War Stories

Bless the ships at sea and the boys and girls in khaki.

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An unusual request came my way via twitter…It is 2018 after all.  A 96 year old Marine veteran, recently admitted into hospice care, desperately wanted to talk with someone who, like him, had been in the battle of Guadalcanal. A surprise attack launched in August of 1942 and lasting until February of 1943, that battle was the first major victory and first offensive attack by the allies in the Pacific theater (https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-guadalcanal). My Navy veteran father, age 97, a navigator on an LST during WWII, was not at the battle of Guadalcanal; he was there a year or so later picking up marines that had been in that battle and taking them to Peleliu, another Pacific island where lives would be lost or forever changed.

When I heard about this dying marine I knew it might be a longshot to find someone who had exactly his experience. So, I asked my dad if he would be willing to speak with a comrade-in-arms. “Yes. I certainly would.” It’s been at least 10 years since I got my courage together and asked my father to tell me his own war story. In all my growing up, he had never mentioned those experiences. As a child, I saw him as wise and patient, sometimes too patient and conflict avoidant, seemingly content with a calm and quiet life while I craved drama and adventure. That deep quiet was not so much choice as necessity, a balm to a 19 year old psyche subjected to years of intense, life-threatening experiences. But now, at 97, those memories don’t seem like quite the enemies to keep at bay that they once were. He seems glad to have people like my husband and sons who are intensely interested in what he we went through and what he learned. So I asked my father why he thought it was so important for this marine to speak at the end of his life about these experiences. There was a pause. “I expect he saw some bad old days there.”

My dad is not one for verbosity leaving me to create my own stories about the dying marine. What were the choices he made at 19, 20, or 21 years of age, choices that he perhaps had to make but hated to? Were there choices he wanted to make but could not? What did he witness that haunts his last days? My desire to help this all-too-familiar stranger was strong. Finally I asked my dad, “So does he want absolution?” “Probably. He needs to know he did the right thing. That it meant something and it did. Those supply lines had to stay open. He did what he had to. He did what he could. Someone should tell him that.”

In the end, the social worker who sent up the signal to find kindred spirits for her dying client said the family had decided that the old marine was not up to talking with anyone.  She promised to pass along the flood of messages from people across the country who wanted to help. By email, I conveyed my father’s good wishes and respect. Of course I know nothing of what troubled this marine veteran. Perhaps he wondered why he lived such a long life while others were cut down so young. Perhaps he still worries about decisions made in the fog. Perhaps he again feels the terror of knowing death is close at hand. We will never know all of the secrets these  old soldiers keep. Their stories remind me though that what happens to us when we are 19, 20, 22, and 25 shape us. It was true for them, true for me, and true for my 17 year old son whose time is coming. When I listen to my dad’s war stories, my heart hurts for the young man that he was. But I cannot judge or absolve, cheer-lead or minimize. I can only listen with an open heart willing to break in honor of that brave young man who is my 97 year old father. The stranger/brother marine fought, and maybe still fights, a terrible battle. As the social worker suggested, maybe my father’s ship, the good ship LST 222, picked that young man up at Guadalcanal and took him on the next leg of his difficult journey. We will never know.

Godspeed to the old marine. God bless the ships at sea and the boys, and girls, in kakhi. Anchors away.

 

Coda: It looks like the marine got his wish after all. See this link for more.

https://taskandpurpose.com/wwii-marine-gets-his-dying-wish-to-meet-up-with-a-fellow-guadalcanal-veteran/

What remains.

As my mother was dying, I came across the picture that accompanies this post, a picture I’d never seen before. I’ve looked at it over and over and always feel two opposite things at once: a sudden recognition of some shared, yet indefinable characteristic and conversely, a curiosity about this beautiful woman that I’m not sure I ever met. And how could I? We were of different generations, different temperaments, and although we were close, we were also conflicted. So much that is essential, we can’t see, obscured by our individual short-comings and the daily-ness of it all. We see through dark mirrors during life. Perhaps I am learning to see her face to face.

