We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance. – Harrison Ford
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
My mother died today.
Her body finally gave up. It had enough. My mother’s liver, exhausted from working so hard to filter the toxins she put there, finally reached its limit. So, it’s over. A life of abuse found a quiet end.
There will not be a viewing of her body, or funeral, and very few people are even aware she is dead. My father has ordered a cremation for sometime next week. Later in the summer my brother, sister and I will join our father for a church service to memorialize her life. Her death, similar to much of her life, will be isolated.
If second chances are granted, I wonder if my mother requested one. In the last month of her life, I could hear the fear in her voice. She was aware of the damaged she had done and the fact she was getting close to the end. I want to believe in the final week she would have traded the cigarettes, alcohol and pills for a chance to live her life differently. Maybe it’s my need for a second chance that I allow myself to believe this.
After my father called, I made arrangements to leave early the next morning. My sister also made similar preparations and will arrive on Friday evening. No one should face death alone.
The journey home
Brandon, my older son, and I arrived at my father’s house in the mountains of North Carolina late on Thursday night. He and I took turns driving the 13-hour journey from Kansas back to where I was raised as a child.
We went directly to see my dad before heading to the hotel. He was remarkably calm and had a peacefulness about him that did not suggest his wife of 53 years had died one day earlier. Perhaps his peacefulness was more relief than resignation.
He was her caregiver. Over the past few years, my mother’s eyesight was deteriorating to the point she could not see to drive or cook. A degenerative back condition kept her in bed or on the couch for most the day.
She would save what energy she had to putter in her flower garden before surrendering to the pain. Her flowers became important to her in the last years of her life. My mom nurtured them, fussed over them and found great pride in their beauty. She found every chance to brag about her flowers whenever I called her. My mom wanted me to know she was not ignoring them.
My dad doled out her various medications to keep my mother safe from herself. He cooked her meals; made sure she was comfortable and never left her alone. My wish is my father will now convert those sacrifices into a second chance for himself. My hope is my father has saved some medicine for himself and will use it to heal and find the strength to live the rest of his life however he chooses.
Brandon and I visited until our exhaustion won over. As we were leaving, my father hugged me and his arm stayed on my back a little longer than usual. His eyes told me his was grateful I had made the journey home. He needed his son right now and I needed my father.
Dad, Brandon and I met for an early breakfast before beginning the day. My father had a doctor’s appointment with the oncologist (he received an “all clear” for another three months) and then we started the drive to visit my aunts who live on top of Gillman Mountain outside of town.
The typical custom in the South is for family members to visit the griever, but Aunt Laura is required to stay on oxygen 24/7 and wasn’t planning to leave her house until the next day. As we were going up the mountain, I noticed how many apple orchards had been cleared to make room for new houses.
When I was a child, Gillman Mountain would have had been bathed in apple blossoms this time of year. But now the orchards don’t stand a chance. Developers are looking for their next investment and young mothers and fathers are looking for a good, clean and safe place to raise their children.
My aunts were comforting and offered fond stories of my mother. They acknowledged our loss and offered to bring dinner on Saturday night in keeping with the southern tradition. After looking through family photo albums with Aunt Pearl, it was time to leave. My sister’s flight was scheduled to get in soon and my father wanted to get back to take a nap before she arrived.
On the way back to town, we were stopped at an intersection to allow a funeral procession to pass through. The white hearse was followed by at least 25 to 30 cars. The person in the back of the hearse must have been known by many. It occurred to me if my father had decided to have a traditional funeral there would have been only a few cars following my mother.
Watching the cars pass by, I thought about the good my mother had done in her life and the people who might be in their cars following her if they knew she had died.
My mother wrote , The Wings of a Dove, a book about the history of gospel music in America. I know her book touched the lives and hearts of many. When my mom worked as a bookkeeper for a propane gas company, she would spend her weekends preparing home-cooked meals to bring to the men for lunch. She knew pinto beans and cornbread would do a better job filling their stomachs than cold turkey sandwiches. She taught me how to snap beans and shuck corn and the importance of freezing and canning food so it could be used during the times when these foods could not be found.
It was the remembrance of this mother, of the mom who could be nurturing and good, which makes me think of the need for a second chance.
Wiping away the dirt
My sister and I have not spoken for almost five years. There was no rift that prompted the estrangement other than my need to separate myself from my family as much as possible. I would call my parents from time-to-time and my brother and I try to stay in touch, but our family structure, and love, has slowly deteriorated over time.
I needed the separation to heal and to forget. Seeing my sister on Friday night, made me realize how wrong and selfish I have been. Jenniffer did not enable our mother to make the decisions she did. Our mother was responsible for her own decisions. As painful as that is to acknowledge, it is the truth.
On Saturday afternoon, Jenniffer, Brandon and I spent the afternoon cleaning my father’s house before our family arrived with the food they have been preparing. Because of my mother’s recent condition, my dad has just not been able to keep up.
Brandon and I took on the kitchen and dining room while my sister tackled the living room and bath room. It is remarkable how much dirt can accumulate when things are ignored for a while. Armed with grease-cutting products and disinfected wipes, we were all determined to wipe away the dirt and bring the house back to its original state.
We were overwhelmed with the enormity of the task before us. But once we started, it really didn’t take very long to start seeing some progress.
Before I left for the hotel to grab a shower, Jenniffer and I exchanged telephone numbers and email addresses. I entered my sister’s first name into my cell phone and then had to ask for her last name. I have allowed so much to come between us and for far too long. My heart cringed with regret with what has been lost. But after spending the afternoon wiping away the dirt, I know we have a second chance now; a clean start. My heart feels refreshed and ready to make some more room in it.
My son and I left early on Easter morning for the return trip to Kansas. It felt like a month, not three days, since we arrived to be with my father. In that time, I could see the desire in my father’s face for a second chance to live a life that would belong to him. I was given a second chance to be a little brother and Brandon was given the chance to see how love can continue to grow between a father and son regardless of age or circumstance.
The past few days restored my faith that everyone deserves a second chance. Its power and mercy was revealed to me as I struggled to see through my car’s windshield on I-40 between Asheville and Knoxville. The fog on the Smoky Mountains was especially heavy on this Sunday morning. However, the spring sun would soon gather enough strength to burn away the fog and bring some clarity to the travelers below.
The last time I spoke to my mother was two weeks before she died. My father had just brought her home from a stay in the hospital. He called to tell me she was home. He asked if I wanted to speak to my mother. I declined. But he didn’t hear me. He handed the telephone to her anyway.
She greeted me and asked how I was doing. I gave her a short answer. She said she understood I was busy and would talk to me later. She never did.
I wish I had a second chance to say goodbye. I would tell my mother I forgive her. I would tell my mother I understood her pain and knew her choices were a way to self-medicate – not because she didn’t love me. I would tell my mother her life did make a difference. Her life brought my life and my children’s life.
My mother once looked for a good, clean and safe place to raise her children. Over time though, just like the apple orchards on Gilliam Mountain, her heart didn’t stand a chance because she was convinced the sins of her past made her dirty and not worthy to be loved. But the revelation I had while driving through the Smoky Mountains was Lois Allie Shuler Blackwell died a person of worth and value because she was a child of God, too.
I went outside to find my mother’s flowerbeds after the family dinner on Saturday night. The bulbs she planted a few months ago were starting to sprout and poke through the ground. When love is allowed to find the light of day we see mothers who love their sons and sons who love their mothers.
I will follow you home.