A tribute to my mother

In the days before my mother died, I would sit on her bed and rub her arms from shoulder to elbow, where she was often cold, and then from elbow to wrist, ending by holding her hands, fingers entwined.  We would sit, hands clasps and smile at each other, so glad to be together.

If she was especially cold, I would heat up her rice bag, a droopy fabric tube filled with heavy rice, in the microwave of the nursing home and put it on her feet or against her upper arms if they still felt cold to the touch.  At eighty-nice pounds and five feet tall, she was often cold.  I remembered her fretting about being overweight when I was a little girl but somewhere in her sixties she had lost 25 pounds and two inches and my recent memories were of a tiny woman who continued to shrink in every possible direction until the day she died.

She was ready to go, there is no doubt about that. The first time I saw her after I returned from Africa on August 10, she told that she was ready to go home. My sister, Kathy had moved her to Virginia on August 8, while I was in Kenya, so I thought she meant Covina, 20 miles east of Los Angeles, the town where she was born and lived almost all of her life save her college years—and the 18 days she lived in Virginia– but she meant heaven, her real home.  One week ago we buried her in Oakdale Cemetery in the nearby town of Glendora just a mile from her earthly home.

Some of my sweetest memories were forged during those eighteen days together. The time she asked, innocently, “Are we on a cruise?”  The time I leaned my head on her chest and she cradled my head with both arms while I prayed for her.  The joy on her face when I read a letter from a friend in California or when she saw the flowers my sister sent from Toronto, complete with pint-sized Muffin bear.  The time she asked shyly for my daughter’s cell phone number.  The time she thank Sarah and me for not tossing her out on the street, and we looked at each other as our eyebrows shot up: “Toss you out on the street?! Of course we would never toss you out on the street!” Or the time she insisted that all of her children–including her oldest, Laurie, whose red hair has always drawn remarks–had brown hair and we laughed while she looked from me to Sarah, confused.

We thought we were bringing her to Virginia to rest and recover but she called physical therapy “torture” reducing the physical therapist to near tears.  “My mom is not like this,” I told her. “She’s a trooper. Something must be wrong.”

Something was wrong.  Her body was weak and malnourished not just from the strain of taking care of dad but from the strain of fighting cancer. We knew that two tiny pea-size spots of cancer had shown up on scans but we were told that it could be years before she felt their presence. I wanted to move her because she had been hospitalized with pneumonia and I could not bear the thought of her in the hospital alone.  They released her after drawing a liter of fluid from her lungs but we were soon to realize that she had not had pneumonia; the cancer had spread to her pleural cavity.  “Cancer of the lungs is okay,” her doctor had said, “cancer of the pleural region is trouble.”

She was so happy to receive absolution from physical therapy. She lay in bed wiggling her toes back and forth from “Pointe” to stretch with a child-like grin, “I am exercising,” she said, proudly and we laughed and remembered the time just a few days before when she suffered from cold feet and my sister and Sarah had rubbed her feet and held her toes until she said with great enthusiasm, “I have fabulous feet!”

We have only been home from the funeral for a few days and as the plane from San Francisco touched down last Monday, and I realized that my mom is not in Virginia, I began to weep. The loss seemed inconsolable.  The next morning, Tuesday, as I drove to work I started to go straight at Fox Mill, then remembered that there was no reason to continue down the Parkway, no need to visit my mother on the way to work because she had left this earthly dwelling place and I again broke down.  Just 18 days had already altered my routines.

For the last two holidays seasons, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I have taught a four-week grief seminar.  Now I watch myself, exhibit A, manifesting all the symptoms my students describe: My body has slowed down.  I often sleep or break into tears then am fine for hours as if I were not absorbing the monumental loss of my mother. The hardest part for me is not letting go of the actual person, my dear little mother, but letting go of my lost hopes and dreams.  I had always wanted my mother to come live with me, to stretch the joy we knew during holidays to the entire year, but that was not to be.

At the funeral a week ago, my sister, Kathy, and I gave the eulogy, which went like this:

Kathy: Our family would like to welcome you to our mother’s funeral, a place to remember, a celebration of her life, and a time to grieve.

