By Julie Anderson
Sundays are always the hardest. There is no mom to call. For 20 some years I would call my mom every Sunday night. Not much was ever new for her, but I loved hearing her voice, picturing her still beautiful smile.
She spent her days sitting on a hard, straight back chair with a green cushion. In her final months she had a million dollar view of Lake Brophy in Alexandria, Minnesota, but she sat with her back to it, focused instead on the cooking shows she had on her small television.
She said she wanted to try balsamic vinegar. All of the television cooks used it.
Her body had given out years ago from scoliosis, a curving of her spine that was not diagnosed when she was a child. I remember vividly the day she told me her life, as she knew it, was over. It was 1998. Never again would she garden. Never again would she visit Minneapolis, the city she loved so much. Gone was the chance to spend the night in a fancy hotel, eating out, seeing a Broadway musical. 'Cats' was one of her favorites. We had so many wonderful nights when she would take the bus from Alexandria to visit me in the cities. I wondered what would become of her gardening hat. It was straw, with a wide brim and a flowered bandana. I wondered what would become of the Martha Stewart gardening gloves that I had given her one Christmas. But, more importantly, I wondered what would become of her spirit. The adventurous, yet quiet, woman who was my mother. How would it be for her mind to remain so determined and her body to become so overwhelmed with pain stubbornly refusing to do even the simplest task: walk to the bathroom, cook her favorite dinners, go to church. When she quit going to church I knew her pain was excruciating. She didn't have to say anything. She had gone to church her entire life. Not going meant she was giving up, giving in to endless days sitting on that hard, straight back chair.
For years hanging on the back of that chair was a well worn gray zip up sweatshirt. I had given her a beautiful black sweater one Christmas but she said it was too good to wear around the house. She might spill on it she said. I wouldn't have cared.
So she wore the old gray sweatshirt when she got cold and that was pretty often. Maybe she didn't move around enough to get any real body heat. I can still picture her bruised hands sticking out of the sleeves. Her skin, nearly transparent, bruised at just a touch. But those hands kept busy doing crossword puzzles. She would do those puzzles from sun up to sun down with the cooking shows playing in the background.
Our visits were predictable. I sat at one end of the kitchen table. She sat at the other. My dad sat in the middle. My parents could not have kids of their own. My mom had three miscarriages before they decided to adopt three kids; two boys and a girl. I'm the girl. My mom was the kind of mom every kid should have. She stayed home with us, let us take all of the canned goods out of the cupboard so we could play store when we were little. And she would wave the freshly washed top sheet over us as we lay in bed. We loved that. As teenagers she listened to all of our troubles. And I mean she listened. She really cared.
I believe she passed that caring on to me. I believe that because of the black sweater I gave her. She found out she had lung cancer in May of 2006 it was opening fishing weekend. When she got the news my husband Brett and I drove up to be with her. I walked in the door and right away I saw she was actually wearing the sweater. I reached down to give her a hug and kiss as she sat on that hard, straight back chair. "So", I said, "why are you finally wearing the sweater"? She said, "Because when you're not here it's like I have your arms wrapped around me." I've never seen my mom cry, so I didn't want to either. But if you can cry on the inside without it showing, I was.
My mom took her cancer news like it was a call from the bank saying your account is overdrawn. Bad news, but something you just had to deal with: make an appointment with the oncologist, get some more pills from K-mart, and go home. I think in some ways she was relieved. She now knew how she would die, just not when. And she had my sweater when I had to return to work.
The next weekend was Mother's Day her last time celebrating the day devoted to moms. Brett and I made her a wonderful salmon dinner with asparagus. She had teriyaki sauce on her salmon. I should have made a salad with balsamic vinegar. She did have a piece of the Dairy Queen ice cream cake I bought for dessert. There's just something about that cake. We had it every year.
At first my mom said no to chemotherapy. She just wanted to live her final days. But for some reason she changed her mind and after just one session her heart rate went into orbit and she ended up in the hospital. She definitely did not want to die there. And she didn't have the sweater. It was Memorial Day weekend and I wasn't leaving her. I spent hours with her in that hospital room. My dad said I should let her rest but I knew she wanted me there. We talked about what a great mom she was and how much fun we had when she was able to shop and go out to lunch. She just loved ordering appetizers. Said she could make a meal out of them. And she loved smoking. From her hospital bed she made believe she was puffing on a cigarette and blew pretend smoke in the air. "Loved it", she said. For ten years at least she had gone without smoking but not without nicotine. She chewed Nicorette gum all day. The doctors didn't want her to have it in the hospital and my dad said we had to do what the doctors said. Of course I ran quick to the store and got her a supply. I snuck it to her whenever she wanted it. When we got her back home I put the Nicorette in the right hand pocket of that black sweater. Dying is not a good time to give up nicotine. No matter what dad said.
