At my mother’s funeral service a few weeks ago, I read a tribute to her which I wrote. Some remarks from the tribute are referenced in this post. In the days after the service, several people told me what a good job I’d done with the tribute and how nice it was. Considering the occasion, I aimed to do the right thing. But what many people didn’t know was that – although I always loved my mother – I had been mourning her loss for years before her demise.
Although her Anglo-Saxon name – Mildred – means gentle strength, my mother was an incredibly strong-willed and self-sufficient woman. She was also more controlling than a drill sergeant indoctrinating new recruits. Mother ran a tight ship. Not only were her offspring required to abide by the “my house, my rules” dictate that many parents – rightfully so – impose on their children, we also had to contend with a mother who was very strict and sometimes overbearing.
I recall an occasion during my adolescence when mother was upset with me about something. I honestly don’t remember what it was. Probably something that I wanted to do that she wouldn’t allow. Or perhaps it was something that I did that I shouldn’t have. Nevertheless, I was moping over whatever was bothering me and mother was trying to get me to talk about it. I refused. I just sat there on the sofa beside her, teary eyes lowered, saying nothing.
“Why won’t you talk to me when something is bothering you?” mother asked in her typical demanding tone.
When I mustered up the nerve to answer I replied, “Because you always talk like you are fussing, and I don’t want to be fussed at.”
“That’s just the way I talk,” she said in a manner that I perceived to be serious attitude, causing me to again revert to silence.
Mother had a quick wit and an even quicker temper. It didn’t matter who you were, she would not hesitate to give you a take-no-prisoners tongue lashing when she felt it was warranted. So rather than risk drawing her wrath I kept my emotional distance. When I recall past conversations with my siblings, I think that perhaps mother never knew how to talk with her children on a level that did not alienate us.
Granted the teenage years are a time when most teens find it difficult to communicate with their parents, unfortunately sometimes that lack of communication extends into adulthood. And since mother was not one to pull punches, when she and I had tense conversations, out of respect, the best I could do was bob and weave to deflect the verbal blows, or erect an emotional firewall. Over the years, the latter became my refuge.
During the last month of mother’s life, my sister and I took turns spending alternate weeks at mother’s home – bringing her meals, meds, and tending to her other needs. It was a difficult period, but it allowed my mother and me to spend more time together than we had shared in years.
In spite of the fact that — prior to her illness — we talked on the phone nearly every day; unfortunately our busy and dissimilar lifestyles barred us from spending much face-time together.
Mother was the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister and she had been raised in the Christian faith. Sometime during the mid-1970s, she joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Her conversion not only changed our family dynamics, it splintered our family unit. Gatherings at Thanksgiving, Christmas time and other holidays, and even the exchange of birthday greetings were curtailed and eventually ended.
During the final days of her life, mother’s voice grew gradually weaker until even her whispers could not be understood. I recall one day, as I sat beside her bed, she murmured, “Why can’t I talk?” Although I suspected that the lung cancer had spread to her throat, I just slowly shook my head side-to-side implying that I didn’t know.
Like any dutiful daughter who assumes the role of caregiver, I did what I could to make my mother comfortable in her last days, even to the extent of neglecting my own obligations and putting my life on hold.
The short weeks during mother’s hospice, allowed she and I to spend time together, to share some laughter and a few brief, but long overdue, lighthearted conversations. And although there were many things that I wanted to say to her, when someone is on her deathbed is not the time to bring up and rehash bygone discord. Therefore, many things that I would like to have discussed calmly with my mother before she died were left unsaid.
When I was growing up – and even as an adult – mother and I had several conversations about religion and family. We even discussed cults, especially in the days following the Jonestown massacre. Yet, the time ultimately came when I perceived that mother did not heed her own advice. In that regard, the thing that I regret most that I never had a chance to say to my mother is this: We should never allow people – or institutions — to speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear ourselves – or to command us to such loyalty that we lose ourselves.