The natural, redeeming act of peacefully succumbing to death, for a sincere, humble Christian like my mother had been, was not the shining armor of courage, as I mistakenly believed, that endears me to her now…as never before.
In recent years, vivid flashbacks of my late mother have been tapping me on the shoulder. Here I am, with 66 years of learning from experience behind me and I’m being forced to see things quite differently.
Remembrances of my childhood have remained consistently blissful, however. Black and white family albums picture my toddler’s mouth wide open with laughter. In grade school, I flashed a playful “cat who ate the canary” grin of satisfaction. Most young girls sense an aura of mystery and intrigue hidden away in their mothers’ pasts. Mary, Jean and I were tickled pink when Mother cleaned out her clothes closet and threw some racy underclothes in our “dress up” box. Imaginations soared as we wondered when and where she ever wore those sleek, black slips, some adorned with lace bodices, and classy spiked high heeled shoes with skinny ankle straps. That wasn’t the mother we knew in housedresses and the aprons she sewed for herself.
Jonathan Smith Lewis founded Lewiston in 1863. Our folks purchased their lifelong home in the cradle of Dad’s heritage, when he returned home from Italy in 1945, having served in the Merchant Marines during WW II. The quant, Fremont Street, two-story, the second door north of the 12-grade school, delightfully suited our family of six, and fed my soul with wellbeing. Sadly, Mother passed away in 1979, and the home place was sold, gone forever.
Dad’s premature death, nine years earlier, at the age of 59, abruptly interrupted 33 years of a dedicated marriage. A young wife and mother of three, heavily involved in volunteerism, I shamefully accepted Mother’s amiable and independent nature as a weight lifted off my shoulders, naively convincing myself, “with her spunk, she’ll be just fine! She even took driving lessons and got her driver’s license! Dad kept their house well-maintained, so it will all be okay.”
After fleeting years of squeezing brief visits with Mom into chaotic weekly schedules, her diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer devastated me! How could I handle all of this!
Mother was amazing! She wanted nothing to do with chemotherapy, cheerfully kept her job at Camera Art, and outlived her doctor’s prognosis by several years. During her final summer, as her health rapidly deteriorated, family members cared for her in shifts, in her home. I hustled in and out of her space, day by day, tending to her physical needs, always in a rush to be somewhere. I believed that by diligently keeping two households going (cleaning, laundry, shopping, baking and cooking) was the best I could do for my mother then.
I thought she was the bravest person on earth. As she laid dying, she never complained, or cried out in fear of death. It never ceased to catch me off-guard when she would tell a joke or tease one of the kids, as if a person with one bare foot on the threshold of heaven couldn’t enjoy a belly laugh! Here she was gravely ill, and still had the heart to follow a romantic saga unfolding on “The Guiding Light,” or to bring to mind comical memories, like Uncle Hib’s whoopee cushion pranks.
Eleven years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. That’s when the shoulder tapping kicked in. When I freeze with fear at the thought of being alone to cope with this affliction, I think of Mom. She had that big house to care for by herself. I realize, so many years later, how brave and courageous she had been. Graciously carrying on, with a terminal illness, following the loss of her one love and companion, she secretly endured her destiny.
I regret the time and energy I wasted on busy work and empty duties, when Mother needed the company of her eldest daughter. The loss was mine.
I thought she was brave to face death so casually. Death isn’t a punishment – it’s a gift. Mother knew.