My Mother Was Buried on Mother’s Day

She was not only a pioneer; she was also highly creative. She painted. Sculpted. Played the piano. Wrote . . . The fact that she was an adventurous risk-taker in all areas of life was one of her greatest gifts to me.

“Your mother has lung cancer,” the doctor told me. “She has just six months to a year to live.” As he spoke, I was immediately transported back to my kindergarten classroom.

It was scary when Mommy left me off at kindergarten the first day. Even though she had promised she would come back for me. The crunchy graham crackers and cool milk helped a tiny bit. But I still cried.

When I heard the doctor’s prognosis, I felt just as scared that my mother was leaving me. It didn’t matter that I was in my forties. She was the only one who truly knew me. Where I excelled. Where I failed. And the wildness within me that led to the kindergarten nickname “Joanypony,” because I was always gamboling off to new adventures. This time, graham crackers and milk wouldn’t sooth me. My mother was never coming back! Even though she had told me her spirit would always be there when I needed her.

Ours hadn’t always been an easy relationship. I didn’t talk to her for several years in my thirties. But in the last 20 years of her life, we ended up mending fences and becoming very close.

My mother defied the odds. She didn’t live for just another year. She lived for another eight years! During this time, she taught me a lot about living. And dying.

“I’m going out with my boots on,” she insisted. She had survived breast cancer decades earlier, and handled subsequent health challenges with courage, always committed to living life to the fullest. When emphysema forced her to give up her beloved red Honda, she got a little red electric scooter, dubbing it her “fire engine.”  She’d don her portable oxygen tank in the same way that another woman might adorn herself with a beautiful silk scarf  – something to give her that special lift – and zip around her retirement community.  Needing an oxygen tank was not going to deter her from singing in the house chorus as if she hadn’t a care in the world.

My mom was a pioneer. In the Roaring Twenties, she was the first woman to swim around Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. And in the 1940s, long before women’s consciousness-raising groups, she started a “Thursday Night Group” where woman gathered to discuss personal and social issues.

She was also highly creative. She painted. Sculpted. Played the piano. Wrote. This artist wholeheartedly plunged into each new art form, not worrying about being perfect. Or even good enough. The fact that she was an adventurous risk-taker in all areas of life was one of her greatest gifts to me.

Another was to allow me, as her health failed, to take on the role of acting as her parent. Talking to her doctors. Telling her stories. I loved the stories she told me as a child about the people who had shaped her life. Now, she sat wide-eyed and enraptured as I told her about the not so conventional ones who were shaping mine.

Our discussions about death were a gift beyond measure. It was never a taboo topic. In fact, nothing was a taboo topic in our home. While most of my peers were dealing with aging parents who had a hard time facing the subject, my mom made it dinner- table conversation.

Death was not something she feared. This had nothing to do with religion. She was an agnostic. Death was just a part of life, and if she lived life fully, there was no more to say about it.

I was with her on the day she died. We both knew it would be her last. I told her my stories, and she listened with the same delight as if it were any visit. I asked her to say the bedtime poem-prayer with me that she had made up when I was a child. In recent years, I’d reclaimed it and made it a mantra. It was even more soothing than graham crackers and milk.

It’s bedtime and so this prayer I tell.
Please bless my loved ones and keep them well.
Make me strong to do what’s right,
And help me do it with all my might.

As I stood at her coffin on Mother’s Day, I was no longer that scared little girl in kindergarten. Or even the frightened woman in her 40s who found it inconceivable to contemplate this loss. My mother had modeled courage. It’s not as if I wouldn’t miss her. For years afterwards I wanted to pick up the phone and tell her one of my stories.  But over time I’ve learned my mother was right. She always comes to me in spirit when I need her.

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  • Charanjeet Singh Minhas May 15, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    Beautiful narrative!

  • hillsmom May 14, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing your Mother with us, as many can relate to your story.

  • Roz Warren May 14, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Terrific essay!