Thursday, March 15, 2012
I love you, Momma, and I miss you terribly
The yellow pine pollen bloom is the surest sign of spring. For a week or so everything is covered in a thick layer of yellow dust. Then one day a big storm comes through, all the pollen is washed away, and spring is here.
As I cranked my ’65 Mustang, I noticed the first slight trace of yellow pollen on my windshield. “It’s spring!” I thought.
I was on my way to see my precious mother and hoping it would be a new beginning for her. She had recently had a hip replacement. Just as she finished a good rehab, she suffered a heart attack.
Fitted with a new arterial stent, Celia Emmerich had been released from the hospital. “Get me out of here,” she would tell me. “I can’t stand another day in here.” My mother was a ball of fire. Not well-suited for a hospital bed.
Her heart was pumping great - an “ejection ratio” of 60 percent - 10 percent better than a typical person. But her sky-high troponin enzyme levels ominously indicated damage. “It’s a bit of a mystery,” the cardiologist said.
Any tennis player knows you can play a few extra points even while cramping. But sooner or later the cramps will win. My mother’s courageous heart wanted those last few days and was striving beyond its damaged capacity to get them.
When I got to Mom’s house, she was upbeat and pain-free. She had been exercising on her walker and talked excitedly about recovering.
It was such a lovely spring day, we opened the doors to let in a cool spring breeze. My wife Ginny brought flowers. They were laughing and talking when I arrived.
Linda Whittington, the state legislator from Greenwood, was there. Linda is one of my mother’s dearest friends and stays with her during the legislative session. Also there was Ann Belton, my mother’s longtime helper from Greenwood who over the years had become like a sister to her.
I spotted my mother’s new guitar in the corner. Last month she announced that she was going to learn to play the guitar and insisted I buy her a guitar - “and make sure it’s a good one.”
I resisted her pleas. “Mom, you are 80. You aren’t going to learn to play the guitar.” But she was relentless.
I picked up the guitar and serenaded my mother. She had always been my biggest fan. She would get this trancelike, ecstatic look when I played. When I was a child, she had encouraged me to learn to play the guitar, which I did, creating a lifetime of enjoyment. My mother encouraged me to do everything and anything. There was nothing I couldn’t accomplish in her mind.
I played her favorites including “Sugar Magnolia” and “Mr. Bojangles.” The spring light was special. You could just feel renewal in the air. I ended with a song I wrote: “Time Stops for No One.” She smiled as I sang the chorus, “Dig down deep. Enjoy the moment. Time stops for no one. In just a blink, this will all be long gone. Time stops for no one.”
How did I get so blessed to have this woman as my mother? She was the personification of exuberance. A force of nature. She took the world by storm. She believed there was nothing one could not accomplish through energy and determination. And she proved herself right time and time again.
When Celia graduated from Ole Miss in the early ’50s, she didn’t get married and settle down. Not her. She headed to New York to become an airline stewardess.
Back then, airline stewardesses were hometown celebrities. After getting rejected, she wrote the president of the airline a personal letter explaining how his company blew it. Two weeks later, she was hired.
How many women go trekking in the Himalayas alone at age 55? How many women go to Paris alone for the summer? How many women start a drop-out prevention program that transforms hundreds upon hundreds of young lives? There was nothing she could not do. And she believed everyone held this power in their hands. She convinced me of this as a child and it defined my life.
I could write a book on what a perfect mother she was. She transformed every person who knew her. How many times did people tell me how much they loved my mother? And she was mine. I was her boy. What did I do to deserve this blessing in my life? How could I have been so fortunate?
The fabric of my fragile existence warped into a grotesque slow-motion nightmare as I looked down at her dead body. She lay on an ornamental rug on her back, arms outstretched. She was clearly dead.
I lay down by her side and wrapped my arms around her. Tears flowed like rivers as I said the Lord’s Prayer and begged Jesus to take care of her. I cupped her cold cheeks in my hands and kissed her lips, staring long and deep into her vacant eyes. “Mom, I love you. Come back.” But she was gone.
