The Last Mother’s Day Card

These are some reflections I wrote six years ago, on Mother’s Day, 2010… less than three weeks before our Mom passed away.  It is the first time I have shared them publically.  


 

pink and white envelope“Do you know what today is?” my brother asks.  He stands beside Mom’s bed, holding her hand, while I, sitting on the other side, put a straw to her lips for a sip of water.

I put the cup down and rub her other hand.  “Hey, Mom, who’s that?  Do you know who that is?”

She murmurs something that is hard to make out, but I’m sure it’s “Ron,” and I look at my brother and smile.  She said his name.  That’s good.

We have come here by a road of twelve years length.  It has been a sloping road that plunged Mom into sightless twilight over a decade ago (even as her spiritual eyes grew more beautifully focused).  Along with her blindness, other health problems weighed her down along the rugged path.  Then – so gradually that we never marked the turning – the brambles started gathering around her mind, casting deepening shadows there as well.

It has been a hard-packed road, rock-strewn and painful in stretches, yet relatively straight, leading downward by a steady, gradual incline punctuated at moments by such sudden drops that we thought we would plummet straight to the bottom, only to plateau out into the next soon-to-grow-familiar landscape. Always on the decline, always in dusk.

Yet we’ve walked it together, we three. Always together.

Others have walked by our side, as well.  And though the path has been in darkness, it has passed through evening meadows, sweet scented with the kindness of friends and of God.

Nor ever once have I felt we were lost.

We can’t see the end of the road from here – probably won’t until we’re nearly upon it. But we know from the way the cliff walls are rising tall and narrowing in around us that it can’t be far.

We know because now it’s a good, big thing that she said Ron’s name.

And so here we stand, close at Mom’s side.  Like it’s always been, in a way, only now physically.

“This is a special day,” Ron says, leaning closer.  “It’s Mothers Day.  And you’re our mother, so we have to give you a card.”  His voice is strong, cheery.

He places an envelope in her hand.  “Do you feel that?  It’s like a piece of paper.”

“It’s an envelope,” I add, from the other side.  (I never could keep secrets long, and I tend to be too helpful.)

“Let’s open it,” Ron says, taking the envelope.  He pulls the card out and sets it on Mom’s hand.  It falls, ungrasped, on the blankets.  I put it in her hand again.

“Let’s read it,” says Ron, and he does.

“Isn’t that nice?” I say.

“Yeah,” says Mom.

“We sure love you,” I say.  “Ron sure loves you.  Wasn’t that nice of Ron to get you a card?”

Mom murmurs.

My brother had told me a few days ago that he might get her a card, as much for the sake of tradition on this, our very probably last Mothers Day. As much for us, as for her.

I didn’t say anything when he told me.  If it was important to him, I understood.  A card seemed kind of pointless to me; she could barely understand simple yes-no questions, let alone open or hold or get any meaning from a card.

Yet when he read it aloud tonight, my heart soared.  It was such a perfect card.  This was so right!

And when I’d asked if it was nice, she’d said, “Yeah.”

This was a good, big thing.

At the beginning of the day, it had seemed like a strange, rather meaningless Mother’s day, in which Mom couldn’t participate or even be aware of what day it was.  It would be the same sips of water the same spoonfuls of the applesauce she likes.  There was really nothing we could do to celebrate with her.

While Mom slept, attended by a caregiver, I’d gone to church, wearing my grandmother’s ring and Mom’s locket, in honor of them.  It seemed like the best I could do.  Mom wasn’t gone.  But neither was she here enough to celebrate.

Then Ron gave her the card. And I realized… this was it!

Not the card, but the giving of the card.

My brother and I were here beside her bed, when she couldn’t rise, or dress, or share a meal, when she could barely communicate.  The “here-ness” of us – our presence… that was our celebration.

By being here, we celebrated our mom who raised us to understand that those who cannot feed themselves are still valuable.  Who cared for her mom, even after they had “issues.”  Who made lap quilts for old people in nursing homes that got no visitors, and taught us to give our outgrown toys away while they were still nice because there were kids who didn’t have any toys – and we were no better than they, only luckier.

