When I was a very little boy I remember throwing a tantrum, begging my mom to take me for a “drive.” This was sometime in the early 1970’s, and mom was barely in her 20’s. Dad was away, probably at work, and mom—bare feet and all—rolled her eyes, trundled me out of the house, tossed me into the family’s cream-colored coupe (I think it was Grand Prix, but I don’t remember for sure), and took me for that drive. We left the driveway, which looked more like a large gravel parking lot, crept out onto the winding country road running by the house, and traveled down the hill the house sat upon stopping at the intersection of a slightly larger (but equally desolate) country back road. I can’t remember if Mom actually turned the car around, or if she dropped it into reverse and backed up the hill and then further backed into the driveway, but I do recall her bringing the Pontiac to rest back in front of the house—her bare foot still depressing the brake pedal that proudly advertised the use of “disc brakes”—and I also remember her flash of irritation while she was turning to me.
—–“There,” she said. “That better?”
—–Somehow, in my four or five-year-old brain…after what had to be a couple solid hours of pestering her about taking me for a spin, the three-minute drive to the edge of Shepherd Patrick Road was indeed enough. I was content.
—–Before my mom fell ill last fall, I very rarely thought about that event. Like everyone else, my first half-decade on earth is a patchwork collection of snippets of memories, so disjointed that I question everything and usually assume that what I’m remembering is far from what actually happened. But now my mom is ill, and she’s not doing well. And lately that particular memory is one I can’t stop thinking about.
—–Early this year my brother, my dad, mom, and I sat in a small examination room in Putnam County Hospital, and listened as mom’s oncologist laid out the details. After writing “Stage 4” in black dry-erase marker next to the cross-section of the human thorax, the doctor started planting black dots throughout the abdomen, representing all the cancer her scans had revealed. He drew a huge, thick mass deep in the colon (a place where I myself had a tumor less than a year before); then he put dots all over the bottom of the lungs, and all but completely covered the liver, and finally placed a few more in the middle lymph-node region.
—–“We’re not talking about a cure,” the doctor said. “We’re talking about containment of the disease and then quality of life.” I will never forget those words, and I will also always remember the deft manner in which the man balanced a professional frankness with basic human kindness. This was nothing like the stereotypical Hollywood cliché depicting the aloof technician lost in theory and his next breakthrough publication. This was a man who had bad news to deliver…didn’t really want to…but did it anyway, fully aware and fully empathetic about the reality that his news would crush us.
—–Five months later, mom is still with us, resting at home under the care of a hospice organization. She’s often alert and lucid, but sometimes she’s loopy and disoriented. She’s almost always very tired, occasionally has trouble breathing, and for the most part hasn’t been on her feet since her March surgery which removed the largest mass in her colon. But when I talk to her, when I make eye contact with her I still see the woman who raised me. I still see the middle-aged mother with her hair in that dark 80’s perm working the teller’s station at the old Savings and Loan. I still see the professional banker, in her gray blazer sitting in her assistant manager’s office at the People’s State Bank a few years later.
—–I still see the woman who, when a corrupt good-ol’-boy school board had abused their power for the “nth” time, had said, “That’s enough,” and ran for one of their seats. Two of those Boss Hog types even had the temerity to walk into her office at the bank and tell her to drop out of the race…she wasn’t going to win, they said to her.
—–She did win. Four years later, the man she unseated challenged her and she beat him again.
—–When her political aspirations ended with her failed 2000 state senate campaign, her critics (and after seven years on a local school board she had plenty of those) took their expected pot-shots. But for all their criticism they failed to acknowledge the only attribute about mom that mattered: if she saw a problem, she did something about it. Losing the race…? That happens to more than half the people who try. But actually running…? Actually putting her name in that voting booth…? That takes a measure of courage and conviction which few people possess.
—–This was always the benchmark by which Mom lived her life. When the town needed a memorial for the county’s war veterans, she spear-headed the committee which made it happen. She was instrumental is keeping the surviving members of her late-brother’s Vietnam unit together, and even as a fully grown adult I could still turn to her for advice about my problems with a bad boss at work, or during a rough patch in my marriage.
—–I understand that what’s happening right now is very natural. People grow up, raise children, and leave the world behind to them. I’m not the first person facing the possible loss of a parent, and I get that this doesn’t make me that particularly special. But I can’t really get past how intensely personal all of this feels, and how powerfully it isolates me at times. And accepting the matter-of-factness of it doesn’t take away the urgency, either. I have never lived in a world without my mom, and for that reason I was always able to keep a smidge of that four-year-old boy inside me. All of us who grow up with our parents in our lives carry some vestige of the little child in us. It’s only at the moment of ultimate separation when we have to cut that little one loose, and it’s really only as that moment nears that we realize just how hard letting go is.
—–I don’t know if this will be mom’s last Mother’s Day or not. Like the rest of the family, I’m holding out for a miracle. I don’t think that’s an irrational concept. She’s my mom, and she deserves at least that from me…probably a lot more. But if this is her last holiday with us, I want her to know not just that I love her, but why I love her. It’s not because she has spent her entire life “taking me on drives to the end of the road” when I needed her. It’s not because she was the voice of reason who often kept me from metaphorically jumping into the fire. It’s not because she assumed the role of grandmother with the same energy as she did running for office and starting a community project. I love my mom because when I look at her, I see the person I wish I could be. And throughout all those Mother’s Days—and all the days in between—she has been the best of what humanity offers the world.