On Sunday afternoon, March 29, the telephone rang in my Washington, D.C., office. It was my brother Kent. Mama had been rushed to the emergency room.
It is hard to describe the feeling of vulnerability and sadness when a loved one becomes ill. Kent explained that Mama had become weak at church. She began to sway. Her eyes seemed distant and bloodshot. He knew something was wrong and drove her to the hospital.
I was at my mother's bedside by 6:30 a.m. the following morning. Tubes were strung up, around and through her body. The hospital room was not a calming environment. It was, in fact, a fairly frightening one. Everything seemed antiseptic, from the false lighting to the flowers in a dull white vase, dried out and looking like they might crumble at any moment. It did not seem like an appropriate setting for the strongest woman I have ever known. I tried not to weep in her presence. She lifted her head up and smiled softly.
The doctor explained that Mama had an irregular heartbeat.
She lay in the hospital for a week, as they administered blood thinners and medications. Her breathing seemed choppy and forced. On April 8, the day before her 77th birthday, she was released.
And now I am forced to face one of the saddest facts of all - my mother is in the winter of her life. It is difficult to reconcile oneself to something one can never truly understand. There is only the internal numbness of knowing that something very close will one day cease to be.
At the family farm, my eight brothers and two sisters have returned home to help care for Mama. We monitor her diet, make sure she gets to the doctor every week, and calmly demand that she keeps her lifelong passion for fried foods under control.
Slowly, Mama is regaining her strength. She insists on resuming her daily walks. Every morning, she rather defiantly shuffles around the farmland. She also insists on watching her 1-year-old grandchild, Logan. This brings her such joy. As does caring for her oldest son, Gerald who, as an infant, had a seizure from which he never recovered. He is 45, but cannot talk, or care for himself. At 77, and still recovering, Mama still goes about the slow and laborious task of caring for Gerald with great patience, making sure he is properly bathed, helping him in the bathroom, ironing his shirts, putting lotion on his skin, lifting his spirits.
Who will care for Gerald after Mama passes? The thought recedes for a moment.
As I see my family gathered at the farm, I think about something novelist Robert Nathan once said: "A man's family sets him apart from all other living creatures. ... Only man stands with his children from first to last, from birth to death, and to the grave."
This Mother's Day, our family huddled together like a small nation. This is what family is - full of small rifts and at the same time a cherished ideal. Together, we help and pray for Mama, sharing a sense of unconditional love, as well as a sad understanding that she will leave us one day, a reality none of us can truly prepare for or escape.