Simply by being here, we were celebrating Mother’s Day with Mom.

Soon the path will fall paradoxically into unimaginable heights, where there will be no more night.

When all is bright again, I doubt that Mom will recall the card. But I feel sure that she will know, as she does even now amidst the gathering night, that we were here. 

 

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My Loser Report

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Every so often, the federal government sends me a letter to remind me what a loser I am.

Of course that isn’t the intent of the mailing. It’s just a factual little document to inform me of my lifetime earnings to date, as relates to my future Social Security prospects. It includes a record of my annual salary from the time I first started filing a tax return (about age 16) until the present. If you graphed these numbers, the result would look like a patient on life support.

I call it my “Loser Report.”

It begins with a low slope of part-time jobs during high school and college, followed by the gradual ascent of a career in retail bookselling. Even in management, retail does not make for impressive heights on any graph. Then a sudden plunge following the death of a spouse and a “what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life-now?” break. The graph begins to climb again, a little hopefully, then “whoosh!” – another plummet and a virtual flat-line, representing twelve years caring for a disabled parent. And, finally, another small blip of fiscal life as I entered the work force anew.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, my earnings have crawled back to about the same level they had attained in 1994.

By any numerical measure of success, it screams, “Loser!”

And sometimes my heart echoes that accusation. I sigh as I stand with the open letter in my hand.

But over the years, I’ve also learned to smile – if a little wryly – and turn my mind to all the hidden wealth I’ve amassed that the government knows nothing about.

How would they assess the love of a husband who, though he left me far too soon, yet showed me indescribable tenderness in the short years of our marriage before his death? How will those enduring memories sustain me in old-age?

How can one quantify countless meals seated across from a brother who loves me with a cheerful and ungrudging generosity that has made sure I am sustained through all those dips and flat-lines in the government report? What value does one assign to our years of conversations, laughter and companionable silences?

By what formula would they tax warm sunlight through arched bookstore windows, the smell of books and coffee, the laughter of friends and days spent in work that I loved?

How will my future old-age be impacted by hours spent doing crossword puzzles with my mom, and night after night holding her cool, aging hand in mine, seated on the edge of her bed as we said our nighttime prayers? What value the sweet smell of her hair as I combed it every morning and the way her whole face bunched into joy when she laughed?

I wonder how high the line would soar if you graphed those things.

And that is not even counting more recently accrued wealth.

Like evening commutes through the streets of South Asia on a cycle rickshaw because of the generosity of friends who had sent me there so I could tell the stories of people rescued from slavery. Where would one graph the arms of an elderly, rescued slave around my shoulders hugging me after I interviewed her, or the laughter of rescued boys in Ghana? That’s a savings account no recession can touch.

Grinning, I feed my Loser Report to the shredder. And the faces of friends play before my eyes.

Friends who would and did fly half way around the world to be with me. More friends who poured out lavish encouragement and support without ever being asked, who made a journey through breast cancer seem like something light and easy to bear.

It’s such an embarrassment of riches that I almost hesitate to write about it, lest I seem to be bragging.

But does all this give me something to be proud of?

Not exactly. With something of a shock, I see it:

The government tells me of what I’ve earned. My heart tells me of riches I’ve been given.

I can’t boast of being a “winner” any more than the Queen of England can boast of being royal. Certainly it comes with responsibilities, and she can be the best queen she knows how, or make a hash of it. But the crown itself was placed on her head unearned.

Likewise, I can use or squander the riches I’ve been given. But no effort of mine will change the fact that they were entirely a gift.

It doesn’t leave me much room for pride. And that, as it turns out, is a good thing.

As I think about it, I’m pretty sure that’s the way Jesus told people they had to come into the Kingdom.

Humbled.

Like little children.

What does a toddler bring to the table? Not much to be proud of: complete dependency, dirty diapers, sticky hands, a trail of broken knick-knacks and squeals of delight at the good gifts his parents lavish upon him. Just simple trust and open hands – open to accept, with no thought to the humility of being utterly in debt.

My Loser Report reminds me how little I’ve earned.

And maybe that knowledge is one more form of wealth.

Greetings from the Center of the World

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Invisible Chains

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