By Michael Ransom
My mother, Barbara Ransom, passed away in August 1997. I wrote this story about her the following year. I think of her often, especially on Mother's Day.
Reading time: 9 minutes
“My mother died last summer, you know.” I want to say this to the checker at the grocery store, my bank teller, and the traveler in the seat next to me on the airplane, but I don’t. Why would I want to tell them Mom died? These people never knew her, but perhaps they notice a sad look in my eyes, and I want to give them a reason that I’m not myself, like explaining bad breath—"I had onions on my sandwich this noon, you see”—should someone concerned.
I pass men my age on the street, in the malls, and along airport concourses and wonder if their mothers are alive. If so, did they say, “I love you” the last time they talked? Did they say it with conviction or only half-heartedly? And if they could relive their lives with their mothers, would they? I want to tell them to call their mom—today.
Seeing cars driven by hatted gentlemen with white-haired gentlewomen at their sides reminds me of Dad and Mom traveling to see me, my wife, and son. Each time they left, I waved to them from our deck as Dad eased the 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass up our driveway and down the road. I gave thanks for the time we had, marveled at how wonderful they were, and hoped that we were in store for many more visits.
But Mom made what would be her last visit in June. When she came from the car to our front door, her jaw was trembling as if she were about to cry. Did she know she would never travel to our home again? Maybe. She was distant. Not as friendly with long-time friends whom we had invited to our home that weekend. She and Dad left earlier than usual. I gave them the customary wave and watched them drive away. I recall thinking that something was amiss.
What influence does a good mother have on a son? Is that son’s makeup cast in genetic stone at birth so that it makes no difference how much time she spends with him, how many bowls of soup she heats when he’s sick, how much she worries about his safety, how often she praises him on his accomplishments, or how many mistakes she forgives?
Years ago, I clipped an article from a magazine that author Bob Greene wrote about his mother, thanking her for staying home to raise him, his brother, and his sister. His mother did what mine did, and I wanted Mom to know that I noticed, so I mailed the article to her.
“I got the clipping,” said Mom in a subsequent phone call. “Your father saw me reading it, and he noticed the tears in my eyes. He couldn’t see why I would get emotional over it, but of course, I did.” I was pleased she knew I had not taken her sacrifices for granted.
Mom’s skin turned a light yellow later that June. Everyone worried about her, but no one could get her to go to her doctor. When it came time for the traditional Fourth of July gathering at Mom and Dad’s (in Clear Lake, Iowa), Mom’s skin had turned a darker yellow and she sat stiffly on the couch gazing into the distance. Family members brought hot dishes and desserts. We whispered to one another how poorly Mom looked and how worried we were, but we felt powerless to change the course of events. Mom was in bed, asleep, when we returned from the evening fireworks.
What goes through the mind of a 71-year-old woman who knows that her days are numbered? Does she have regrets? A long list of things she wished she had done? Is she afraid of crossing the line from this world into the next? If time could be turned back to a certain month, day, or year, and start her life over, which would she choose, and why?
As July progressed, Mom canceled doctor’s visits that were made for her, snapped at friends who commented on her health, and spent her waking hours planning a gala ninety-fourth birthday party for her mother. The whites of Mom’s eyes turned a yellow that matched her skin. Her stomach distended.
“I just want to make it to our fiftieth wedding anniversary in August,” she said. “After the celebration (a reception at church) I'll go to the doctor.” But Dad and I didn’t mail the invitations. We were waiting to see what was wrong with Mom and if what was wrong could be fixed.
The end of July came, and Grandma's birthday was celebrated. Mom's sister, others from her side of the family, and my sister, Sue, arrived, only to see what they had feared. Mom looked terrible and barely acknowledged their presence. The happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party person they knew was gone, replaced by a stranger. It was as if they had stopped by the wrong town and the wrong house. And when Mom’s sister left a day early, not a tear was shed by two who had always cried rivers when they parted.
What the elderly know about growing old is that anything you give up you never get back. Mom knew that when she left home for the hospital, she would not return. She was holding on to the place and the people she loved for as long as she could, as one might gaze at a colorful tree in fall, knowing that wintry winds would soon make it bare. The end came tearfully as Dad and Sue begged Mom to go to the emergency room, which she finally—yet reluctantly—did.
“She may live a few days, she may live a year,” said the doctor matter-of-factly. “Unless her liver and kidneys begin working, fluids will build up in her body, she'll lapse into a coma, and she'll soon pass away peacefully. If one could choose how to die, this would be high on the list.” Had Mom visited a doctor months or years before, there may have been things to do, to try. But now nurses were instructed to make Mom's last days comfortable.
Dad slept on a cot by Mom's side. When I left Mom’s room one night, praying that she would be alive in the morning, Dad had reached out to hold Mom’s hand, he in the cot and she in the bed. Nearly fifty years ago they held hands and exchanged rings, and now they held hands under far different circumstances. “Till death do us part,” echoed in my mind and my heart as I eased the door closed on this final chapter of their lives together.
If one knew the coming springtime were his last, he would look long and carefully at the first robin, bright green buds, and tulips on the sunny sides of homes. So, I sat by Mom's bed, staring intently at every inch of her face as if studying to pass a test that would be given when she was gone. The wedding picture of her and Dad was on the hospital tray by her bed. She was a beautiful bride and Dad a handsome groom. She was beautiful still, even though her stomach was as rounded as a shopping mall Santa’s and her skin against the white sheets was the yellowest yellow I had ever seen. Her hair was grayer and thinner than before, but I could see the woman of fifty years ago in the mom that lay near me.
How does a son say goodbye to a mother who sacrificed so much of her life for him? And when does he say it? I chose a Friday night with us alone in her room and a Do Not Disturb sign the nurses wrote and taped on the door.
“I’ve written something about you, Mom, that your minister will read at your funeral. Would it be OK if I read it to you now?”
“That would be nice,” she replied, and added quickly, “I’ll just lie here and close my eyes.” Several minutes and two pages later, I spoke the last line, then collapsed into Mom’s arms. We cried and cried, and it felt so good.
We dried our eyes and talked for an hour. Just the two of us, looking intently at each other and saying how much we loved one another, how great our lives had been, and how we would do it all again, the same way if given the chance. We knew that not all our time together was perfect, but there was no “I wish we had done…” or “I’m sorry I did…” Nothing of that sort. We had pauses in our conversation during which Mom rested, her eyes closed. After one bit of silence she opened her eyes and said weakly, “You’re so nice.” She died peacefully a few days later. I will remember that conversation and her calmness in the face of death as long as I live. Many friends have told me how they wish they had had a chance to say goodbye the way I did, to really say goodbye, to a parent now gone.
In his book Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury wrote: “Everyone must leave something behind when he or she dies. It could be a child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you when you take your hands away.”
My calling is to leave words, sentences, and stories with my readers. Mom left smiles and warm feelings with those lucky enough to have her touch their lives. She found the down and out, the lonely, the disabled, looked into their eyes, and said, “I love you the way you are. Let me help you make it through the day.”
So, there is more than “My mother died last summer, you know,” that I would want to say to passersby. It would be the opening line of a story that would take much too long to tell. Instead, I keep it to myself, realizing sadly that the last chapter has been written, the last page read. It is a remarkable story, and now that Mom is gone, I treasure what she left me: a belief in the goodness of people, a caring for others, and a peaceful, loving feeling for her that warms my heart. And in the quiet of the night, I feel her encouraging me to dry my tears and carry on.