Or, what the obituary could’ve and should’ve said.
There’s this beautiful picture. I found it two weeks ago today. It’s 8×11 and a sepia tone, appropriate for the time in which it was taken. In it there is this beautiful woman. I don’t at all say that partially. She is gorgeous. She’s slender — like something off the cover of a magazine more apt to exploit her beauty today than to stand in awe of it like I did when I found the picture. She has the most genuine smile on her face. She is standing there in the photo with her dress “hiked” up so far your first thought is to look away, so that the even happier looking man at her feet can take the garter off her leg. The dress is white — some kind of chiffon — from New York. I remember the story. She didn’t even pick it out. A friend of her father’s was going to New York and she asked him to pick it up — never even realizing what it looked like and still it was perfect. I lament not wearing it. It fit her like a glove but it was she that made it as beautiful as it was. The excited looking man is my dad and she’s my mom. She’s perfect and I hope and pray that I look just like her.
She’s also dead. She died 15 days ago at 55 years old almost 37 years after the photo was taken.
I was talking to my dad on the phone last night — it’s something I think we’ve begun to do at night though I’m not sure we need to. For some reason, right now at least, I just want to. I told him that I’m trying my hardest right now to do all the things I “have” to do. I’m getting by. He validated that and said that I need to do what I have to do right now and then simply do the things that make me happy. Writing makes me happy when I have the time and capacity. I’ve written this over and over again in my mind the last 15 days.
The beautiful woman in that picture wasn’t always so. In fact, I never saw her that way. In fact (as well) I truly always wanted her to be something she wasn’t. Of course, now, I regret that. I wanted a mom that would sit down and watch movies with me — who’d never act like she was too busy to do so. I wanted someone who I could talk to about boys. She wasn’t really that. I wanted to be able to come to her and tell her I had a problem with someone at school without her asking what “I” had done. Please mom, it wasn’t me. I wanted a lot of things my mother never was without ever realizing all the things I had.
Mom’s death was a process. Really her sense of suffering was much deeper than I could’ve realized. As I spent 3 days in the floor of my parents home in Jackson going through thousands of photos I’d never before seen, my dad began to share amazing stories I’d never heard. I couldn’t believe the woman she was — the woman I never knew — the woman before the suffering and depression and, well, other debilitating things she suffered. I heard about my adventurous mom. I heard about the woman my dad fell in love with. I heard about her contentment in becoming a mom and her joy. I heard about their trips and their friends and the brief time they shared before they were married. I heard about this amazing woman, the beautiful, slender woman off the page of some magazine, full of life — the woman I never really knew. And, oh, in hearing…..I loved her. I wanted to be her. I wanted to be the woman who, for most of my life, I didn’t want to be a thing like — I was afraid I would become.
Dad can’t exactly pinpoint when and where it all started to change. You can see it in the pictures though. She begins to look sad. She begins to look worn. The energy in her stance and life in her eyes begins to dissipate. She’s in less photos — doesn’t want to be seen. You can truly see the struggle begin and, despite all she did, despite all my dad and brother and I had done, it all ended 15 days ago. My mom didn’t struggle and lose a battle with cancer or with heart disease and I don’t begin to lessen the intensity to which those diseases haunt us. My mom had a disease that I really can’t fathom though for about 15 years I tried. My mom was an alcoholic. She knew it. She didn’t want it and she fought it and she battled it and she lost. She was the strongest person I’ve ever known and was hurting so badly inside because no matter what she did, she just couldn’t win.
I lived in denial, really, that we’d ever be where we are and many days I still am in denial. I also lived in fear that I would become “that” without really understanding what “that” was. I was 24 years old and engaged to Craig before I ever had a drink and frankly that was out of an overwhelming desire to be anything and anyone but my mother. At 24 I was pretty sure that perception of alcohol and its power wouldn’t change when Craig picked out the most disgusting, dry, bitter, awful red wine to be my first drink. It burned on the way down — symbolically a not-so-gentle reminder that this wasn’t who I wanted to be — a first impression only cured by the margarita I chased it with. Magically I’d survived my first two alcoholic drinks without becoming an addict. Well, there went that lifelong fear until I realized that becoming an alcoholic really is more of a process for most people. It was for her. It was through the photos. It was through the stories. It’s simply something that grew beyond control, beyond choice, beyond want.
My mom was this fearless mother bear type. No one crossed her children. Even when I was in college, only two blocks away from home at Lambuth, if I had a problem with a Kappa Sig (it happened) or someone in the administration, she’d pose for the attack. At the same time she was as proud as they came. Sara made the Dean’s List this semester (apparently my grades had come in the mail — nice to know, mom). She was there for my first testimony to my calling (age 14), my first sermon (age 22), and bought me my first stole (age 24) though she never had the chance to see me wear it (I’m not ordained….yet….we hope). She was there for my commissioning, there for every graduation, there for the birth of my son. In all the being “there,” there are obvious glimpses of her pride, her mother-bear mentality, and her abject stubbornness that only serves to illustrate her drivenness and passion. And so, 15 days out, it’s hard for me to fathom her failing. It’s hard for me to believe in her weakness. It’s hard for me to imagine a yield sign in her existence, let alone a stop sign.
But there was, and everyday I’m reminded that there is. Everyday I get this haunting phone call and hear my dad’s voice say, “Mom’s dead.” Everyday I think of what she’ll miss and all that I missed in her. And everyday my heart breaks. I love her. I loved her but not nearly enough. And, yes, I want to be just like her.
She’s my mom.
Oh, and she loved animals.