Remembering My Mother

There’s a photo sitting on the chest in our bedroom of my mother and me. We’re sitting side by side, probably at our dining room table. The picture is taken from the side so that we’re both in profile. Mom is smiling about something; my own expression is typically deadpan. The picture was taken at our house in Nashville in December, 1999. Our entire family – my parents, my two siblings and their partners, and all of the grandchildren had come together to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I don’t remember a time before that when we’d all been together; it’s possible that it’s the only time after the birth of all of the grandchildren that we were all in the same place.

What we didn’t know at the time is that it would be the last time that we all gathered with both of my parents. Less than a year later, in September 2000, doctors discovered Mom’s colon cancer. And the discovery came far too late – the cancer had already spread into her lungs and other organs. She died six weeks after the initial diagnosis. It was quite a shock to all of us. Everyone, including Dad, thought that he would die before she did. He had had significant heart problems – quadruple bypass surgery in his 50s, and a heart valve replacement about 10 years after that. She had had both knees replaced, but other than that had been generally quite healthy. Until she wasn’t.

I don’t remember what we were doing when the photograph was taken. Surely there were other family members sitting at the table. But the picture reminds me of many times that she and I sat or stood together and talked about things. Things that mattered. I don’t remember many details about my visits home after I left home for college, but I do remember that a highlight of each visit was at least one extended conversation with Mom about things that I was learning and thinking about, about things going on in her life. I remember having those conversations in part because I looked forward to them before every visit.

There were many conversations about religion, some of them as I drifted away from the Christianity of my birth. Dad, a minister, walked through the room during one of those conversations and told her that she shouldn’t be wasting her time talking about such things with me. But she engaged in a way that made it clear she didn’t see talking about things that mattered as a waste of time. I remember another time that she reflected on the strange sensation of growing older even though she still felt like the same person. “I don’t feel like I’m so old!” Or, as Paul Simon said in one of his early songs, “How terribly strange to be 70.” There was another time when she said almost in passing that she simply couldn’t understand why a woman would keep her birth name upon marrying – followed a couple of years later by her sincere understanding and acceptance of my wife’s decision to do just that.

We agreed about many things, and we disagreed, sometimes passionately, about others. But it was important to her that we keep the conversation going. There’s a lesson there, a lesson that I wish that I’d learned better than I did.

She came a long way from the small west Texas town in which she grew up. (Though, as I remember yesterday’s post, perhaps growing up in the small town is what prepared her to live the life that she lived.) It’s been almost 24 years since she died, far too young. I treasure the times we had together.

I’m really glad to have that picture on the chest in our bedroom.