Fighter, Friend, Mother
As I write these words, it’s the type of day that makes me hate February.
There is rain in the air, but no snow or ice for us. My animals are restive. The early birds aren’t finding many worms, but they are scratching and scrabbling for anything left behind by my livestock. My old dog is creaky, as her arthritis and mine tend to harmonize on days like this.
It was a similar day 19 years ago when my mother, eyes wide, hands clenched, breathed her last.
Lois Weaver fought to the very bitter end. Her mind was gone, but for many of her last days, the brain that betrayed her showed mercy, and she was in a happy place we couldn’t see. Her hands reached and grasped things that weren’t there for the rest of us, she smiled, and she gave silent little laughs. She tried to sing sometimes. I think in her mind and soul, she was singing, but we weren’t supposed to hear her song.
But in her last day or so, maybe a little longer, she fought. She refused to go gently into the night, even though I think in a different place in her mind, she knew that she would be with my father, and have peace.
My mother fought her entire life. I don’t mean fisticuffs, although she did enough of that when she was a girl growing up among brothers. She fought different battles as an attractive young woman in a big city, then a single mother with four kids in a time when that wasn’t socially acceptable, much less common. She fought to save an old house that is now an arts center and a showplace in what became our hometown. She fought to save flowers, trees, puppies, kittens, birds and squirrels.
Mother knew when to surrender, but she rarely did so gracefully.
She knew when to be happy, too, and she embraced it. I have no idea why I remember so well the time I brought home a ridiculous travesty of a pickup, a purple Mazda without a muffler, whose roof had been permanently removed. It was late fall, and the heater tried valiantly but failed to negate the freezing weather.
Nothing doing but my mother had to go for a ride, and she laughed the entire time.
She laughed just as hard when she taught me how to use the old sled on a snow-covered street near our house. Some of the other kids had fancier bobsleds that you could steer. I had one that had been in the family for years, and they were aghast that somebody’s mom was out there riding that sled down the hill just like they were.
Miss Lois could out-fish almost any man around, on the few times she dropped a hook in the water. She loved telling how her first husband and his friends were amazed at her using a handline to beat them at their own game, all the while with one of my siblings in her belly and another on her hip.
She loved music, of almost any kind, and she loved to sing. One of her great-granddaughters is just beginning her career as an opera singer, and I can only imagine how Miss Lois would be of one of her girls.
Mother loved the written word, too. She was a prolific poet, reporter, and author. She won a few awards, and had some non-journalism published here and there, but she was more about the creative process than any recognition her words might bring.
Her love of the creative process sometimes got in the way. She would delve deeply into one project or another, be it in her sewing room or home office, then start another. When she did finish a creation, which was often, it was worth the wait. She had a knack for seeing what could be inside something, and when she brought it out, the product was never to be forgotten, indeed it was something for everyone to enjoy.
She enjoyed following the occasional flight of fancy, as attested to by the gourd she decided looked like a snake (so she added eyes and a tongue). When the museum beside her office moved a department store mannequin into her space for safekeeping, she made him a breechcloth out of newspapers. She loved abstract art more than conventional pieces, whether it was a feather-painted coffee table or a thousand-dollar assemblage of rusted hardware and barnwood that the artist presented to her out of appreciation for her love of his work. She could see art and beauty in places where most of us miss it, and sometimes she could draw that beauty into the light of day for everyone else to enjoy. She was adamant about traditions, too. We dressed for holiday dinners, and only the best china and silver were used. It was rare she didn’t wear a hat to church. She always made Papa an applesauce cake for Christmas, because that was the first thing she gave him, before they were even dating. She and the Old Man always went out together on Valentine’s Day, even after Papa was so sick, if for nothing more than a cup of coffee.
All of Lois Weaver’s children were reading before they went to school, and they were read to, as well. All of us still read. Despite the convenience of digital media, we all love books. Indeed, our oldest brother Jim had me ship a huge bag of books to him in Italy once. Not that they didn’t have books in his adopted homeland, but they didn’t have the books he wanted. When Mother turned him loose at a library sale, he wanted them all. She taught us that books are special. They require a commitment, from the part of the writer to the reader, and they are to be cherished. I have the privilege each week to read to a friend’s daughter, and recently I chose Aileen Fischer’s Listen, Rabbit for our storytime. It was the first book I ever read by myself, and I could do so because Miss Lois patiently read it to me time and again. The library’s bookmobile stopped at our house in the country, and she never missed the chance to make sure her youngest understood what awaited in those shelves. There were other stories, of course, but Listen, Rabbit was my favorite for far too long. We read it sitting on the side porch in the summer sun, with laundry flapping lazily in the breeze off the cornfields. We read it in front of the big oil heater when the wind turned cold. We read it as I was tucked under covers and a homemade quilt.
Years later, we had moved to town, and things changed. We were moving to a new home in the dead of winter, but somehow the schedule got mixed up, and for our last night in the big old drafty house, we had no heating oil. My dog Dudley and I were bundled into my bed, and warm as we could be considering the circumstances. My parents piled blankets on their own bed. Yet at some point in the night, my mother decided that Dudley and I weren’t warm enough, and she pulled one of the quilts from her bed and tucked us in tighter. There was a rime of ice forming on the windows that night, and I could see it clearly in the streetlight, yet Miss Lois decided she was warm enough -- but her last son wasn’t.
Mother hated having her picture taken – as a teen, she appears shy as she smiles for a camera to preserve her smile in black and white. Later as a young mother, she often appears surprised or even a little agitated. Most of the pictures of Miss Lois smiling were taken without her knowing it, but you often see happiness, since she was captured doing something she loved, whether it was holding a baby, feeding a wild bird, or just being with her family. When she was with her family, her smile is not feigned (although she still hated having her picture taken).
On that cold, bitter Valentine’s Day in 2004, with some of her family standing around and others desperately trying to get there, Miss Lois wasn’t smiling. She was fighting, trying to hold on, even though we had all said our goodbyes. There was a bird on an ice-coated tree branch outside her hospital room.
In those first few minutes, what seemed like a thousand memories went through my head. They weren’t sequential, there was no transition. They were all random, with the only connecting vein being that they were about my mother. That still happens on a right regular basis.
She was confused in the weeks leading up to her death, but there was no more confusion or pain on that bitter February day, at least not for her. Our confusion and pain, as sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and grandchildren and friends took its own time healing. Some of it never has, but that’s okay, because someday I will see her again, and it will all make sense.
I have written many times that I don’t think Heaven is reached via ethereal clouds parting to reveal streets of gold leading through pearl gates. Instead, I think you turn off the pavement beside a leaning mailbox half-covered in Rose of Sharon, and the truck rattles as you pull down a comfortable rutted dirt path toward a sprawling farmhouse.
Horses you loved race along the fence line. Dogs with wagging tails run out to greet you, chickens scatter, and cats glare with loving disdain.
A screen door opens, and you see the mother you have missed come out onto a wide front porch and raise a soft, loving hand in greeting.
That’s when you know you have gone home.