On Losing Parents
Posted on November 1, 2011
The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.
— W. M. Lewis
To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
– Oscar Wilde
My mother died last year on Labor Day. It was her third or fourth encounter with cancer – I forget which. At any rate, she was tired. She wanted nothing to do with any more radiation, no more chemo. Not that it would have made a difference this time, but she was clear immediately that it was simply time to go.
Oscar Wilde’s take on losing parents may seem a little irreverent, but I think it feels a little that way to those of us who have now lost both parents. How could I have been so careless not to have noticed it would end too soon?
I’d meant to return to Texas much sooner than I did. I’d meant to return certainly before my father’s death. That didn’t happen. In fact, I was two years into sobriety before I finally realized I’d never return to Texas unless I got off my butt and decided to act. It simply wasn’t going to happen any other way. God wasn’t going to pick me up and drop me somewhere in Texas closer to my mother. But, if I can avoid something, I’m just about bound to do it. I suppose that was my way of trying to avoid more pain. After all, my father was dead. My mother was getting older. How much longer could there be? Could I watch the inevitable? I mean, she was going to die whether or not I was there, right?
And yet, despite all the fear and uncertainty, I knew I needed to return. I needed to be closer to be able to help. She didn’t actually need help at the time. In fact, I needed more help at that point than she. She’d need help, though, and I knew it. Besides, I realized I wasn’t returning for my mother – I was returning for me. I’d spent most of life away. I wasn’t a great distance away a lot of the time, but that still didn’t translate to frequent visits.
I wanted to return to Texas with a job and a place to live. I wanted lots of things – mostly to make the whole process easier on me. When it became apparent that’s just not how it was going to happen, I had a decision to make. I was left with two pretty simple choices – don’t return or take a step out on faith. I finally decided on the latter. It dawned on me that since getting sober, I’d had everything I needed every day. Perhaps I didn’t have everything I wanted but, then, I’d proven to myself I wasn’t a very good judge of what I wanted. Those wants changed on a daily basis. My needs, I found, were few.
So, I set off to Texas from New Mexico. Yes, I was closer than I’d been when I lived in Washington State, but I was still 500 miles away. Visiting meant expense and time. It meant a day to and a day from. But, I had no idea where I wanted to live. On one trip to Texas, I’d driven through Weatherford. I’d gotten off the freeway and drove around the town some. Nice looking place. It was still two and a half hours from mother, though. I ended up spending three months living with my mother and my step-father, Buddy. When I finally found a job, it was in Waco. That was one hour from mother’s home. But, it was close enough to be able to make frequent trips to visit.
My mother asked me one day during my stay there, “Ben, is there anything Buddy or I do that particularly annoys you?” Gee, what a question. Ever lived with another person? Of course, there are going to be things that annoy you. I replied, “No.” That wasn’t a lie, in my opinion. That was acknowledgment that these two had provided me with the help I needed and any little distractions were nothing in comparison. But, then, mother said something I’m pretty sure no one had ever, ever said to me. She said, “You are just a joy to live with.” I couldn’t help looking around to see who she might to talking to. I’d been a lot of things to a lot of people over the years but a “joy” wasn’t one of them.
Back to that carelessness thing. I had about six years back in my mother’s life on a regular basis before she died. I spoke with her on the phone pretty much every day of that time. Many times, that was just checking in – a reassurance for her and for me that we were both still okay. Buddy’s Parkinson’s disease continued to progress, mother went through another bout of chemo and radiation when her breast cancer had returned yet again. My sister came home from Europe during that time to be there to help by living-in with mother and Buddy, and stayed for several months. The calls continued and a visit at least every other weekend.
Mother and I agreed many years earlier not to live in the same town again. We’d done that in Wichita Falls and the lack of contact (on my part) left her more worried than if I’d been far away. Why? Because she felt she could probably help if I was close. Farther away, it’s easier to realize you can’t just reach out and help. Faith steps in at that point. We lived in the same town for a while in my late teens and early twenties. It was sort of a joke, but I knew living in close proximity wasn’t working. In later years, of course, I was to break that rule. Things had changed, though. I had changed.
A year before my brother died, he’d started making overtures toward having a closer relationship again. I wasn’t ready. The memory of being target practice was still a bit too fresh in my memory. And then he was gone. In the last year before my father died many, many years later, my father had begun the process of trying to learn to have a personal relationship with me. I wasn’t ready. My anger was so close to the surface, it was all I could do to visit him. Truth is, I had no idea how to try to have a relationship at that point. We’d never talked about anything but work. Now, he didn’t want to talk about work and I was at a loss for words. And then he was gone.
I was determined to do things differently this time. While many of the things I did over the years made it appear I thought I was immortal, I knew otherwise. I didn’t want to think about it, of course, but I knew the clock was ticking. Visiting mother once or twice a year, it was apparent that she wasn’t getting younger. I’d frozen my parents somewhere around the age of 40. This becomes a little confusing once they’re in their mid-to-late seventies.