When she got out of the hospital June 1, I asked her if she could live until her birthday on June 6. She said yes. I asked if she could live until Christmas. She said no. She celebrated her 78th birthday with her three kids and dad all sitting around the kitchen table. We had another Dairy Queen cake. I picked out a card for my dad. He signed it, I love you very much and underlined the words three times.
My dad’s birthday was two days later, June 8. I picked out a card from her to him. She could barely sign her name but I knew she wouldn’t die that day. She made it to June 10. My last words really were “I love you mom”. She whispered, “I love you too dear.” I was holding her hand when she went to be with God. She was in her own bed with her family around her. As far as dying goes, it doesn’t get much better than that.
At her funeral, I got up to talk about my mom. A few days before, the priest had asked if anyone would be speaking at the service. I said I wanted to and he said that would be fine as long as I kept it short. Kept it short? I thought. How can I keep it short when my mom was the most loving, generous mother ever? She had a smile that would make everyone around her smile too. I tossed and turned for two nights, not able to put together her life in a few short thoughts. It came to me at three in the morning in my parents’ spare bedroom.
“My mom, Charlotte, was a true friend,” I started out, hoping the microphone was working. “You don’t have to look long to see that.” I scanned the rows in the church and said, “I see old neighbors from Golden Valley, who despite their own aches and pains had driven so far to be part of this day. My mom was a true friend.”
“She was a great sister,” I continued. “Her brothers and sister traveled to be with us at the funeral. The brother she used to explore the caves with when they were young. The one she loved accompanying to the opera and theater when they were older. And her dear sweet sister Jeanne Anne who she loved visiting in the Twin Cities. She was a great sister.”
“My mom was the best grandma any kid could hope for.” I looked out on my nieces and nephews. They were too young to really understand, but I told them, “You will miss her and I am so sad you only had her for such a short time. She was the best grandmother.”
“Charlotte”, I said, hardly daring to look at my dad, “was a great wife. She loved her husband so much. They met in July of 1956 and got married that same November,” I reminded those at her funeral. “Their priest said if they were younger, he’d tell them to wait. But they were 28 years old and he said there’s no reason to hold back now.” My dad laughed a little. I was glad. “Charlotte”, I said, “was a great wife.”
“My mom was the best mother,” I said looking at my two brothers. “Brad, Mike and I may not have come from her body but her heart and spirit found their way into us the same as any woman who gives birth. No children could love their mother more although there were times we certainly tried her unending patience. I’m sure some of my relatives remember the time during our teenaged years when my mother joked at a reunion that she sometimes wished we came with receipts. We knew she was kidding. Believe me we deserved it at the time.” I told those at the funeral service that no three kids could have asked for a better mother.
My mom had asked me not to cry at her funeral. She wanted us to celebrate her life not mourn her passing. I told her I wasn’t sure I could do that but I would try. So far so good but the hardest part was yet to come.
The day before the funeral I called my friend Anne and told her about the black sweater and how my mom got it out of the closet and wore it before she died. I told her I was going to talk about it during the funeral. She said she would be amazed if I could get through the story without breaking down.
Anne was sitting about ten rows up on the left hand side at my mother’s funeral. I looked for her in the pews, took a big breath and shared without crying.
We left that black sweater hanging on the back of her hard, straight back chair until Christmas. It just didn’t seem right to move it until then. I quietly slipped it off when the grandkids were keeping dad busy in the living room. It’s hanging in my closet right next to the tattered, fuzzy old black sweater I already had hanging there. My mom used to wear it up at the cabin when I was a little girl. I can remember putting it on when I was just four or five years old. It was so big I could make it fit it all the way to my ankles when I sat on the couch and tucked my legs up to my chest. A button was missing and the right sleeve was torn about an inch from the bottom. She never fixed it and gave it to me that way when I went away to college. I’d worn it when I studied and stayed up late hoping to get into the journalism program at the University of Minnesota.
The sweaters are among my most treasured possessions. I wear them now when I am cold but mostly I pick one out of the closet when I need my mom’s arms wrapped around me.