Five years ago my retirement and my mother’s death coincided. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way but life always seems to be full of surprises. Just when I thought that I would be free to give my mom more of my company and attention she left this earth. It was a shocking turn of events and it took me a great deal of time and reflection to finally accept that the timing had been just as it was meant to be. Hers was a faith-filled ending to a life well lived. She fully understood what was happening and was expectantly ready to meet her God.
I suspect that she was tired and worn out from shouldering so much responsibility for so long. At a very young age she had become both mother and father to me and my brothers. She taught me how to cook and sew and played catch with the boys. She had to be our nurse, our disciplinarian, our source of comfort and security. Somehow she found ways to stretch a budget that was so thin that most women would have felt defeated. Instead she teased that she had a secret money tree and we need not ever worry. She bragged that we never missed a meal and that was quite true, but we often ate beans for dinner and learned to enjoy them as much as a juicy steak. She worked during the day and went to college at night, often staying up so late that she existed on very little sleep.
Just when her world appeared to be settling into a normal routine she was stricken with the symptoms of bipolar disorder that would stalk her for the rest of her life. There were times when her illness made it impossible for her to even leave her home. Her emotional pain created physical illnesses that were as real as if she had come down with a disease. Somehow she always fought her way back and began anew. There was never anything easy about her existence and yet she never complained. Instead she counted her blessings with a kind of radiant joy and often spoke of how good God had always been to her. That optimism was with her on the day of her death. She seemed more concerned with comforting her family than dwelling on the end that she knew was certain to come. She pointed to heaven and smiled. She knew that she was going home.
I felt a void in my life for many months after her death. I suspect that I was no more ready to end my career as an educator than I was to accept that she was really gone. I needed something to do each day and I was unable to find anything satisfying. While I fought hard to entertain myself I actually found that having those quiet hours in my home were just the therapy that I needed. I was able to look back on my time with my mother and forgive myself for the things that I should have done for her but never did. I was able to reconcile my thoughts and begin to focus on the positive aspects of my relationship with her. With the help of friends and family I slowly began to heal and adjust to my new life. I found a rhythm that felt comfortable and thoughts of my mother became joyful rather than sad.
Eventually I began to do the things that made me happiest. I went camping with Mike, tutored students who were experiencing difficulties with mathematics and best of all I began to write. I found great solace in my new hobbies, particularly in the exercise of writing the story that my mother and brothers and I had shared. I realized that my mother never truly left us. Her spirit is present in us and our children and grandchildren. I see snatches of her in each person, even those who never got to meet her. I revel in the love that she created and nurtured for all of her life. I feel certain that she is still with us when we party and celebrate. I will always be convinced that she sent my sister-in-law Allison to us, and most especially to my brother Pat. I think of how excited she would have been to know that five more great grandchildren have been born since she left. She so adored babies and would have been delighted beyond measure to see those little tots. I think that she would celebrate in knowing that her grandson Daniel has found a loving partner with whom to spend the rest of his life.
I wonder sometimes if she ever realized how much people loved her. We humans have a bad habit of hiding our emotions when we should share them. It would be so grand if we were to let people know how much they mean to us. The accolades heaped upon her since her death five years ago are too numerous to list. I hope that she is hearing them from her heavenly perch.
My mother is greatly responsible for the person that I have become. She demonstrated how to live by example. She taught me what is most important in this world and it has never been money or power or privilege. People and God were always at the center of her universe and she treasured them every day of her life. If there really is such a thing as saints then my mom most assuredly is among their ranks.
I’m still unable to spend a day accomplishing nothing without feeling strong pangs of guilt. I believe that I should serve a higher purpose at least until my body or mind sideline me. Writing is my favorite pastime but whenever I have the opportunity to help a child with mathematics or any other aspect of academics I feel especially elated. I suspect that I was always meant to be a teacher. My mother was the first to show me how to touch hearts and minds. The natural abilities that I seem to possess came directly from her. Those talents have been the most rewarding gift that I might have ever received.
Time flies when I’m having fun but I suppose that I will never forget that day of five years ago when it became apparent that my mother was going to die. I have played her last hours inside my brain over and over again. With time and distance I have been able to exalt in the glory of her passing. Everyone should be as blessed as she and our family were on that day and every day since.
I expect to spend this day quietly. I’ve got a date to take my eldest grandson out to lunch and I’ll be preparing for an upcoming trip to Boston. Life goes on just as it did after my father died. We grieve and then adjust and learn how to carry on. It is the way of the world. My mother showed me how to walk through the world with grace and optimism. I still miss her from time to time but I feel her spirit in everything that I do.
(Note that the photo included with this essay was taken only one month before my mother died from lung cancer. She always loved to dance. She told me that she felt very dizzy when she danced with her grandson Daniel but he kept her steady and she was quite happy and proud that she had that final spin around the dance floor with him.)