Betsy: We are sad that Mom died. Even though she had battled cancer off and on again for more than 20 years, experiencing far more years with health and vigor than seasons of illness, we did not expect her to die when she did and I think all of us did not feel ready to let her go—perhaps I was more ready than my brothers and sisters because I was with Mom every day during the last two and a half weeks of her life because we had moved her to Virginia where I make my home.  My daughter, Sarah and I saw her twice on the day she died and we had no idea when we left her that afternoon that it would be the last time we saw her.

But Mom was ready to go. I dragged her to a world-class pulmonologist a week before she died and in his office she turned to me and said that she did not want to fight the cancer anymore.  Then, looking straight in my eyes she said, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord,” and when at her words, I started to cry, she asked me simply to let her go and I said, “I am trying, but it is hard.”

Then she turned to the doctor and said, not at all unkindly, “This is the hard part . . . my family.”  She knew we were not ready.

Kathy: Mom was an amazing person, as you know, and even though we know that she in heaven where there is no tears or sorrow or pain, we are still here. We will miss her, I’ll miss her.

Betsy: I don’t think we are very good about grieving in our western culture and Christians are probably the worst because we have a hope of heaven, which tempts us to skip over our losses but today we want to take time to acknowledge our grief, to give each other permission to be sad and feel this loss. So one of our ground rules is that no one has to be brave for anyone else. In Hebrews 5:7 it says that even our Lord Jesus, during his life on earth offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears; he knows what we are feeling. And we ask him to draw near, to comfort us and to carry our grief. With a nod to the Jewish side of the family, I would like to say that I think the Jewish culture does this better in that they sit Shiva for a full year, acknowledging the losses that we all experience.

So Kathy and I are going to share some of the things we will miss, some of the things we are grateful for, and some of the things we remember. Then afterwords we will have an open mic time when you can share what you remember, what you are grateful for and what you will miss.

Kathy: I’m grateful for the way my Mom –both my parents really — lived out lives of great integrity.  Mom was actively committed in politics, involved in local campaigns, and pounded the streets getting signatures. She was treasurer for the Republican Central Committee, and was recognized as the 1992 Woman of the Year by the state senator. She served at church, this church for many years, volunteering, helping with the kids group every Wednesday, holding and changing babies in the nursery for many Sundays.  Many of you present know better than me how she lived out her values, and how she participated and gave of herself in very practical ways, in a way that few do.

Betsy: Mom practiced her integrity every day. I still remember at the age of about ten being sent–by Mom–back to Vons on foot to return five cents the checker gave me in error.

I am grateful that Mom stayed home with her brood of five kids. There were times when we all knew that she was not having fun—she used to threaten to string us up by our thumbs, something I could never picture–but we also remember warm cookies from the oven, hot breakfasts every morning, and the many times she let us know that raising children right was a task worthy of her full attention.

We are grateful for Mom’s sense of humor.  Mom was open, and in some ways, childlike but she was nobody’s fool to parrot my brother’s phrase. As a child, I was proud of my tiny, young-looking mother. I still remember as a child, one time when Mom answered the door and the salesman asked to speak with her mother and she smartly answered, “My mother lives in Baldwin Park,” and slammed the door.

Kathy: She had unerring instincts about people and could assess someone’s character. I miss already her comments on things that are foolish and the silly.

Betsy: I will miss having her at my house for Christmas and am glad she derived so much joy from her time in my home. She once told me that she was more relaxed in my home than anywhere. We always made sure we had a jigsaw puzzle going and gave her a box of chocolates, which she opened on Christmas morning and then passed around.  She liked to help out in the kitchen, chopping vegetables; setting the table  . . . she made loading the dishwasher an art form.

I will miss watching Mom interact with my kids, especially Sarah during the last few weeks of her life.  As we were leaving the nursing home Sarah would tell me, with real excitement in her voice: “Grandma loves me!  It makes me feel so good.”

Kathy: I am grateful that we three sisters went with Mom to France, in May 2007.  She had always wanted to go back the village where her father was born; little did we know that Itxasou in southern France was so picturesque that it was featured on postcards from the region. Thanks Dad for giving us a generous pot of money for that trip that let us stay at posh country inns nestled in tiny villages.  I have never seen Mom happier than she was on that trip; meeting relatives she had only heard of before.

