When I left home at age 17 within a week of graduating from high school in 1958, it was unspoken but understood between Mom and me that the move was permanent, that returning home was not an option. Or at least, that’s what I believed and belief, warranted or not, is all that is necessary for some things to be so.
I also believed then that Mom had nothing to teach me, certainly nothing about the big questions that bothered me in high school: Why don’t the popular kids like me? How will I know when I’m in love? What do I do with my arms when a boy kisses me? Is there really a God? Where do we go when we die?
Looking back now with the forbearance of age for youth, including one’s own, it is obvious my belief in Mom’s ignorance had no foundation. With the arrogance of teens immemorial, I had never bothered, before condemning her, to ask the questions.
It was many years before I appreciated what Mom did teach me throughout the ten or so years of my childhood I can remember, and she did it decades before that guy wrote a book about what he learned in kindergarten:
- Walk on the right of the sidewalk.
- Watch where you are going.
- Hold the door for people to leave the shop before you enter.
- Don’t complain. It is unseemly and no one else’s business.
- Learn to roll with the punches, Sarah Heartburn.
- Modulate your voice to your surroundings.
- Give your brother a chance to talk.
- Don’t slam the door.
I can hear her voice still in each of these lessons and many more like them. She taught them by repetition as my behavior dictated and their simplicity belies their power and their wider application. There was another lesson that today would horrify child experts and possibly get her reported to child welfare authorities.
When I was three years old during World War II, Mom sent me to nursery school. She walked me the four blocks down the hill from our house where she handed me over to the bus driver. He let me off at the school where the teacher waited. In the afternoon, the process was repeated in reverse except that instead of meeting the bus at the bottom of the hill, Mom watched for me from our living room window.
I have no memory of this. When Mom told the story over the years, the punch line was about how she “chewed her fingernails down to her elbows” worrying until she saw my head bobbing up over the hill.
There was no reason for her not to meet the bus in the afternoon, she said, except that “there are no certainties in life.” Dad, who was fighting in The Philippines and New Guinea, might not survive the War. And because anything could happen to her too, at any time, it was important to teach me as much independence as possible as young as possible.
It was the first big lesson she taught me. Fifty years later, she took on another one just as big and who is to say now that it was not done with as much intention and design as the first.
Caring for Mom during her final three months was the most profound and powerful experience of my life. It was a gift, a grace, a blessing I would wish upon everyone.
Perhaps if I had been a mother, if I had raised children, I would already have known the pleasures of protecting and nurturing, of being needed and wanted. But I had not. So it was a surprise, while caring for Mom, to realize I was the happiest I had ever been. Not lighthearted or joyous and certainly not carefree, but fulfilled and complete, at one with myself. For the first and only time in my life, I was doing something that mattered.
A friend said to me that he believes it is the last, great lesson a parent teaches a child: how to die. Mom left me with an exceptional standard to live up to when my time comes, and she did it with a courage and dignity that I, to my shame, had never given her credit for.
She did not complain, but she was not passive either. Though she gave over the household decision-making to me with never another word, she also never shied from making known what she wanted. She never apologized for, or even acknowledged, waking me three, four and more times a night. If she knew it took me five hours of driving around Sacramento to find the watermelon she requested one day in February, she seems to have considered it her due and ignored my effort. Just as she seems to have ignored the full-time job I was doing while caring for her.
For three months, she operated every day on the assumption that I would make her comfort my priority. And she was right.
Until Mom asked me to go to Sacramento to be with her during her final days, I had led a self-indulgent life. Oh, I supported myself, paid the bills, met my responsibilities and I don’t remember asking for help for anything more important than fixing a broken lamp.
Conversely, I did anything I wanted, came and went as I pleased, spent or saved money on little more than whim. By no means could I be considered well off, but life was relatively easy and though I recognized my good fortune, I gave back little. Beyond contributions to charities, I had made hardly any effort to be of service through the years in any personal way. I was bothered by this from time to time, but not so much that I considered changing my life. I lived superficially and believed myself to be somewhat of a failure as a person, though not a bad person.
No one who knew me then, least of all me, would have much reason to think I would take on round-the-clock care for an indeterminate length of time of anyone, family or not.
But my mother did. And in those three months with her, I discovered depths of caring and compassion I had never imagined I had.
Sometimes it gave me the ferocity of a mother bear as when I fended off a nosy neighbor whose daily meddlings were more ghoulish than friendly; as when the hospice revealed that the price of their freely-offered assistance was too high in surrender of privacy.
It helped me locate my last ounce of energy when fatigue invaded even my bones. It fueled my ingenuity as successive medical problems required new and untried solutions. It led me to trust my instincts. It expanded the limits of my patience and temper. It gave expression to generosity and kindheartedness I had never used.
In those months we spent 24 hours a day together, Mom showed me the better, most decent parts of myself. She showed me how to reach for more than I thought I had. She saw to it that I found the best in myself.
In her last, most important lesson, Mom gave me the greatest gift of my life: She taught me about my own goodness.
…to be continued…
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript