I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My mama

This is a picture of the two of us, me a newborn, and Mama a young mother. Sometimes in my writing, I call her"Mom" or "my mother," but in reality I never called her anything but Mama. Just look at those beautiful dark eyes! The only one of her children who inherited those eyes was my brother Buz. All the rest of us have our father's blue ones, no mixtures of hazel, but distinctive blue or deep, fall-into-them brown. Mama obviously loved me, look at her expression as she proudly held her child while looking into Daddy's camera.

She didn't know at the time this picture was taken that she would have seven children in her lifetime, six of whom are still alive, and one who was born prematurely and died soon after birth. The six of us all have different memories of our mother, but one this is certain: she was very special, and not just to us but to many others. I know more about how strong and brave she was now that I am older, now that I am approaching the age she was when she died.
This picture was taken when Norma Jean was little, and I was maybe five or six. When I was seven, my sister P.J. was born, so this was taken sometime before that, around 1948. The war was over, and Mama and Daddy were living in Fairfield, with Daddy stationed at Travis AFB. I especially love this picture for two reasons: Mama looks so radiant and happy, and I laugh at my bangs in the picture, because I can still remember when she cut them. Notice that they are distinctly shorter on one side than the other, and she simply could not get them straight. They were already dangerously short so she gave up. I was mortified.

Mama gave birth to P.J. in 1950, and much later had the last four children, starting in 1959 and continuing annually until the youngest, my sister Fia, was born in 1962, almost twenty years after I was born. She made a home for us wherever we were living,  and became an expert at moving us from place to place. In the mid-1960s, Daddy retired from the Air Force and they bought their first home in Fort Worth, Texas. This allowed my youngest siblings to be raised in one place, but then all of their lives changed.

In her forties Mama contracted breast cancer, a rare kind that doesn't form a lump and only has a 5 percent survival rate (inflammatory breast cancer). She had a lump under her arm that she said felt like a rolled-up newspaper, and even though her doctor didn't want to do a biopsy, she insisted. And guess what? Cancer. They knew that the cancer was either in her breast or her brain, so they opted to remove the breast. They found the cancer in the breast tissue as they looked at it slice by slice. Because of the aggressiveness of this form, they took every last bit they could, and Mama was in the hospital for a long time recovering. The doctors at the time treated her with cobalt radiation, and they ended up giving her what was later known to be three times the lifetime limit. She was burned on her back after each treatment, right through her chest.

What was also not known at the time was the damage the radiation did to her heart. That didn't show up for a while, but Mama began to have heart attacks. She would spend so much time in the hospital when her younger children were growing up that they became accustomed to it. She was now on quite an array of medications. I remember the pharmacy that was her medicine chest.

But she prevailed. She could have given up, but she didn't. She wanted to live. She wanted to be with her children and her husband. Then, in 1979, Daddy died, and he was only 62. The same age her own father was when he died, and Mama was devastated. She suffered, as did we all, but her life partner was gone, and I will never forget the depths of her grief. All of us worried about Mama and had no idea how we could help. She still had kids at home, which was probably a blessing, because that gave her a reason to keep going, and she did. By the time Fia got married and left home, Mama decided to move out of the house.

Mama was definitely a "nester." I never saw anyone put as much energy as she did into making a home, even after everyone had left home and we only visited occasionally, she still created a home for us. It was amazing what she could accomplish, and how beautiful and tranquil a place she created, each time.

Then she had a really bad heart attack, and we were all called home to be with her before the end. I remember being in the hospital waiting room. There were always so many of us that we were given a separate room, and I remember being there when the doctor told us that he had detected just the faintest movement in her heart muscle, and that a bypass might save her. She was helicoptered to the Heart Center in Houston, and we went down to be with her. She survived a quadruple bypass, thought to be impossible because of the damage to her from the cobalt.

I was with her when she finally traveled home from Houston, she in a wheelchair and me her caretaker. She was not doing well, but we didn't know why, since they told us that she was fine. Well, she wasn't. Her chest did not heal, and she developed a terrible infection that ate away her sternum. Back into the hospital she went. I spoke with her on the phone for long periods every day, hearing about her day and trying to cheer her up. She lay in the hospital for almost a year, a long period of that time with her chest wide open, antibiotics running through her veins and flushing out the wound that was her chest.

Eventually her doctor was convinced they had gotten all the infection out, and she endured yet another operation, with a muscle from her stomach grafted into the place where her sternum was, and skin taken from her leg grafted over the whole thing. It wasn't pretty, but she fought and struggled for her life, and eventually she walked out of the hospital.

This person who was my mother had the will and the determination to survive, to live when others would have given up completely. She moved once again, to be near her beloved son and daughter-in-law and made her final home. It was a beautiful place, as usual, and I visited there several times before her final illness. She had another heart attack, and of course we all expected that she would pull through, but it was not to be. She knew it, too. My two youngest sisters, Markee (who by this time was an RN) and Fia came to stay with her during this time, and each of us came home to visit her. She gave away her jewelry and fur coats to her daughters and told us all to be strong, and what she wanted more than anything was for each of us to be happy. I can still see her sitting in her bed, looking like the picture of health, really, but she knew.

A few days after my last visit with her, she slipped into a coma. We all knew it was just a matter of time now. And then, a few days later, I got a call from my sisters that Mama woke up from the coma! I couldn't believe it, I thought I would never see her again on this side of the veil. Markee put her on the phone, and Mama told me that she was indeed dying, but that God told her she could come back and say goodbye to her beloved children. She sounded weak but lucid, and I remember crying so hard and not wanting to hang up the phone, because she said that when she put her head down that night, she would not wake up again. That's just what happened: she slipped back into the coma.

Although I had just visited her a few weeks prior, Smart Guy and I got in our car and drove back to Fort Worth, not expecting that she would survive until I arrived, but she did. Surrounded by flowers and her children, Mama looked peaceful as she lay there in bed, eyes closed, breathing peacefully. Because she wasn't able to take her medications, she was given a morphine shot every 12 hours. I elected to sleep in her room the night we arrived, and when I woke at midnight to give her that shot, I noticed that her breathing had changed, erratic and uncertain. I took her pulse and it was thready, sometimes almost not there. I called out to my sisters to come quickly, because it was time.

I watched her take her last breath, and then she stopped. By this time we were all there in the room, crying and gazing at her for the last time. We took all the cut flowers from the vases and put them around her face, and she looked beautiful and at peace. After a while we called the appropriate people and they came and took her away. My mother is gone from this earth, but she will never be gone from my heart. I love her and look forward to the time when we see each other again. I know she is with her loved ones, except for those of us still here.

That is my mother's story. She was only 69 when she died. (You can click to enlarge the obit if you want to read it.) She was strong and brave, and this tells you a little about how strong, how brave.


Jackie McGuinness said...

What an amazing woman your mother was. My mother was only 59 when she suddenly died. As I approach that age I worry. But Mom was a heavy smoker as was much of her generation.

P.S. love the bangs I think I have a photo with exactly the same cut!

Leave a Legacy said...

Dear DJ, You are such a beautiful story teller. This one about your beautiful mother really tugged at my heart, as I just went through a similar hospice bedside death with my MIL and her large family. I can see you in your mother. Then in reading her obit and to hear of her love for reading and writing. Reminds me of you. She sounds like she was a wonderful mother. It's so good that you have great memories of her.

Lucy said...

I'm so lucky I had my mom until she was 85! Knowing that you were loved and cherished is so important in life. I think one can accomplish anything with that just one gift.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Even with too-short bangs, you were beautiful!

I have learned anecdotally that many dying patients have some period of clarity...maybe an hour or so...near the end. Your family definitely made good use of that time. And I love that the obituary says she was a frequent writer of letters to the editor.

Buz said...

I can barely see what I'm typing through my tears. We were so blessed.

CiCi said...

You resemble your mother, she was so pretty. She sure was a fighter, and she went through such long term hospital care and long illness. This was a loving and open writing, DJan, Thanks for sharing this inside story of your mother.

The Retired One said...

A beautiful woman with a beautiful story and family. We all should be so lucky to have that kind of loving family by our side when we are leaving and to have the chance to tell everyone we love just how much we love them before we go.
I was lucky enough, too to be holding the hands of both my mom and dad when they passed.

Jo said...

Oh, I loved reading this. How beautiful. I love reading true stories about people's lives, and about the people in their lives. Your mother was so young and fresh and beautiful in that picture with her two adorable little girls. Who could have known then what lay in store for her?

I can see a very strong resemblance between you and your mother.

CrazyCris said...

Very sad and yet uplifting. Your mother was definitely an amazingly strong woman to be able to come through all those difficult medical conditions!

Nancy said...

This was a beautifully written tribute to an incredibly strong woman. I can see why you are the woman you are, because she did not give up even under crushing circumstances.

My mother died of breast cancer when she was only 27 years old. She left behind a six year old (me) and a baby of six months (my brother.) She also fought, but her fight would be nothing like your mother's. Bless their sweet souls. May they rest in peace and may we find a cure to this monster of a disease.

Whitney Lee said...

Oh wow. I can see where you learned to power through whatever life threw your way; you had an incredible role model in that regard. This is a beautifully written tribute. I'm sure this touches on only some of the woman she was. How wonderful that you were able to be there at the end and spend so much time with her during all she endured. It sounds as though you were able to say goodbye without any regrets.

I love the pictures. You're right, you can see just how much love and pride is in that first picture. I had to laugh about the second picture because that cut was a common occurrence for me. For some reason my dad always thought he'd be able to get it right the next time.

Linda Reeder said...

Your mother was truly an amazing woman. I can see where you get your strength.

gayle said...

I really love the way that you have written this!! Your mother sounds like she was an awesome lady!!

Far Side of Fifty said...

What a fighter and a survivor she was. Thanks for sharing this story of strength:)

Stella Jones said...

My mother was also 69 when she died so I understand how if feels to lose your mum at such an early age. It sounds like she suffered a lot and was brave about it. She was loved by all and appreciated by many and deserves to have this lovely tribute that you have given her.
Blessings, Star