My eyes snapped open as I heard the soft creak of the stairs, the gentle whoosh of the front door, then a few minutes later, an engine turn over. As it idled for a minute, my husband rolled over next to me.
“Why does she do that?” he asked in a half-asleep voice.
I smiled as I heard my mother back carefully out of the driveway. “She hates good-byes.” I waited until I could hear the Toyota pushing off into the still dark night no more, then turned over and went back to sleep. That was around 2006.
On December 17th 2017, she skipped out on her last goodbye, with a swift downward spiral that hailed a trip to a local ER. When the phone rang just before midnight at my brother’s house, he assumed it was an update. But she was gone, like a night bird, swooping high into the midnight sky.; escaped from the ancient tent that kept her bound. And no goodbye.
My mother was never easy, but once you accepted who she was, it made your life, well not easy, but better. Quirky, defiant, stubborn and often withdrawn, but yet so fierce in her love for her children, she was a study in opposites. She was soft as a southern teacake – surrounded by barbed wire. We tried, all of us, over our adult years to bend and shape her into a more ordinary mom – enticing her into classes or retreats, even bus tours. And how about book clubs, or the senior center? But she ignored us, usually withdrawing further into her New York Times crossword puzzle or a solitary bench in a musty library, a pile of books beside her.
We were different. She was brilliant, wary of the world before her and unsettled until she could piece it all apart and diagnose it. She hated laziness and stupidity, especially together, and was blunt and condescending in her opinions. I was more like my dad – simple minded, naive enough to step boldly into quicksand, then fast enough to scuttle out. I was a peacemaker; she wielded a sword. I let go, she held fast to any grudges she could gather.
As she aged, her world grew smaller, but the possibilities for catastrophe loomed large. Anxiety grew as her mind slipped away, replaced by copious Post-It notes dotting her walls and cabinets. Then a major artery in the left frontal lobe went. The next year, one on the right blew, and we had a brand new mom before us. The intellect, and the fear attached to it, was completely erased. The New Mom laughed a lot, painted her nails with White Out, ate napkins and would tickle you if you stood close enough.
“How are you doing?” I asked my brother Bob last week.
“I’m not sure who I miss the most,” he said. “The Old Mom or the New Mom.”
The New Mom lasted a lot longer than we thought she would. We assumed one more stroke would take her quickly but instead she declined slowly in a sweet little nursing home overlooking the Hudson River. You would find her in a wheel chair, sometimes wiping the fingers of her baby doll and kissing them one by one. In 2011, as I came around the corner and met her eyes, I said goodbye to the last remnant of the mom who loved me. She no longer knew who I was.
At the funeral, I was transfixed by an old black and white photo of a young woman, her mahogany hair long and messy, clothes hanging loose on her thin frame with the knee highs pulled up on her skinny white legs. My grandfather put this frail young girl on a train back when deep South meant a whole different country and sent her towards her dreams; graduate school, Columbia University, New York City. I think he knew that the little redhead who survived encephalitis at age five was much tougher than she looked. Her smile is wide but slightly pensive. She is looking at her future husband holding the camera, with guarded hope. This is the mom I never knew. By the time we could talk face-to-face, that hope had morphed to a droll cynicism and her courage had hardened to defiance. Like me, she had buried a son, and reached out to grasp the hand of a God she took years to come to terms with, surrendering in fragments and pieces. Ironically, the child that gave her the most trouble, (that would be ME) showed her the way to grace, to a Jesus who was bigger than a book or a class in theology, a Jesus who would love her tenaciously yet tenderly in her loneliness and fear. After I lost Spencer in 2002, she became an outright evangelist. “Let me tell you about my grandson who loved Jesus,” she would begin.
Mama was an amazing cook, seamstress and a natural beauty too but she never taught me a dang thing except how to make the best southern biscuits in Dixie. You better handle that dough like it’s a newborn. Maybe if I’d stuck around past age 15 I would’ve picked up some things, but I doubt it. I did share her overall disinterest in all things material and domestic. I think we were both hippies before they were invented.
“Nothing in my house matches,” I told my granddaughter Brooklynn recently, as she nodded in agreement. “It’s wonderful! You don’t have to worry if something breaks!” We laughed together, and then I added almost secretively, “Some people have matching everything!”
She gave me a sweet smile and said, “Ama, I think MOST people have matching everything.” And we laughed at the craziness of that, and of her grandmother too.
They say daughters invariably become their mothers. That thought would’ve made me cringe 40 years ago, but now I like it, most the time. And when I don’t ( my siblings and I have coined a new adjective for it: being “martha-ish”) I just ask Jesus to pull away the barbed wire and give me His love instead.
After I got the call that my mother died, I lay down on the couch in the quiet house and cried. I will miss her; the old mom, the new mom and that gutsy redhead alone on a train. But as I stared out at the moonlit night, I suddenly saw her running, and laughing. It was a mom I never knew! She was free and she had some people to see. And I waited until I could hear her laughter no more, until the night turned silent again. No more goodbyes, sweet mommy. Then I climbed back into bed and fell asleep.
Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped. Psalm 124:7