Monday, October 23, 2017

Two Blessed Mothers




Sometimes I think of the billions of people in the history of the planet who tried to memorialize their mothers in words.  Each one, I'm sure, wanted what they said to be as unique and special as the woman herself was to them.  Against such a deposit of sentimental words, how could anything I say compare.

And yet it is my horrible privilege to try.

Most eulogies I've encountered extol the virtues of the deceased almost to the point of hagiography.  Even when a bit over-the-top, this seems proper and decent.  I think all of us would prefer that our bad deeds be buried with us and our good deeds live on in the memory of the living.  Yet, my mother was not a saint. Even writing that last sentence seems almost a sacrilege to honor and good manners.  But she was a human being like all of us, struggling to make it in this often unfair world.

And all I can be is unfair, every time I tried to think of what to write it kept circling away from the objective delineation of her life's history and virtues and towards my own subjective feelings and experiences.  This isn't fair to her because it will leave out so many things.  And it isn't fair to my brother and sisters who experienced her from a slightly different angle and so my words won't fully capture what it was like to have her as our mother.

"Mother" is a big word.  It is vivid and comprehensive.  It covers the complete totality and enormity of what it contains.  When I say it to you, the word magically conjures up that special relationship that one person has in your life.  It takes a strong back and broad shoulders to carry the mantle of "mother."  "Mother" is the title of the one who gives you life, feeds you, raises you, nurses you through sickness, takes you to school, shelters you, reads to you, clothes you, and spends every single waking second somehow involved in making your life a little better.  There is no break from being "mother."  There is no vacation.  There is no retirement.  As the children grow up, the relationship does change, but it never stops.  Along with all the joy and pride that go along with it, being "mother" also means having a perpetual knot in your stomach worrying over your kids.

"Mom" is different.  It isn't a title.  It's a name.

Being a mother isn't just the role you play in life.  It is so intimately interwoven with who you are as a person, it becomes who you are.  A mother becomes "mom."

That is the name to which we call out when we address that special lady.

We have a home video of one Christmas morning where mom was trying to talk with some of our relatives and I stood by a few feet away saying "Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom..." for minutes on end.  I wouldn't stop because I knew that eventually she would hear me and give me the attention I was so desperately seeking at that moment.  I knew I could always call on her name and she would be there.  "Mother" is who she was to the outside word.  But to my world she was "mom."

But even "Mom" has too much distance in it.  When we are even younger and more vulnerable, we call out to the one who comforts and protects us as "Mama."

I remember when I was in kindergarten, we had to sing two Christmas songs for a pageant.  When I got on stage I looked out at the crowd and saw that my mama wasn't there.  So I began to cry.  But the show must go on so I kept singing.  And then the parents in the crowd began laughing.  It was very clear that they were laughing and pointing at me.  This made me cry even harder as I sang along "What shall we put on the Christmas tree, the Christmas tree, the Christmas tree..."  After the song was over, I looked to the back of the hall and saw my mom coming down the steps.  When the teacher pulled me aside after the the song and asked me if I was okay I said, "I'm okay now.  My mama is here."

"Mama" is that special intimacy that we have as children to which we try to distance ourselves as an adult.  By the time we hit middle school, we would be embarrassed if our friends heard us call our mother's "mama."  And as we get even older, "mom" gets cemented in our vocabulary.  There is nothing wrong with this, and it is a natural part of growing up and becoming independent.  But once we can stand on our own too feet, "mama" can take on a whole new meaning.

My wife speaks with her mother every day.  And every day she greets her with "Hi, my beautiful mama."  My wife is a strong woman who has built up a career and a life of her own.  And yet she chooses to enter into a deep filial intimacy with her mother every day.

When Jesus told us to call God our Father, the word He used for "Father" is "Abba," which is much closer translated in English as "Poppa or Daddy."  It is an intimate term that removes the adult distance between parent and child.  Jesus wants us to use this because we are called to more intimacy, not less, with those that we love.