During these months, I’ve thought a lot about the current “clinicalization” of grief. At eight months out, my grief should be resolved, according to the psychiatric establishment. [Here’s a good review article on the topic. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/pro-a0036836.pdf ] I should have integrated this loss into my daily life and my view of the world. Have I done that? By most any measure, the answer is yes. I am certainly not immobilized in the way the article lays out. And yet…

I would like to have one more day. One more day to sit with her and watch the sun move across the sky from her hospital room window, to hold her hand, brush her hair, to take care of her, to make sure she knew how much she meant and how much she was loved. But that is not how it works and, even if I had that day, it would not be enough. Relationships change and death is the ultimate expression of that. My task is to learn a new language, a mysterious grammar that keeps us connected even across an insurmountable gulf. But the elements of this language are different and hidden. They require every one of my senses and sometimes a sixth to decipher. I have to look and listen noticing the subtle ways in which she speaks.

I see her when our dog frolics with the ball she sent him, a toy he’s paid no attention to in months; I hear her when an aria from her favorite opera unexpectedly soars over the radio; I feel her strength when the morning glories reach the roof before succumbing to the year’s first frost; I learn about her through photographs I’ve never noticed. We speak our old language only in the occasional, fleeting dream.

Is all of this a “cure” for grief or an outcome of it? What remains when we’ve lost someone who is as much a part of us as anyone can be? I can’t be sure. I can only have faith that she is with me still, hope that I can embody all the good that she gave to me, and love that I give to others as it has been given to me. This must be enough and it is.

 

The Dressing Table

Granted such a desire may seem strange. After all, it’s not 1964 and I am not a woman who spends time carefully preparing for a leisurely day of bridge and shopping. These days the dressing table seems a relic from another time, full of memories perhaps, but in no way a necessity.

A few weeks before Christmas, my oldest son, not always tactful, walked in the house and asked, “What is that decrepit piece of furniture doing in our dining room?” I took issue with his characterization and explained that it was my mother’s dressing table, something she had used all my life and probably most of hers. My father had sent it to me and I was going to put it in the bedroom I share with my husband. My son shrugged and proceeded to the kitchen.

The dressing table is something my mother knew I would always keep. Some of my earliest memories are being with her while she was sitting at the dressing table getting ready for a special night out, taking off her make up before bed, or preparing for a regular day. She used it every day and night of my life including the night she fell. For us, the dressing table facilitated ordinary talks, vehement arguments, and revealing conversations. Some parenting gurus suggest talking to teens in cars because they talk more easily when adults are not looking directly at them. The dressing table served the same purpose. As a child, I felt freer to talk while her attention appeared to be focused on the mirror.

In middle school, I wanted a dressing table and was given one. I used it some but I never loved it the way I loved hers. Given the age, my dressing table was a place to construct a mask using the latest the eye shadow trick learned through Seventeen Magazine. As I felt less need for masks, I left behind the dressing table that had been given and have never bought another one. It was my mother’s dressing table that I wanted all along and that I am grateful to have now that she has left us.

Granted such a desire may seem strange. After all, it’s not 1964 and I am not a woman who spends time carefully preparing for a leisurely day of bridge and shopping. These days the dressing table seems a relic from another time, full of memories perhaps, but in no way a necessity. And truly, my son is correct; the dressing table is a little decrepit. It has a chip or two, a drawer nob that should be replaced, and it could use a good refinishing. Perhaps some day soon, I’ll send it out for a face-lift. For now, I’ve polished it and put in in my room. It holds a lamp, various elixirs, some treasures from my children, and a picture of my mother. Moments at the dressing table gave my mother, and I hope will give me, a daily chance to reflect on choices big and small, the ways we present ourselves to the world, time passing, and the chance to think of others while taking care of ourselves. But new habits take time. Right now, it feels strange to sit at her dressing table. In fact, this object that I thought of as such a symbol of elegance and ease, one that I had so long wanted, looks a little lonely and forlorn without her reflection in the mirror. Or perhaps that’s just me.

