I’ve never been one for birthdays. I understand, of course, why adults make a commotion over marking the passage of time when children are involved. But I’m less clear on why all the bother continues into your twenties and beyond. Congratulations bub, you’re still here!
You and seven billion others.
Even so, when I woke the other day on the morning of what would’ve been my mother’s eighty-first birthday, I found myself thinking of the last time I saw her. It was nine years ago. My youngest and I had flown down to Florida for a short visit just after the New Year. We’d had a pleasant time and were getting in the rental car to drive back to the hotel before flying out early the next morning. Mom was standing in the driveway, the orange glow of the winter sunset stretching out behind her. And she was weeping and waving, as she always did, until we were around the corner and out of sight. It was a ritual she performed whenever any of her four children left.
We’ll be back soon, I’d said.
Two weeks later, she suffered a massive coronary, was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and, protected by her Living Will, was allowed to slip this mortal coil.
She wasn’t sentimental about the end. She didn’t want to be a burden and she certainly didn’t want to spend the final years of her life with tubes up her nose–a sign, she knew from decades of watching As the World Turns, that you were about to be written out of the story.
So, she went on her own terms, her final words: God’s will be done.
In her room, her open prayer book, her check for the Sunday offering, her ashtray. It appeared that she got in one final smoke before she left for good. I certainly hope so. She had no patience for the pleas of her censorious children, the more gentle encouragement of her friends, or the stern admonitions of her doctors. Her body. Her life. Back off.
And there, on her desk, waiting for her executor, a folder labelled, “Dead Mother File.” Within, instructions for the funeral, the music, account numbers, addresses of people to contact. She didn’t fear death; I think the only thing she ever really feared is that some harm would come to her children. So, the folder was meant, I think, as a final reassurance to us. It was a way of saying: What’s the big deal? Everybody dies.
ESM earns her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago with four kids under the age of eight.
I try to explain to my kids how different the world was when I was growing up. My mom put four kids through college and supported my dad’s decades’ long efforts to make it as a writer. She bought a home. She created a study abroad program that made it possible for her to spend six weeks in France each summer for nearly a decade and another one that allowed her to spend three weeks each winter in Martinique. All on the salary of a French professor at a small liberal arts college in the south. No inheritance. No outside help. All on her own.
It doesn’t even seem believable to me.
Because there was not enough room to go around, Mom’s home office was in the kitchen. She’d type up her quizzes and exams in there after we’d gone to bed, happy to be long gone from the bitter winters in Northern Illinois and our single year in Denver, when there had been an earthquake and helicopters hung out over our house, spotlights sweeping the neighborhood for days after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Happy, cramped in her kitchen, drinking coffee and smoking into the early morning hours.
She hustled. She had her dreams and those included getting her kids overseas as often as possible. In those days, if you bought enough plane tickets at one time, you’d get one for free, so she hustled that much harder to get her program to grow. I’d spend the fall typing addresses out of the Modern Language Association’s membership guide, sending an announcement about the program to anyone who worked in a Romance Languages department. (She paid me by the piece.) One summer the program had grown enough so she could take my sister; then it was big enough to take me and my sister; and one crazed summer, it was big enough to take the whole tribe.
Everything was on a shoestring. Mom prided herself on being indifferent to luxuries. The point was not to travel in first class; the point was to have made it to Venice, so you could visit the cathedral. For her kids, the traveling tended to be enjoyed more than the museums. This was fine with her: she wanted us nearby is all; she had faith that, over time, the experience of traveling would transform us. In the meantime, if she only got ten minutes before her favorite Vermeer, that was ten minutes more than none.
Allegory of Painting
When my younger brother was entering his senior year of high school, Mom made a life-changing decision: she changed jobs, assuming the position of Head of the Humanities at a small college in southern Maryland. Pretty much everything went straight to hell after that: selling the house in Florida was a nightmare–the timing couldn’t have been worse, really, with interest rates at their highest point ever.
How do you sell a house when the prime rate is at 20%?
The move to Maryland took place in stages, with Dad spending a year cleaning the house for buyers who were nowhere to be found and Mom living alone in temporary quarters. There was snow; there was some crazy scandal in the uppermost ranks of the administration; the floor in the new house, a two-piece pre-fab, felt spongy.
Eventually, Mom found another job: there was another promotion, another move. And then she was collateral damage when the guy who hired her imploded.
One more move brought her back to Florida, sixty miles east of the college she’d left less than a decade before. Head of the Humanities again, this time at a university for pilots, surrounded by students who wanted to fly and colleagues who were ex-military and not exactly accustomed to taking orders from a woman.
Somehow, Mom kept her head up through all of this, adjusting to each change in circumstance, finding common ground with guys who underestimated her intelligence, who dismissed her liberal commitments, who joked about feminism as a dead cause. How did she do this?
I still don’t really know.
When, improbably, I ended up being elected chair of the department I’m in, I’d talk to Mom every weekend, tell her about the challenges I was facing, the surprises that had walked through the door, the things that had blown up in my face. It was fun: she was a sounding board and a wise advisor, even when she was encouraging me to pursue solutions that were beyond me. It usually veered to raucous irreverence; we were off-the-record and were reminding each other that there are worse things in the world than having people mad at you. It comes with the job, if you’re doing the job of leading.
Invariably, each phone call ended the same way. Mom would remind me to tell my wife and my daughters that I love them and then she’d say:
Don’t let the bastards get you down.
Mom loved a good prank. Indeed, as my siblings and I spent an afternoon in Mom’s living room collaboratively composing her obituary, we kept putting a joke in and then taking it out, laughing till we wept.
She is survived by her four children, her four grandchildren (now five), her three cats, and her beloved pony.
Years before, I was at work when I received an email from Mom, cc:ed to all my siblings. She’d gone to a favorite outdoor eatery on the intercoastal waterway, where she’d fallen in love with a rescued greyhound racer. She couldn’t help herself; she was never a dog person, but she’d just fallen for the poor guy. She’d hoped we’d all understand; she just had to bring him home.
Mom and her Boy
The kids went into high alert mode. What was she thinking? The dog would terrify and/or eat her beloved cats. He’d knock her down, pull her down the street. Full-on catastrophizing was the order of the day.
I tried to be diplomatic.
Was she sure this was really a good idea? After all, she’d raised us on Robert Maynard Hutchins’ mantra: Every time I feel like exercising, I lie down and wait for it to go away. Wasn’t the dog a de facto exercise machine?
My sister tried her hand.
Mom calmly met our concerns: he was great company; the cats loved him; the walking would be good for her.
When she’d wound us up to the point of exasperation, I called her.
Beau, it’s a joke.
I think it was her way of reassuring us that she was happy, enjoying life, and there was no reason to worry.
What are our lives for?
Mom believed fervently that we are here to serve others.
This seems a better response to me than the old saw that says we philosophize in order to learn how to die. Better to spend one’s time learning how to live.
Montaigne, my guide, captures the difference between living with one eye on the clock and living in the moment in his response to Cicero’s valorization of philosophy. No, Montaigne decides after following his own thoughts hither and yon. Rather than devoting his thoughts to how it will all end, he concludes:
Happy is the death that leaves no time for ceremonial preparations.