As some of you know, my second daughter, Katie, had a long and successful career as a ballerina before she retired to be a mom and teach Pilates. Katie’s experience as a dancer led us along paths I could have never imagined, including introducing me to some of the famous “story ballets” that I’d never even heard of. I remember one story being “The Red Shoes”. Loosely interpreted, a poor young girl longed for a pair of ballet slippers she saw in a store window. She made a deal with the devil to get them, but unknown to her, the Devil’s deal included a clinker. The shoes were bewitched. When she put them on, she not only became a beautiful ballerina, but they so drove her to dance herself to death.
During the process of Robert’s liver failure and subsequent transplant, many people came forth wanting to volunteer to be the donor. The most unlikely, however, was my mother who was over eighty years old. I called her several times a day and passed on news of Robert’s increasingly dire situation and kept her up to date on the search for a donor. During one of these calls, she proposed with a solution. “Let me do it. I’ve lived a good life. I’m ready to go.”
In the self-righteous way that only daughters can talk to their mothers, I put her idea in the trash bin. “Mama, don’t be ridiculous. Even I’m too old. They only want young, healthy donors.” Mama didn’t say much more, but went back to doing the only thing any of us could do at the time, worry and pray. She was pretty good at both.
As the story goes, John emerged as the donor, and Robert’s life was saved on September 27th.
Mama came for Thanksgiving that year, and what a Thanksgiving there was. All the families and extended families of John and Robert gathered together. Mama didn’t feel all that well for much of the visit, though. By Christmas, she was too ill to join my brother and his family for Christmas dinner. By New Years, Mama had been diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. Her liver was eaten up with it.
With the grace that true believers seem to possess, she recuperated from the bowel resection and awaited her death with amazing good cheer, at least when we were around. My brother and his wife lived in Montgomery and had been at her beck and call for years, but my sister and I both lived far away. If it hadn’t been for her “other daughter”, Eleanor, who spent every night with her that one of us couldn’t be there, I don’t know what we would have done during her seven week illness.
On one of my visits home during those last few weeks we talked about where she wanted to pass her last days. Mama decided that she thought she’d probably want to die at the hospital, like Daddy did. I know that in the back of her mind, she was weighing our obligations at home, and knew that would be easier on us if she were in a care facility.
Before her first visit to the oncologist, she had already told me that she had no intention of undergoing any extreme treatments. As he examined her, the doctor found that her continuing weakness following the surgery was caused by blood clots in her lungs and admitted her to the hospital immediately. I’ll have to confess that I was relieved to see Mama happily set up in a place that could care for her so I could go home without feeling so guilty about not staying with her full time. Eleanor took better care of her than I did, anyway.
During this time a planned visit to my youngest daughter in California had already been postponed twice, but a trip with Robert and his family to celebrate his recovery was finally scheduled. We all needed a little Disneyland at that point.
My family, especially Mama, convinced me that I really should go ahead and go, and her doctor assured me that she was in absolutely no imminent danger. Then, I did something that it’s really difficult for oldest children to do. I ran away for a little fun.
We had booked rooms on the premesis, and Molly had planned our itinerary. Unfortunately, the plans hadn't included a rain plan, and we all slogged around in the most miserable weather that California has to offer in February. It wasn't nearly as much fun as I had thought it might be. It was cold and wet and miserable. We had been at Anaheim less than twenty four hours when I got the call from my brother. Mama was failing fast.
The only prospect of my getting out of LA that night was going standby on a flight at midnight and I just didn’t have it in me to do it. When I called back to tell them of my plan to wait till morning when there was a guaranteed seat available my sister took the phone. She told me that if I wasn’t going to make it, I had to talk to Mama and give her permission to die or she would linger awaiting my arrival. (I’ll have to say that I’ve often wondered if she might still be alive had I declined to do that…But my sister was there, and I was not, so I gave Mama my permission.)
“It’s all going to be fine,” she comforted me. I’m ready to go be with Mother and Daddy and your Daddy…I hope he’ll take me back, he was pretty annoyed with me just before he died.”
Mama’s vision of Daddy and Mamo and Popo awaiting her with open arms, and Daddy still holding a grudge, was absolutely clear. She wasn’t afraid at all except of Daddy' gruff temprament. So Mama went to heaven, and Robert is still with us. I often wonder just what kind of a deal she had to make, and with whom, but I really know the answer to that one.
A couple of weeks after she died, I was driving Little Walker to work on a yukky, dreary day, when the sun broke through lining the clouds with gold. “Mom, look! I saw Nana…right up there!”
I hope I’ll have as clear a vision of heaven as my mother and Walker when my time comes. I’m eternally grateful for the deal Mama made, even though I feel her loss every day. I know she’ll be waiting for me, perhaps with a homecooked meal, if I ever make it that far. Now that’s my idea of heaven.