You need to understand: she would not have approved this post. It wasn’t her style. She was not a braggart – about herself or any of her kids. She preferred actions to speak for themselves.
She’s not here to stop me. And it’s a post I’ve wanted to write for quite some time – since 2004 actually.
We only know bits of her childhood from what’s come out in passing. We knew she was a little heavy as a child. She lost the fat once she hit her teens. Apparently she was an amazing baseball player. She mentioned that she was always late for her games, so she had to scramble and ride her bike, often arriving covered in sweat. It was said that she was an awesome figure skater too.
She was a devout Catholic and made sure her kids were washed and dressed and out the door every Sunday morning. Sometimes she allowed them to attend the Saturday night mass. She smiled to herself as she watched her brood all go through the requisite Catholic rituals: First Communion, where the girls dressed in little wedding gowns, and the boys dressed in little dark suits, hair all slicked back; then Confirmation, at which both girls and boys dressed in wine-coloured robes. Her kids all remembered the heady smell of incense, and the dry drone of the old priest as he mumbled seemingly magical incantations over them all.
Not much is known of her interactions with her parents. Her father was a happy drunk, which her mother tolerated with exasperation. Psychiatrists and psychologists theorize that quite often, we marry people who are just like the person with whom we had the most conflict as children, in a vain attempt to “fix” that broken relationship. “Maybe” they figure “if you marry someone like your dad or mom, and make a successful relationship out of it, you’ll realize you weren’t quite the failure you thought you were.” Validation.
Anyway, the woman married someone who turned out to be a drunk. We know he was much worse than her father though. This particular drunk was angry, even when sober. When he drank, he become a monster. He often bellowed in rage at the least little thing. Her kids recall many times when the bellowing stopped, and they could hear the scuffling sounds of him trying desperately to hit her. He succeeded more often than not.
Her father died. I guess she must have caught her husband at a time when he was in a good mood and not drinking, because for some reason he agreed to let her mom live with them. Things were OK for a while. The angry drunk times lessened for a time, and the beatings ceased. We all know what familiarity breeds though, and this family was no different. Eventually, the man’s true colours came out, and the dreaded nights of roaring and beatings began again. This time, her mother tried many times to intervene – she yelled at him, and stepped between him and her daughter when he raised his fist. More often than not, this caused him to stop. At other times he shoved her out of the way and managed to land one or two good ones.
She suffered from migraines and so there were times when he saw an opportunity – it was those times he chose to hit her hard on the head. There was a time when she was pregnant and he hit her in the stomach.
During all of these years, she managed to raise her kids. She taught them all to do their best in school, and to be respectful. She taught them humility. She didn’t want to hear anyone boasting. She taught them to survive their father, her husband. She taught them to behave quietly, to not set him off. They learned. It was only later in life that they understood that abusive drunks will find excuses to lash out. It doesn’t matter how well-behaved their spouses or kids are – there will always be a reason to be angry, and to hit them.
Her kids excelled at life, at social interactions, and in their schoolwork. She never praised them directly, preferring instead to tell them what others said of them, how they were the most well-behaved, pleasant kids ever. And they were. They also developed a sense of humour, no doubt because of all of the drama. She encouraged this, and laughed right along with them. She made sure they expressed themselves. She was all about openness, or so her kids thought.
One day, after the kids were grown and gone from the nest, the Beast died. There was a palpable lightening of atmosphere in her house, now occupied only by her and her two cats. Her six kids came around often. Most of them did anyway. The oldest boy didn’t visit as often as he could have – a fact he often regrets.
They had all grown into respectable successful adults, a fact all of them attribute to her warm successful efforts at raising them during the midst of strife and upset. She was happy about this. Quite often she could be found dancing in her living room, her and her cats. The fear was gone. The anxiety was a thing of the past. She lived about seven years with this newfound joy in life. Her brother and in-laws often complained that she was never at home – she was apparently on the road all the time, visiting people, making the rounds. Her oldest son couldn’t have been happier for her.
One day, she went to see the doctor about a pain in her leg.
Funny thing about cancer – the first symptoms show up in the oddest of places. It wasn’t until about three months later that doctors discovered she was riddled with it. Her lungs especially. Her fierce independence asserted itself, and she was adamant that she would not go into a nursing home. So her kids took turns staying with her, making sure she took all of her medication. When the oldest son stayed with her, he noted that she often complained about being cold. Not surprising, as she was all of ninety pounds to begin with.
During these final few weeks, she made a point of giving gifts to all of her kids – things she had wanted to give them, but knew had to be given long before their birthdays. She seemed to have recognized an element in her oldest boy that he was just discovering, and gifted him with a warm blanket with an amazing picture of a wolf.
There were hospital visits. She took to a wheelchair, an oxygen tank as her constant companion. During her final hospital stay, some of her kids managed to smuggle her cats into her private room. During all of the pain, this particular act brought the only smile to her face, if only for a short time.
She lasted about seven months, from first doctor visit to the morning she died.
It was only after she died that her kids realized that she hadn’t shared all of her life with them. The woman had some thoughts she kept to herself. They were so used to seeing her as “mom” that it never occurred to her that she was a woman with facets that didn’t necessarily include her family. They found an old calendar from the year when her mother died. Scrawled across the month were the words “Mom, why did you leave me?” The pain she must have had at her mother’s passing was heart-breaking.
Her oldest boy provided the only final gift he could give her, and it was read at her funeral, seven years ago. I wrote a poem for her, entitled
Through mists of rain and clump of thunder
Gasps of wind, midst whipping branches
Small group of seedlings cower low
Aware of nothing, with blinding future
A hand scoops down, grasping her prodigies
Almost motionless, with musical flourish
Looks fruitlessly for soil, unblemished and rich
Nettles abound, and dirt is scarce
Hands pricked and hurting, but children are planted
Nurtured and blessed, weeded and pruned
Plants flourish and grow, abundantly filled
With music and water, overflowing and fruitful
Her blossoms now strong, the gardener rises
Brushing her knees and wiping her face
Feet start to move, independent of thought
Nature’s music strums throughout the glade
And the gardener, the gardener
The sun overhead, beats rhythms with abandon
The gardener laughs, arms wide in delight
She moves through the thicket, the garden, the forest
Alive and aware, unfettered and strong
The sky darkens quickly and the music falters
The thorns of old now cripple her fingers
Her feet stomp angrily, but lose their focus
She lies down on the loam, while she catches her breath
Her heart beats slower, yet the music remains
Background only, nearly inaudible
Nature’s drums thrum softly
The work not yet done
A greater gardener scoops low
And gathers this jewel
With a smile on His face
He moves to His field
And plants her anew
Midst blossoms well loved
Her dream now renewed
More free than she imagined
She dances with Him
With her mother and brothers
Not chained to the sunlight
Dancing day, dancing night
Joy in her face
Laughter in her limbs
Gentle the gardener
She dances, she dances