Those daily phone calls to mother became routine. In fact, I worried if she didn’t pick up the phone when I called before leaving for work. Silly, perhaps, but I didn’t want to think there might be a problem. Later, as my mother was dying, my good friend, Judy Prather, became my mother’s hospice chaplain. Judy sat with me one day. Part of her job was also helping the family deal with an impending death. I sat and nodded a lot as Judy talked. I was doing a valiant job of keeping my thoughts just at the surface. It wouldn’t do if I were to break down, now would it? When the facade finally crumbled, Judy asked me, “Out of all those words I’ve said, what finally got through?” Orphan. That was it. Here I was fifty-seven years old and I felt like I was about to become an orphan. But I’d only just returned, right? I knew this would happen eventually, but now?
I discovered around this time that it was no longer completely about me. My mother wasn’t abandoning me, she was dying. For many years, a death was equated with abandonment. My world became more and more fragile with each new death. Three friends died in a tragic accident when I was fifteen. I think it started there. Three funerals in the space of one week. By the time my paternal grandmother died when I was seventeen, I’d begun to refuse to attend funerals. I visited her grave alone after the burial, but wouldn’t go to either service. That lasted for another nine years until my brother’s funeral. I would have avoided that one, too, if I’d thought I could.
So, now I was to be a sober orphan. Tom, the smart-aleck, told me I wouldn’t be an orphan technically because I still have a step-mother. No surprise he might joke. Try living twenty-one years with an active – very active – drunk. How could he not wonder at the effect of this on me?
There was a saving grace in my life. In fact, looking back over my life, I see grace so many places. Despite feeling walled-in and abandoned, I spent all that time surrounded by people who loved me, who refused to give up on me. The saving grace? I had returned to church. Oh, sure, I went to church on occasion with mother and Buddy over those last few years. That was still restricted, generally, to Christmas or Easter. Being there was too painful. I was there for my mother. I didn’t want to be there even though there were some perfectly wonderful people there. No, it was too much like the church in which I grew up. But now I’d returned to church.
I was a part of a community again. My church wasn’t a church my mother would have chosen, but that didn’t matter. She visited church with me on several occasions. She was eager to know what it was that had allowed me to return. And I was willing to share that with her.
The office where I worked was being shut down during that time. Consequently, I had to make the hard decision to transfer to the Dallas area for work while my mother was on hospice. So now I had two church communities. On Wednesday nights during that commuting time, I showed up at Royal Lane Baptist in Dallas. I was welcomed and they were my calm in the midst of the storm during the work week. On weekends, I was back in Waco and with my community at Lake Shore Baptist. Both encircled me and helped me know it would be okay – I would be okay.
And I did know I’d be okay. Part of that was because my mother knew she’d be okay. She was tired and she was ready. She believed she knew what was waiting for her on the other side of this life. She had her two surviving children with her during the final months. It seems there was nothing more she needed.
Labor Day, 2010, fell on October 6. I was in Waco for the weekend and was going to be heading back to Dallas. Mother was no longer responsive, I have no idea if she recognized me. That, frankly, was the toughest part at first. It had been explained, however, that this was a normal part of the dying process. Well, normal it may be but it doesn’t seem so normal when it’s your mother.
I was preparing to make the trip back to Dallas. Tom came to me and said, “If you want to spend time with your mother, I think you’d better do it now.” He believed, as did I, that this was the very end. And I knew I couldn’t be there. I went in for a few minutes, though, to say my goodbyes. I told my mother I hoped she’d get to go home soon and the pain would be over. And then, I left. I cried a lot on the drive to Dallas. In fact, that’s where I did a good deal of my crying.
You see, my mother knew me. She knew I’d always had a great deal of difficulty with death. She knew I was getting better. She also knew I wasn’t there yet.
My sister, on the other hand, needed to be there and, for that, I will be eternally grateful. She need to be there and she wanted to be there.
I got a call about thirty minutes after I arrived back in Dallas that afternoon. Tom told me mother had died a few minutes earlier. He told me later that he, the hospice nurse, our friend, Judy P., and my sister, Judith, were surrounding mother – my sister facing her back. They were going through some fabric scraps and Judith and Judy were reminiscing about the past. The end came quietly. Tom had to interrupt Judith’s story to tell her mother was gone. A perfectly good way to die, it seems to me – surrounded by laughter and people who loved her.
I told Tom I’d return the following morning. The holiday traffic had been horrible and I didn’t want to battle it again so soon. The truth, though, was that I prefer to grieve alone. I still have a difficult time crying in front of others. My sister was worried about me being alone in Dallas, but Tom assured her that this was the way I wanted it – the way I needed it. I will always believe that my mother waited until I was safely off the highway before she slipped away, knowing we’d miss her but that we were going to be okay.
A while before mother died, Judy P. asked if there was anything I needed to say to my mother. I told her no. She then asked if there was anything I needed my mother to say to me. And I said no. Not that many years before, I would have had a list of things I thought my mother ought to say to me. But that was years back. My world had changed. I understood that my mother had never done anything she didn’t think was in my best interests – whether I agreed at the time or not. I knew at the end that my mother accepted me just as I am – that I was enough all by myself. That’s all I needed.
I’ve learned you can say goodbye any time you need – even if it’s over thirty years later. Thank God I learned enough while my mother was here to be able to say goodbye in person. One of the things I kept of my mother’s is a wind chime. When I’m outside and a little breeze comes up, I imagine the ringing is my mother reminding me she’s around. We carry so many people around with us in our hearts. As long as they live in our memories, they are a part of us still.
I think I’m going to try to be less careless in the future.