In May of 1961, my mom brought me into this world. Since then, she has been a true light for me. One I could always count on. Dad was like that, too, of course, but he had enough of those “I brought you into this world, I can take you out” moments that it’s fair to rank Mom just an edge over Dad in that “always” register. I mean. Mom never wavered. There’s Jeff, too. But he’s my brother, and sometimes brothers hit each other over the head with shoes. So “always” can’t be there in his case, by definition. There’s also Lisa, but you know I didn’t meet her until I was twenty, so … well … she’s out of the race on that technicality. And Brigid, too, is disqualified on that same technicality as her mother.
You get the idea.
As I write this the date is June 27th of 2020, but it’s very late. By the time I’m finished it will be June 28th. By my count that makes it fifty-nine years after that fateful day in May when my mother brought me into existence. I’m sitting on a couch in Mom and Dad’s living room, watching over her. The lighting is subdued. Dad is in their room, sleeping, or at least trying to. Mom is in a hospital bed beside this couch, resting peacefully under some sedation. Her breathing is soft and comes in a rhythm steady enough that it marks points on the clock. She looks small, but that has always been mom. Petite. She looks calm. Wilma, their cat, is sleeping at the foot of her bed.
Being a mother in 1961 meant that my mom got married and then stayed at home because, well, that’s what you did. I can say without reservation, though, that she would have chosen that path even in today’s modern world. She was born into the roles of mother and wife. By that I mean she took to them with gusto reserved for the greatest of the world’s artists. As a wife, she cherished her husband. As a mother, she was steady as a rock and fiercely loyal.
Many of my earliest memories include her whistling up a storm as she cooked, cleaned, and did the laundry. She whistled to soft music on the radio, or freestyle if nothing else was playing. She whistled in the kitchen and at the dining room table. She whistled while she dusted the living room or made the beds or … well … she whistled everywhere and doing anything. It was a distinct sound, as sure as a bird’s call.
As I grew older and became exposed to a more modern framework, I’d occasionally ask her what her own dreams were. What would she do if she weren’t being a wife and a mother? In so many words she’d always find a way to say she was doing precisely what she wanted to do—which, I admit, was an answer I found frustrating at times. I wanted her to have been more visionary, or more active, or to have had some romantically grandiose dreams that she’d given up. But, no. My mom loved her life. She wanted to be a wife and she wanted to be a mother. Eventually, when her boys grew up, she loved being a grandmother.
She enjoyed playing games. Board games and card games. She played to win, but given that her real joy came from the jabbering that goes on in the playing of them, was often almost apologetic when she did, indeed, win.
And practical jokes. Jesus she could make them work. She had this pragmatic calmness about her that made her practical jokes as deadly as the greatest one-liners of all time—raw eggs in dad’s lunch, or sewing his briefs shut. Cooking “possum” bar-b-que for dinner.
I have learned over the years that there is amazing power in knowing your mom is always there.
She cheered for my brother and me at baseball games, and had this down-to-earth way of helping us solve our problems without extracting us from the answer. She was behind us in ways that made a difference.
I talked to Jeff on the phone earlier tonight, and we rehashed a great caper in which we stole an ashtray from a sandwich shop—because what the hell else do teen-aged boys do on a lark—and Mom made us take it back. A few years later, I screwed up so bad she went to my girlfriend’s apartment and begged her not to break up with me. Even without having been there, I can hear her say “Ron totally messed up there, but he’ll turn out okay in the end, I promise.” A few years later I married that girl, but the fact is that Mom had already made Lisa the daughter she’d never had…and in the most real way possible became the mother my wife had always needed.
She was just like that.
So, I’m sitting here tonight in this darkened room, listening to Mom breathe. The clock has turned past midnight so I guess that means it’s June 28th. I’m spending a lot of time talking to her. Softly. So low that my voice feels stuck in the back of my throat. “Dad’s in your room taking a nap,” I say. Or, “I just talked to Jeff. They’ll be here tomorrow.” I’m telling her a lot of stories. Other times I’ll mention Lisa, or Brigid, who called earlier. I tell her she’s an amazing mom or that Wilma is sleeping here with her. Sometimes I give just a soft “I love you, Mom.”
It’s hard. I don’t want to downplay that. But somehow it’s not that hard. Sitting with her tonight brings up all sorts of questions I don’t have real answers for. I don’t know that she can hear me, but there’s something in the talking that feels important. Something embedded in those earliest memories of mom, whistling while she worked.
Remembering that sound tonight brings up another story around her—this one from just a couple months ago and right here in this exact room where her hospital bed is sitting now. Someone—I think it was me—mentioned her whistling, and mom said that she had not always been a whistler but that she started only after Jeff and I were born.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said, smiling in the wistful way she could get, “I just wanted you boys to know I was there.”
I’m thinking about that story a lot now. When she’s gone, I hope I’ll think of her when I hear someone whistle. Maybe not every time. But sometimes.
Tonight, though, sitting in the quiet darkness, I’m watching her breathe and I’m talking on and on about her life and Dad’s life. Holding her hand sometimes. Touching her shoulder others. Asking her questions. Telling her stories about me and Jeff. Letting my voice fill the space around her and remembering in that distant way that memories have, the sound of her whistling.
October 8, 1936 – June 28, 2020