The first time I met my mother was in the early days of November back in 1968. I can’t recall much about that day, nor the first few years for that matter. But this is how it goes when the world is taking shape through new eyes, and the person you most often see is the face of your mother.
It becomes familiar, like the weight of your body, the breaths you take without thinking, the shadow you know is always there. The thought of it becomes comforting, how everything is going to be fine.
I would see that nurturing face for the last time in June during a visit to Texas where my mother chose to spend the final years of her life. She passed away early this morning, lying in a hospital bed set by the window in a bedroom on the first floor of her home.
This is the way she wanted it – dying on her own terms, no artificial extension of life, no prolonged battle in a fight she would not win. It wasn’t unlike the lessons she taught us in life.
Do it on your terms.
When I first met my mother, she was little more than an 18-year-old girl with a bouffant hairdo, big brown eyes and a beaming smile. She lived in Denver at the time, the daughter of a great woman, the sister of two men who would go to Vietnam as pilots in the U.S. Navy.
As life would have it, she chose the family route, having two boys by the time she was 21. She attended community college for a while and worked late hours at what, back then, the grownups called the cocktail lounge. She drove a yellow Opel and kept a box of instant milk in the pantry for breakfast.
At least this is how I remember those early days. As I’ve grown older, I often think of the choices she had to make, the challenges of being so young with so much responsibility. I often wonder how she pulled it off, devoting herself to her children even when times were lean.
I remember my mother mostly through youthful eyes – the eyes of a boy who would leave home after high school to join the Marines. Those early years were good years, formative years that would shape the person I’ve become.
This is a mother’s task and it’s one I never fully thanked her for, though I tried during that last week in Texas. Yet even so, there was no time to reminisce about how she taught us to shoot a gun, fish using corn and fireballs, or hunt for crawdads in the dark of night.
There was no time to laugh, recounting the first time she let me drive while Prince played on the radio, or how she taught us all to try our best, to be honest and do the right thing. The time wasn’t right to thank her for staying supportive, even when we failed or fell short of her expectations.
I never apologized for the time I stole the Aerosmith cassette tape and got caught by mall security. She was folding laundry when I confessed, only because I had a date with the court. She simply shrugged and asked what I planned to do to fix my problem.
She might have even grinned.
This is how it always went.
As the years went by, I never apologized for being late with her birthday cards, or for staying away longer and longer between visits. She became private and I grew busy. Life went on, though it seemed to me that nothing would ever change. It would always be as it used to be, or so I thought.
My error was taking this feeling of security for granted. My shadow was still there. I could still see her face. I could still hear her encouraging voice, as if it had blended with the narrator in my head, the one that guides me through each day and informs my decisions.
But maybe it wasn’t an error after all. The way she stays with me, as if we were back at the beginning again – that may be her greatest gift of all.
Sometimes, too, I think of the story she read to us as children, the one about the giving tree that gave everything, and happily so, until it was reduced to a stump. When I think of my mother, this is what comes to mind, “The Giving Tree” that never complained.
When I saw her last, her face had changed and her voice was weak, her words unable to move from her tangled brain to her tongue. But her eyes were the same and I knew she was proud. I knew she was pleased to see her family at her side.
We learned more about her once my sister found her baby book, the black-and-white pictures dating back to another time and place when she was a girl looking to make her way in the world.
She learned her lessons and I learned mine, and sometimes we learned them together. The first lesson she taught me in life was to walk. She guided my hand throughout the effort, just as she would for the next 47 years, even if from afar. In the end, she would also show us how to die, retaining her dignity to her fading last breath.
I was told it came peacefully in the dead of night, releasing her being into another place where it shines like the lantern she once carried to light our way on camping trips.
And while dying may be the last lesson she’ll ever offer, she will always be The Giving Tree, passing this on to her three children and the lives she touched during her 67 years in this world.