Inspired by my wife, I began calling my mother "mama."  I tried as best as I could to continue to reach out let her know that even though I had grown up into the old man in front of her, she would always be my first special lady.

I don't have the words I need to fully encapsulate her.  Here are a few snippets about her.

-born in 1950 in West Virginia.  Her father was away at a job interview and had to get a telegram announcing her birth.

-though my parents divorced in the mid 1980's we children were blessed in that their relationship was always amicable.  We lived with Dad, but she was constantly a daily part of our lives, taking us to school, taking us shopping, coming over to the house, being a part of all major life events.  We all feel particularly blessed by this in a way that most children of divorce do not.  In fact, many of my friends were surprised to find out that they were divorced, because they got along so well and were always at school events together.

-she LOVED I "I Love Lucy."  And I mean she  LOVED that show.  All of the kids are deeply connected to that show because of her.  2 years ago we got to visit the Lucy Museum where Lucille Ball was born and she had the greatest time.

-When we were kids she used to threaten us with a wooden spoon if we were bad.  And if we had a drink she would say, "If you spill that, I'll spill you!"  To this day, we do not know what that means.

-When she was a little girl she went swimming in a pool that was integrated with black and white children.  Later, she was horribly punished by someone for it.  She always took that lesson, remembering the irrational immorality of racism.  She always helped us kids to be racially and culturally aware, exposing us at a young age to injustices of things like the holocaust and slavery.  This wasn't done to scare us, but it helped us develop a strong sense of empathy for all peoples of any background.

-She was bad with technology.  One time she asked me to turn off her cell phone because she didn't know how to do it and we needed to turn them off before entering the Vatican Splendors exhibit downtown.  After I did, she asked me how to turn in back on.  I looked at her, straight-faced, and said, "You can't.  These phones are designed to turn off.  You have to get a whole new phone."  The shock and anger on her face were priceless.  We never stopped teasing her for years after because she thought she couldn't turn her phone back on.

-She was fiercely political.  If you prompted her, she would go off on a wild rant about this or that politician or issue.  Sometimes it was fun to get her going just to see how worked up she would get.

-She had a late miscarriage a few years after I was born.  My sister's name would have been Victoria.  Mom is now in heaven with her daughter and her mom.

-We watched The Big Bang Theory together.  But whenever I sang "Soft Kitty" (a song from the show that Sheldon had sung to him when sick), she would look at me angrily and shout "Stop it!"

-She loved Dancing with the Stars and Mama Mia!  She once said something along the lines of, "With all of the badness and violence, and general horribleness in the world, it's nice to watch something that is just nice!"

-When my brother injured himself in college in Iowa, she went out and stayed with him.  When I was in the ICU for a week in high school, she slept in a chair by my bed the entire time.

-Never fall asleep in the car when she is driving.  If you do that, then she would get it in her head to take a wild detour and you could end up 2 hours out of town in some backroads Amish community or even downtown Boston (both of which happened) when you wake up.  

-Her favorite movie was Somewhere in Time

-Her favorite song was "Through the Eyes of Love" from the movie "Ice Castles."

-She was devoutly Catholic, but had trouble getting to Church

-She LOVED Coffee.  Black Coffee

I feel like I could write a whole book about here and it still wouldn't be enough.  But it I think it's important to write about her last days.

Back in March we moved her into an apartment much closer to my own home.  It wouldn't be uncommon during the school year to get a text or voicemail asking me to run to the store for her after work.  This past summer, because of the closeness, I was able to spend more time with her than any summer since I had started working.  Those days consisted in simple things like going out to lunch or having her come over and binge-watch shows like "Broadchurch" or "This is Us."  

Her health had never been the greatest and she refused to go to the doctor for regular checkups.  About two months ago she started getting weaker and weaker.  She had developed a skin infection that caused her great pain and I thought this was the cause of all of her fatigue.

