My mom died suddenly, unexpectedly, the morning of June 13.
She passed less than a month before her 82nd birthday. My brother Kirk and I often had a "What next?" conversation about providing care for the surviving parent -- only we assumed Mom would be the surviving parent, not our recently-turned-91-year-old father.
Then came my mom's heart failure. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital, where she did not regain consciousness. Years earlier, my mom and dad executed a living will. My mother reduced to writing what she repeatedly told us -- that she expected us to refuse "heroic measures" to save her life. She talked about how she said she never wanted to "end up" without her faculties, kept alive only through so-called artificial means.
As my mother lay in her hospital bed -- kept alive and breathing on a ventilator, her weakening body attached to tubes and wires -- one member of the hospital team said: "It looks like soon decisions will have to be made. Did your mother make provisions?"
I went back to Mom and Dad's house to retrieve the living will. But my mother, in her typical fashion, took the decision from the family by dying quietly in the coronary care unit.
So where to begin to honor and celebrate the life of my mother, an outstanding woman, my best friend, my psychologist, my financial advisor, my confidant?
Her circle of friends seemed to grow exponentially year after year. Mom volunteered, taught Sunday school, cooked for friends and family, and made and mended dresses, shirts, socks and coats. She took up auto mechanics, and served as a seamstress coordinator for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The phone never stopped ringing with friends calling, seeking her advice, guidance or counsel, or offering an invitation to breakfast, lunch, dinner, a banquet, a barbecue, a wedding, a retirement party.
Mom performed the role of teacher, philosopher and lawgiver. One time, Kirk and I decided to "run away from home." Now, mind you, my parents' rule against crossing the street required my brother and me, as we fled home, to stay within several hundred yards of the house -- and on the same side of the street.
Who knew my dad could run? He caught me, and we started the long march home, where a severe whippin' awaited. Immediately, I took pre-emptive action. I started bawling right away.
"Boy, don't start that crying," said Dad, a tough World War II vet. "Wait 'til we get home -- I'll give you something to cry about." I tried apologizing. Nothing. I resorted to begging. We kept walking. I could practically feel the leather belt on my behind. Suddenly, a brilliant insight! I remembered the $2.75 in my piggy bank.
"Dad, if you don't whip me, I'll give you a dollar." He picked up the pace. "Two dollars?" Now we practically sprinted. "All right, Dad. Two dollars and 75 cents. All I have."
When we got home, I looked at Mom with watery, but hopeful eyes. Surely, she would intervene, as she had done many times before, to at the very least lessen the punishment. But then my dad told her about the bribery attempt. "Son," my mother said to me, "you're on your own."
For the last several years, my mother appeared every Friday on my radio show. I called her the "chief justice of the Supreme Court," and she gave her commonsensical take on world affairs. Her solution to illegal aliens from Mexico? Invade Mexico, develop it and turn it into the 51st state. She was kidding ... I think.
For five minutes on Thursdays, my mom provided movie reviews. (The day before she died, she called me to suggest possibilities for her next movie.) She quickly became the most popular feature on the show. At the end of each segment, I always said on air, "I love you, Mom," to which she either said nothing or mumbled something like, "Your daddy sends his love." In the 54 years I knew my mother, I can count on one hand the times she said, "I love you."
One of my listeners sent a note of condolence: "Being from the Midwest, I understand perfectly why she didn't verbalize her love for you on the air! We just don't do it that way, and we believe constantly repeating the phrase lessens its value."
The Friday before she passed, a caller from North Carolina gave her the ultimate compliment. Because of Mom's warmth, down-to-earth nature and politically incorrect tell-it-like-it-is Southern down-home manner, she pronounced Viola "America's mom."
She taught my brothers and me to stand up for ourselves, to hold our ground and to refuse to compromise on principle. One of her granddaughters said, "She taught me how to be a woman." Well, my mom, aka the "chief justice" -- along with my wonderful father -- taught me how to be a man.