to share. My brothers’ friends filled the funeral home. More than one of them found harbor in our little two-bedroom house in Jennings over the years.
What I remember most about my mother is her laughter. Her throaty voice sent peals of warmth through every room and hallway. She seemed to find a way to be joyful regardless of what she suffered. Broken ribs, bruises, arrested children, spilled milk, empty wallets, police on her doorstep, storms outside. Through it all, my mother endured, until one day she laid down and decided that she was tired. Then she let herself slip away from us, and took herself home.
I owe my mother life, and lessons, and loyalty. This year, I made a trip to her grave for the first time since we buried my brother Stephen beside her in 1997. I knelt on the ground and traced her name, flicking accumulated grit from the letters with my fingernails. I leaned over and laid my cheek on the stone in the warm spring air. I imagined that her presence came to me for just a glimmering moment. I have never felt so loved as in that second.
My mother gave me everything she had. I have no complaints. Maybe she could have left my father; maybe she could have found someone else to help her with her large brood or raised us completely alone without whatever occasional help my father gave. Whether she stayed with him because she loved him or prompted by her adopted Roman Catholicism, I cannot say. I never asked. She made her choices, and those decisions marked us all forever. But I do not hold her any malice. She did her best. Everything good in me comes from her.
It’s the twenty-first day of the thirty-second month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
For a lovely rendition of my mother’s favorite Willie Nelson song, click HERE.
For a haunting version of Going Home, click HERE.