Be still, my soul, and steadfast. / Earth and heaven both are still watching / though time is draining from the clock / and your walk, that was confident and quick, / has become slow. So, be slow if you must, but let / the heart still play its true part. / Love still as once you loved, deeply / and without patience. / Let God and the world / know you are grateful. That the gift has been given.Mary Oliver, “The Gift”
(I have been learning to write memoir for the past few months. This kind of writing requires deep digging. Sometimes, the stories almost write themselves. So it is with this one.)
“Ma-ma” had to have been one of my earliest recognizable words. Embraced by the lavish love of a grateful mother, I was the first-born after two miscarriages had postponed her longed-for child. She would be the Mama who fed and bathed and dressed me every day. Who bundled me up in winter to take me for a sleigh ride and some fresh air. Who tenderly held me when I was baptized, freshly dressed in the elegant family heirloom baptismal gown.
“Mama” became “Mommy” when I was old enough to pronounce two different vowel sounds. After my afternoon nap, I would get up on my hands and knees, rocking back and forth and singing, “Mom-my, Mom-my, Mommy, Mommy, Mom-my,” until she came to get me. She always came.
Mommy was the one who rubbed Vicks Vapo-Rub on my neck and chest when I had a sore throat, placing a white wool sock around my neck, fastening it with a large safety pin. Healing hands and beef bouillon and saltines were always ready for her children when they were sick.
By age 12 – and adolescence -“Mommy” became a more sophisticated, “Mom,” for the next 31 years.
When I was 13, Mom was the one who watched over me for six weeks when I got a kidney infection and pneumonia over Christmas. The cure was mostly lengthy bed rest. Mom made sure I had fresh sheets every day. She fed me soup when I was too weak to feed myself. She sat and held me when I had a fever. She kept me company when I still had to be in bed but felt better.
In my teen years, Mom was my comforter when I threw myself face-down on my bed, crying, feeling homely and rejected. As she sat quietly next to me, she would rub my back and say, “Sweetheart, some day someone will come along who will love you for who you are. Your time will come.” And she was right.
She was always there.
The last time Mom and I talked, I was 43, and she called me just to chat. She was good about that. But that evening, I was late for an important dinner, and I impatiently shortened our conversation after a few minutes. I said I would call back. I didn’t tell her I loved her. I didn’t take the time.
I didn’t call her back.
A week later, all of that lay behind me as I stood beside my mother’s bed in the ICU of the hospital in Bemidji, Minnesota, in 1984. Two days earlier, she had collapsed outside a college classroom where she and my dad had been attending a class for seniors. She had not regained consciousness. Her family had all flown, literally, to be there.
It was “probably” a stroke. Each of us visited her for the first two days as we waited for some sign that she was “with us.” None had appeared.
On the first day, I began to call her, “Mama.” I didn’t know why. I just couldn’t call her anything else. I was as lost as a baby.
As the eldest of her three daughters, I silently took on the responsibility of supporting our dad. I was the only one who would see him cry. None of us had ever seen him cry.
On the last day, everyone else had to return home for work and children. It was just Dad and I.
In the afternoon, I went in alone to see her. To see if there could be a change…
She was propped slightly on her right side. I knelt on the cold, hard floor to see her face, which was still calm and unperturbed.
“Mama,” I gently called. “Mama, can you hear me? Mama, if you can hear me, open your eyes.”
For the first time, her eyes opened, and they looked straight at me. I think I stopped breathing.
“Mama, I love you! I love you, Mama!” My eyes were locked into hers.
She gazed at me for a few seconds and then closed her eyes.
“Mama?” I tried again, but those few moments would be my one precious gift. The circle was complete. My first word and my last. Mama. It held our lifetime.
Did she hear me? Did my mama hear the words of love that I hadn’t said to her the last time we talked? I chose to believe so. Don’t most of us want the chance to say one last good-bye?
She died late that night. I was able to be with my dad as we both said our last good-byes. He wanted me to stay. I was there to hear his last words to his wife, my mom. Indescribable blessing.
What I did do was tell my dad for the next 28 years that I loved him every time we were together. It had never been our way. But it became my way.
The last time I saw him, he seemingly no longer knew who I was. Before I left our visit, I went around behind him as he sat in his wheelchair. I leaned down and wrapped my arms around him and said, “Dad, I love you.” When I went back around to say good-bye, tears were running down his cheeks.
We never know. There is so much we do not know. But I do know that in some precious, mysterious way, gratitude for wondrous things and for amazing love does make a difference.
It’s all grace.
And I’m very okay with that.