Today being Mother’s Day and I’d like to celebrate it with this story.
It was over. The long night of his mother’s illness. The days upon days upon days of her suffering. She was gone. Only what was left of her empty shell of a body lay under the covers on the bed. All her life she kept her faith. Her last moments were no different. She whispered the word “Jesus”, then she gave up her ghost. Finally she was free of the weight of worry and pain and hard work she carried for her fifty-five years.
Soon his three younger brothers and one younger sister would be there to relieve him of his watch, and they would say their goodbyes. Soon the doctor would come to pronounce her dead and sign the death certificate. Soon the coffin maker would come. He would make her body up best he could and box it up and ready it for the cold, hard ground. Soon that tiny body of hers would be covered with the same earth that was to be found under her fingernails.
For the next little while, he was alone with the woman he called Mother for his thirty-eight years. He sat down on the side of the bed and lifted her very small hand. It was not quite cold yet. He started to make an effort to warm it up with his hands, then stopped. It was no use to try.
Nothing could bring back the warmth of those hands she used to cook and knead dough and mend and chop cotton with. Those hands that ran her fingers through his hair ever so gently. Those hands that folded into prayer thousands of times. Those hands that threw holy water onto her teenage boys to get them out of bed and ready for school, calling on the Name of Jesus to cast out any demons that they might have taken up with.
He felt the callouses embedded in that hand thin and gnarly. He laid the hand gently down by her side, then his hand slowly cupped her hairless skull, bald from the chemo that failed to check the cancer surging through her body. He pushed back what he could imagine was once her hair. The hair she’d taken pride in, hair once black and beautiful, its long tresses folded and pinned into a bun with a set of combs, an heirloom passed on to her from her Cherokee mother. The cancer stole that pride of her hair and left her bald.
His gaze lingered over her face, a face that always carried a smile when she saw one of her kids. The mouth never speaking an unkind word for anyone. And now would never speak comfort to him again with her mellifluous voice. He looked at the veins sticking out from her neck, then the body covered with the sheet and the quilt she’d made in the last two years of her life, that tiny body containing a great heart for all she met along her way through life.
Memories of her flooded through his mind, and they were memories of this woman who called none a stranger. They were memories of the times she sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a listening ear for a neighbor and the burdens the neighbor carried. Of the times she bartered with her children and negotiated their arguments, so they didn’t end up in knock-down-drag-outs. The nights she sang him to sleep with a lullaby when all he wanted to do was chatter and romp and take on the world with his five-year old bravado. The times she poured castor oil down his throat and rubbed his chest with vapor rub, telling him that there was no sickness they could not heal.
It was hard work to make a good man out of a boy, much less four boys and a girl, doing the raising all by her lonesome the way she did. It was a work that never let up but went on from sunrise to sunset day in and day out and all night too, and she did it with nary a complaint. Rather she applied her love liberally but she never hesitated with the discipline. It was amazing what some holy water and a switch could do to get a kid to tow the line. When all was said and done, there was a hug for her kids and her grandkids, when they were in need of a hug. And they knew that those hugs came from a love that reached deep down all the way to her toes and back again.
Then his mind turned to the men in her life. The tenant-farmer Pa, that Joseph of a man who took care of his two young’uns just like that long-ago man took care of the infant Jesus and his Mama. This man, whom she adored, was a blacksmith and a good provider and everything a Pa should be. But her three husbands, they were no darn good. They weren’t worth the dirt she walked on. Hank, the laziest man in the state; Jock, twenty years her senior who had thrown his anger at her in dozens of ways; Tor, the man who had stolen her savings and left her in such poverty she was forced to beg her children for help.
Tears welled up into his eyes and he buried his face in her body. He cried his grief, all his grief into this dead woman’s body, the body of the woman he called Mother.
He swiped away the tears and stood up and walked over to the window. Outside the sun dropped out of the sky and over the edge of the horizon. Streaks of purple, blue, orange, yellow and red colored the sky. Soon the sky turned blue and it was night. A breeze touched his cheek and it felt like a kiss. Then the woman’s soul slipped through the window to join what once was and what is, the then and the now and the forever. She was now a part of everything and everything was a part of her. He looked up at the stars and thought that he had never seen anything so beautiful before. And maybe he never would again.