Stop me if you’ve heard this story.
On 18 August 1985, my mother spoke the last coherent words which I would ever hear her say. Although she did not die until three days later, I had to drive back to Kansas City on the evening of the 18th because an opposing counsel would not accept my verbal assurances that my presence would not change anything. I needed a continuance. He would not ask for one on my behalf. I appeared in Jackson County at 9:30 a.m. on the 19th and made it back to St. Louis late that day. By that time, my mother’s mental state had deteriorated to the point of incoherence.
But on Sunday, she asserted herself into my psyche with her usual aplomb.
I strove to coax her weak pituitary gland to function. My brother Stephen had taught me to liquefy her pain medication; I didn’t question the source of his knowledge. I put it down to his nursing school experience. With the pulverized pill dissolved in water, I stood over my mother’s frail form, letting the solution trickle into her mouth. I stroked her throat, trying to avoid the obvious parallel to the cat whom I nursed in the last days of feline leukemia.
Swallow, Mama. Swallow. I kept my voice soft and gentle. Come on, Mama. Swallow for me, please, Mom.
My mother pursed her lips. The focus in her eyes tightened. She fixed them on my face and snapped, I’m still your mother. Don’t patronize me.
The order startled me and I dropped the spoon, spilling the medication on her gown. She didn’t flinch; she had already subsided into her vague trance.
Yes ma’am, I whispered, too late, always too late. I got fresh nightclothes and started the process over again. I stumbled through the administration of the drug which kept her calm and eased the anguish of the cancer in her brain and bones. She slept. I put the New World Symphony on the turn table and held her hand as the morning waned. I left around two. I never heard her voice again except raised in a heart-breaking wail when I got back the next night. She died on Wednesday, August 21st, a victim of medical malpractice and the failings of men.
My mother died two weeks before my thirtieth birthday and not quite three weeks before she wold have turned fifty-nine. I miss her throaty laugh, her cheerful skip, her sharp tongue when she perceived injustice, and the knowing look in her bright brown eyes. I miss her reassurance, her intelligence, and her willingness to take on impossible causes armed only with her tenacious spirit and prayers to Sts. Anthony and Jude; and to Theresa of the Little Flower. I miss the sight of her many wrap-around skirts, all made from different fabric but the same pattern. I miss her denim pocketbooks, similarly created. I miss the comfort of knowing that if I stumbled, she would hasten to my side with a quiet word, a plan of action, and a humorous story to ease the tension.
For all of her virtues, my mother made mistakes. Some went with the times. She stayed married despite the awful conduct of her husband because that’s what Catholics did in those days. As I sit here, I can’t think of too many other examples of my mother’s imperfection, though I will concede that time has blurred the lesser memories in favor of the tender times.
My mother took us to musicals, ballets, picnics, and her work. We cut EKG strips and pasted them on the forms for the patients’ charts. Especially for the three younger children — myself, Frank and Steve — my mother made time for learning and enjoyment. She read my scribblings, though she encouraged me to pursue “a real career”. She forgave us when we trespassed and held us when we grieved. She cleaned the blood from her bathroom floor when I lost my first pregnancy in a miserable flood of tears late one January night. She never judged me. She tucked me into my old bed and brought me hot tea and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup with Saltines and Vanilla Wafers. She let me cry. She did not demand an explanation.
I know that I have some of my father in me, but I carry my mother’s stamp. My goodness comes from her. She taught me to value other people and to give them a chance. She did this by example. But she also taught me not to take any guff from those who would judge me. Her tart tongue would lash out at anyone who asserted themselves against one of her children in ways that she found untenable. She would defend the weak and helpless. She would harbor the weary. Ask my older brothers’ friends, they’ll tell you. They often sought refuge in my mother’s home.
Whenever anyone chastises me for being overly conscientious with my manners, I shake my head. “I’m sorry, this is is how my mother taught me. If I didn’t let you go first, my mother would roll over in her grave,” I tell each one. “And my mother had a hard life. She needs her rest.” They laugh and let me hold the door, or pay the check, or whatever it is that I think my mother’s version of courtesy would dictate.
Nobody told a story like my mother. She’d stand and gesture, roll her eyes, and mimic the cadence of the story’s participants. My personal favorite involved someone asking her for directions to the lab at the hospital where she worked. Accustomed to guiding patients who often needed simple instructions, my mother said, “Okay, you go way down the hall. Way, way down the hall. It seems a long, long way but KEEP GOING. You’ll pass a room that LOOKS like a lab but it’s NOT A LAB, it’s a BLOOD BANK. Then you come to a set of DOUBLE DOORS, that’s TWO DOORS TOGETHER.”
And the person said, “Doors. You mean those things with handles?”
My mother was about to say, “No, these are swinging doors,” when she noticed the stethoscope around the man’s neck.
I laughed until I peed my pants every time my mother told this story, waving her arms as she said, “WAY, WAY DOWN THE HALL!”
Doors. I feel as though many doors slammed in my mother’s face. She quit nursing school to marry the dazzling Irishman who turned out to be an alcoholic. She bore eight children but had to go back to work without a college degree, for a dollar an hour, because her husband could not support the family. She endured his drinking, his fists, and his nasty tongue. She shielded her children as well as she could, though of course, it could not be enough. Just when she got her life together, with her sad wreck of a semi-sober husband, she started having symptoms which her doctor should have, but did not, recognize as uterine cancer. He diagnosed “female troubles” and gave her Premarin, a known aggravant of the imminently curable cancer which afflicted her. It caused the tumor to metastisize, almost certainly hastening or even causing her demise. Ah, life.
She died too soon, but in the state to which her ravaged body had declined, not really soon enough. She needed to be free of the pain which no amount of liquid Demerol could ease.
My mother liked Dvorak, Willie Nelson, the Grateful Dead, Livingston Taylor, and Broadway show tunes. I hope there’s a damn good sound system in heaven. Maybe Anthony Newley and Willie Nelson would sing a duet of Happy Birthday for her. She’d like that. Afterwards she would walk down to the banks of the River Jordan with her youngest son Stephen and her granddaughter Rachel. They could sit beneath a willow tree, and say nothing at all.
Nothing at all. Nothing at all.(n)
It’s the tenth day of the fifty-seventh month of My Year Without Complaining. For Lucy’s little girl, life continues.
LUCILLE JOHANNA LYONS CORLEY
09/10/26 — 08/21/85
GONE HOME BUT STILL LOVED.
(n) For those who don’t know:
In the Gillespie, Illinois cemetery there’s a stone chair on a grave near the street. My mother would ask us, “Do you know what that chair says when you sit on it?” Of course, we’d shake our heads. Then she’d intone in her very best spooky voice: “Nothing at all. Nothing at all.”