I remember one day she called me and simply said, "Get me out of here."  She had been so sick that she hadn't left the apartment in days.  I picked her up and we drove to a park by the lake.  The fresh air seemed to rejuvenate her.  I held her hand as she looked out over the water and listened to music that was popular when she was a teenager.  We then started driving along the lake.  When we got about twenty miles away from home, I asked here if she had a destination in mind.  I will never forget what she said: "Just keep driving."  

That was the last time I spent with her that wasn't in a medical facility.

A few days later the pain from her infection was so bad she called an ambulance.  This started the long road that brought us to today.  She would have good days and bad days.  Finally, they did a biopsy and a few days after her 67th birthday we found out that she had stage 4 ovarian cancer.  When the doctor laid out all the options to her, she said, "Bring on the chemo!"  She then talked with my sister about all the different types of glamour wigs they would buy when she lost her hair.

We never got to that point.

Her body had so much organ damage that one round of chemo threw her for a loop.  Within a few days the doctors informed us that she was in the process of dying.  She had dialysis several times a week.  Her heart would often go into a-fib.  And her breathing became more and more labored.  They eventually had to put her on a bi-pap mask, which is a horribly uncomfortable and claustrophobic device.  One of our last verbal exchanges occurred when she began clawing at the mask trying to remove it.  When I removed her hand she began to moan.  I said, "I know, mom.  I know."  She looked at me and said, "No you don't."

And there is a terrible truth here.  As much as we take on the pain of those that we love, we can never really take it on ourselves.  Even though my sister and my wife and I were with her for hours on end, we could always make our escape at the end of the evening while she was still imprisoned in her dying flesh.  It is amazing how powerless you feel in moments like these.  Even if it isn't factually the case, you can't help but feel like you failed the person you love.

But my mom was a fighter until the end.  When we told her that the treatments were no longer going to work we asked her if she wanted to stay on these painful machines and treatments or to go to hospice and be comfortable in her last days.  She chose to fight.  Those last days were a struggle to watch but even a more of a struggle for her to live through.  Towards the end, she had stopped speaking and her mouth was always agape trying to gasp down as much air as possible while terrible nerve pain burned her legs and back.

On the 100th anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, my mother received last rites.  Even though she barely spoke at that point, when the priest finished his prayers, she mouthed "Amen."

In the time that we had, I was able to tell her how much she meant to me.  If I have ever brought anyone to Christ it was because she set me on the path.  So much of the good that I have in me as a person comes from her.  I asked her forgiveness for all the times I failed her as a son, and she kindly gave me that forgiveness.  I told her that she was the best mama in the world and that if I got to choose any woman to be my mother from all of human history, I would choose her every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

On that evening after she had last rites, I took her by the hand and said, "I love you, mama."

One of the last words my mama ever said was "I love you too."

She died soon after.

In the end that is the only legacy that matters: love.

And not just love in words.  In the countless hours I spent with her, I could do nothing but helplessly sit there and hold her hand as she slept.  In those last few days I don't know if she even knew I was there.  Watching her slowly die was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in this whole world.

Yet I wouldn't trade a single second of it.

I don't know if I loved her well, but I loved her.  Time is life and the time you give is life that you give.  And giving life is love.  Love is giving your life away.  I am so happy to have given as much of my life to her.  I wish I had given her more.  Because each second that passes is one that you never get back.

The tears have been flowing freely since.  They haven't been for her, but for me and how much I miss her.  She is in the hands of the Lord.  Please keep her in your prayers and pray for the repose of her soul.  I never do this, but the day she died I asked God for a sign that she was with Him.  He gave me one that day that I cannot share.  But on the day that we buried her as we drove to funeral home, my wife and I saw the strangest thing: a bright rainbow directly in front of us, heading up to heaven like a colorful staircase.  God is good in his signs.

And even so the tears came.  But they are not tears of despair.  They are tears of a child who looks around this whole world knowing that he will not see his mama anywhere in there.  But the tears dry because I know I will see her again.

I entrust her now to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  God gave me an earthly mother and a heavenly mother to guide all of my ways.

And now that my mama has gone home to heaven, I know looking down on me I now have two blessed mothers.