Nobody knows why the mystery of death is withheld from us. Maybe we travel toward a bright white light and then all our dead loved ones jump out and say “Surprise!” Maybe our spirit is merged into some kind of indescribable joyous medium beyond our comprehension. We know this for certain. We are here. There is something rather than nothing. Why should it be any different upon death?
Jesus said, “In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” I’m afraid that’s about as much detail as we’re ever going to get. It’s too big for our little minds to grasp, but don’t worry. It’s there. It’s been prepared. I am a believer.
Astrophysics has now advanced to an astonishing level. We can analyze galaxies and planets trillions upon trillions of millions of miles away.
These brilliant scientists have discovered that 95 percent of the universe is composed of “dark energy” about which we know absolutely nothing. Nothing. We only know it is there because we can measure its effects. It binds the universe together in some unknown way. Sounds a lot like faith.
There is a huge gaping hole in my soul. But the repair has commenced. Every phone call, every voice mail, every text, every e-mail, every hug puts a spoonful of dirt into that big deep hole.
“I don’t know what to say,” people say. Nobody does. There is nothing to say. But the unrelenting stream of sympathy has kept me afloat. The words don’t matter. The saying of them does.
For the first hour, I keened. Then I cried a river. The second day, I was locked in a dull shock. When I awoke the third day, I felt a strange sense of relief. It was over. She didn’t suffer. It could have been so much worse. What a wonderful, full, perfect life she lived. How blessed I was to be her son.
There is nothing like your family. I am now an orphan. But I have a loving wife, a steadfast sister, three beautiful children, scores of friends, hundreds of colleagues, and a spiritual church family.
My mother loved Whopper Juniors. The night before she died, I made a late-night run to get her some. We were relieved she ate. As I kissed her to say good night she said her final words to me: “You are the greatest son a mother could ever have.” You can’t beat that.
Over the last few days, I have been overwhelmed by the superlatives about my mother. “She was my personal rock star.” “She took the world by storm.” “She packed several lives in her one life.” “Mentor, nurturer.” “She has such a big presence.” “I can’t imagine my childhood without her.” “She was my second mother.” “She had more life than anyone in Jackson.” “She had her own club.” “You didn’t go to dinner at her house. You went to a feast. It was a festival of the senses: conversation, food and energy.”
Billy Neville said, “I had a crush on your mother when I was 16 and when I was 67.”
Elizabeth Moore and her three sisters were devastated when their father, my father’s best friend, died in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. My mother practically raised them.
The day after her father’s funeral, Elizabeth curled up in my mother’s lap on the porch of their plantation and watched dust devils in the fields.
“Whenever anything catches your eye, whenever you see something special and unusual, that’s your father’s spirit letting you know he’s nearby,” my mother told the distraught little girl.
Last week, Elizabeth called from Cambridge, England, where she is married to a professor. I could hear her two young sons in the background.
“I never forgot what your mother told me and I still feel like my father is always near me,” she said over her tears.
I choked back my tears and said, “I never heard that story. Now it has come full circle.” At that moment, I realized why my mother insisted I buy that guitar. She somehow knew. She wanted that one last serenade on that beautiful spring day. Like everything else in life, what Celia wants, Celia gets.
A few days after her death, I went to my mother’s home. Her beautiful porch was coated with a thick layer of the unpleasant yellow pollen. The house was empty. No one was home. The pollen almost seemed like attic dust, as though nobody had been on the porch for years. I was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness and emptiness.
Soon there will come a gullywasher. The pollen will be swept away. The sun will emerge. Spring will be here. Until I die, the pine pollen will no longer be a nasty inconvenience. Instead, it will be a reminder of my mother, God’s cycle of the seasons, and His promise of eternal life.
I love you, Momma. I miss you terribly. Thank you for blessing me for 53 years.
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