Betsy: I am grateful that my mom came to Grace Baptist Church with Laurie and me, when I was ten. We had been invited to Sunday school by two sisters who got points during a March to Sunday School in March campaign, but we only went a few weeks before Mom started coming to Grace with us because she did not believe parents should drop their kids off at church and not attend themselves.

We are grateful that she gave her heart to Jesus—you will be hearing more about later.  Mom was busy, but I still remember that every morning she would vanish into her bedroom and shut the door to have her quiet time with God.  Pity the poor child who knocked on the door during Mom’s quiet time!

I am grateful that the Hindus are wrong, that my mother will not return to earth as a cat or a Thai princess or become part of the great consciousness. My mom is in heaven but she is still herself, unique, one of kind–but without any of the pain or sorrow.  She is seeing everything with the eyes of heaven, no doubt the angels who have watched over her since the day she was born are filling her in on the rest of the story and she is marveling at the goodness of God.

Back in March when I was staying with Mom at City of Hope she confessed that she sometimes worried about displeasing God. She wanted to do things right and to not get in God’s way. I am glad that now that she is in that place she has a new nature, where as Augustine wrote, “Everyone is free to love God and do as you please,” where we don’t have to fear displeasing God because our whole heart is given over to Him.

Kathy: As Mom grew more frail, we saw a more spontaneous part of her emerge, particularly when she went with me to City of Hope village.  She was more outspoken. A few days after we got her to Virginia, she told Sarah and me that she had composed a poem.  As far as I know it’s the only poem I’ve ever heard she wrote.  She recited it three times and each time it was different.  It is called Grandma and her Kleenex—and here it is:

Grandma and her Kleenex goes with wiping the tears away.

It goes with wiping the snot away.

It goes with pushing bumblebees away.

Truly Grandma’s Kleenex has miraculous powers.

We can take Grandma’s Kleenex and wipe not only bloody toes away and the tears that go with them;

we can stuff them in shoes that are too big.

Grandma’s Kleenex is absolutely amazing.

I haven’t thought about everything from Grandma’s Kleenex, sometimes Grandma’s memory is not so sharp as it used to be. Anyway, all this is just to show Grandma’s grandkids and kids that she loves them very much and she will always have a Kleenex for them.

Betsy: I will miss Grandma’s Kleenex (I am the family crybaby) but mostly I will miss my dear little mother.

As I watched her weaken and slip away, I realized that we all long for redemption, and justice, and most of us want it now, on earth.  We want to right wrongs and fix things.  Even as a small child I knew that my mother’s life had not been easy, even in childhood.  She was abused, not valued. I was probably eight before I realized that if I had birthday, then Mom must have one too, so we asked her, “When is your birthday?” and my older sister, Laurie, and I began to try to celebrate it but our childish efforts were humorous at best—I remember many attempts at baking ruined cheesecakes, and one that even made it out of the oven in surprisingly good shape only to be dropped on the floor just inches from the oven door.

I realized that I had always wanted to rescue my mom and give her a life of ease.  One of my sweetest memories of these last days was doing her nails while seated on her bed and having her say, “I am going to let you pamper me.”

Kathy: Yes, before that I was with her at City of Hope, and it was the sweetest time I think I’ve ever had. As Betsy has been mentioned, mom was less stoic, more open during the last days, and I loved having times to laugh and cry and be with her.  It was a treasure I’ll always remember. She, who did so much, finally let me help her.

Betsy: I had hoped that if we moved her to Virginia, she would strengthen and maybe even be able to move into our basement suite. The original plan was to move Dad to Virginia, too, but the first time I saw Mom in Virginia, she announced that she was ready to go home to be with Jesus. She had already made up her mind.  She asked me once, “How much more do I have to do before I can go home?” and I said, “You don’t have to do anything more, just let us take care of you.”

I realized a few days before Mom died that I was not going to be able to redeem her life; I had to let Jesus finish was I could never do.

We are grateful to have had Anne Marie Robidart Moll as our mother—and friend!

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