Originally posted May 2010
My Mother died in December of 2007. A week after she died I sat down and wrote this brief and inadequate tribute to her.
A sincere Happy Mother's Day to all to whom it applies. I still miss her.
Early in the morning of her second day in the Intensive Care Unit at Long Beach Memorial Hospital my Mother, Beverly Richards, was startled awake by loud beeps and bells. Her blood pressure had dropped precipitously and her hospital monitoring equipment was alerting everyone. Four nurses, who had been instructed in no uncertain terms that no heroic measures were to be taken to sustain her life, lined the wall she faced. Once Mom understood what was happening (she told me that for a moment she believed that death had finally arrived) she gathered her wits and said, "'...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'" Always the perfect line. But, much to her chagrin, she was not Donne yet.
I awakened this morning at 6:45 AM, the exact time Mom passed a week ago, and felt urgently compelled to write a bit about her. I write only about the woman I knew, not the one you knew or my sister knew or my brother knew or my father knew. Those are different women. I can only speak of the woman I knew as my Mother.
She forever made me laugh. Not with jokes or wit, but with character, the essence of all great comedy. One afternoon when I was at my desk at my apartment in South Pasadena the phone rang. I answered and heard my Mother say, "Hello, this is Beverly Richards, I'm calling to see if my prescription is ready yet." Altering my voice a bit I replied, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Richards, I don't have any record of any prescriptions to be refilled for you." Nothing drove my Mom crazier than incompetence. She said in a stern, teacherly voice, "I phoned yesterday afternoon and spoke to someone, it may have been you, and they assured me that my drugs would be ready today." "I'm sorry, I just don't have any record of that order. Are you certain you're calling the right pharmacy? Maybe you're confused." Oh, man, that really got her. "You must be confused," she said, "for you've confused me with someone who doesn't know what they're doing." "No need to get snippy, Mrs. Richards, I'm trying to help." "I'd like to speak with a manager," Mom said. "I am the manager, Ma'am, and I'm glad that you're speaking to me because I'd hate for one of my employees to have to deal with you." Now she kicked into her fed-up mode. "I'd like your name so that I can write a letter to your employer," my Mother demanded. "Yes, Ma'am, my name is Ronald Washam." There was a long pause. Over the phone line I could hear the gears in her head buzzing. Then the light came on. She laughed. She had hit the wrong number on her automatic dialer and called me instead of the pharmacy. She was a bit peeved that I'd messed with her like that, though she admitted it was funny. Then she asked me, "But are my prescriptions ready?"
It wasn't until I was in my 30's that I realized that my Mom was one of the smartest people I have had the privilege to know. She had always turned to literature and poetry for wisdom and guidance, and she was indeed incomparably wise and contemplative. When she went into the hospital for the last time on Thanksgiving, she made sure to take her homemade book of poetry. The book is her personal collection of poems, from Frost and Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens and Edna St. Vincent Millay and Whitman and innumerable others. The poems are torn from books and newspapers, they are taped and pasted into the book, a Kahlil Gibran Diary for 1976, with her favorite passages underlined with her ubiquitous red pen. Like this excerpt from Stanley Kunitz' poem, "Touch Me."
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
She had me read "Touch Me" to her in her hospital bed and spoke to me about that final line. As if to say to me that her desire to live had abandoned her; that desire which had driven her all of her life, as it drives us all, had fled; but that burning desire, desire, desire had driven her to do all the wonderful things and all the foolish things she had done in her long life; only now, at 83, desire had dried up and blown away, like the abandoned exoskeleton of a dead cricket. If you think I read too much into the words of a dying woman, you vastly underestimate that woman.
As a child, indeed all of my life, my Mother allowed me to be myself. That cannot have been easy. I was shy, withdrawn, moody, stubborn and the pickiest eater on the planet. She indulged all of that, and more (as my family will gleefully attest). I often sat in a different room at dinner. My grandmother would make a different meal for me if the family's meal were loathsome fish or disgusting chipped beef or some other food item I wouldn't dream of eating. Subtly, graciously, lovingly, my Mother's acceptance of me gave me self-esteem and power. Are there greater gifts a son can receive?
Don't worry, I won't go on much longer. My Mother's courage and grace the last few days of her life were awe-inspiring. At the end of each of those last few precious days, after visiting with her family and best friends and her saints-for-neighbors she would say, "I had a lovely day today." She's laying (lying?--where are you, Mom, when I need you?) in a bed in her living room, unable to walk, internally bleeding to death, contemplating her mortality, and, for her, it could not have been a better day. She'd ask me to read poetry to her. Another of her favorite poems (you should look these up, friends) "Sunday Morning" by the great Wallace Stevens. Here's one of her red underlined excerpts from that poem:
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
"we" is double-underlined, it represents a shift in the poem much too subtle for me to have noticed, but language was Mom's stock in trade and little escaped her insight, or her red pen. But, really, "Death is the mother of beauty" is a strange and wonderful thing to read aloud to your mother on her death bed.
The night after the bells tolled for her in the hospital, my Mother stayed awake all night fearing that she would die in her sleep before seeing my brother Robert who was driving in from Las Vegas that night. Inevitably, she found a blank piece of paper, folded it into quarters, unconsciously mimicking the folios of her beloved Shakespeare (or maybe not unconsciously--I, too, tend to underestimate her), and wrote down her thoughts. I know that she would not mind my sharing a bit of what she wrote.
"I stayed awake all night being grateful for all the wonderful, precious people in my life. How incredibly blessed I've been with a brave, loving mother always caring for me, with children who brought so much joy and pride and adventures. How diminished my life would have been without them! I loved the happy days, growing up with my father and mother, my sister and brother, and later in life. The arrival of my dear little grandsons brought new and unexpected joy. And who can express how much our friends and lovers are worth for all they give to enrich our lives?
I stayed awake last night to read the poems I love, many that hold hidden jewels that illuminate life's mysteries in short flashes of insight into our own complex inner being, and the poems that are sheer delight or are beauty made manifest.
My heart is filled with gratitude today, so thankful for one more day."
Mother went into hospice care at home on a Tuesday and had four more days to be thankful for. I am thankful for every day I spent in her company. Her last days fueled my Desire to be more grateful, more thankful, more accepting. My desire to live, not merely exist.