When Days End

Perhaps you wonder why I write about all of this. This is the third post I’ve written about my mom’s death. And it may not be the last. Is she paralyzed by grief you might ask? No. Is she okay? Yes, I am okay. But life is busy and death is such a demanding teacher…

Friday night…Saturday… Saturday night…Sunday…Sunday morning before dawn…that was how long we had to say goodbye. Now four months later I still wonder, “Did I do it right? Did I say things right? What if I’d explained it this way or that way? Here’s how I could have said it better. Can I have another chance to do this just right? Is there a just right?”

Here’s how it happened. My mother, having lived a long and good life until she was 93, left her house to go out to dinner, enjoyed an evening with friends and fell leaving the dinner party. She came through the hip fracture surgery quite well. She made the move to the skilled nursing rehab facility and had started physical therapy. She had her hair done. She made friends over meals. My dad came to see her every day. Once she was settled in, I went home for a week and a half. But while I was home with my husband and boys, I had strange dreams. Half waking/ half sleeping, the dream state felt like I was inside her head and could feel her suffering. It felt as if she was calling me, asking me to help her. In my head, I kept saying to her, “I’m coming. But I need these days at home. I’m coming as soon as I can. Please wait for me.”

Wednesday, as I was boarding the plane to go back to her, I got a call from the nursing facility saying that they wanted to take her to the hospital for a blood transfusion. Her blood pressure was low, meaning she could not get out of bed to do her physical therapy. Mom told the staff she would not go to the hospital. They wanted to send her anyway. I told them to wait. I’d be there that afternoon. When I arrived, she said she did not want to go to the hospital ever. I said okay. My father said okay. I took my father out to dinner.

While we were out, a nurse told my mother that, unless she went to the hospital, the nurse could not keep her safe…. My mom and I spent that night in the emergency room. The next morning brought a transfusion and that afternoon a GI scope. A huge ulcer was found and repaired. Progress? A turning point? We hoped so. But that night brought more bleeding, more transfusions, and discussion of further exploratory surgery. At that point, I asked to talk with the palliative care team. The nurse and doctor were visibly relieved that I had asked the question. Medicine is such a death denying culture. Who knows what torture my 93-year old mother would have had to endure if I had not spoken for her? Actually, I do know which is why I spoke. But I still wish I did not have to be first person to question whether more diagnostics, more treatment, were really in her best interest. Isn’t that someone else’s job? Well, as all good southern women say, “If you want something done, do it yourself.”

And I can’t say it was easy after the hospice choice was made. Isn’t that strange? We want to believe that if we choose palliative care somehow the situation becomes peaceful, beautiful, etc. It does beat the alternative. But often hospice comes so late that it is only a matter of days between the decision and death. In our case, there was no meaningful talk of taking her home; she was too fragile and my father too conflicted about having her in the house that sick. Instead, she was moved to a different part of the hospital, an oncology ward that was very quiet in contrast to the busy step down unit where she was. We worked mainly with the oncology nurses, not meeting a palliative care nurse or doctor until about 12 hours before she died. There just wasn’t time.

But more important and challenging than the logistics, was her process:

She asked, “Why have they moved me here?”

I explained, “So that you have privacy, have room for people to come visit, and because the unit you were in is for people who have just come out of surgery.”

Then, “Tell me again what is happening.”

Me: “You are bleeding from an ulcer in your stomach. These ulcers often come from inactivity. They tried to stop the bleeding but it has started again. They could do more surgery to try to find the bleeding and stop it again but we’re not sure it would not do much good. But we can do that if you want to.”

Pause.

Mom: “Maybe the bleeding will stop.”

Me: “Maybe.”

Mom: “I want you to look whenever you can and tell me how much blood there is.”

Me: “Okay, I will.”

And I did. And I told her the truth. The blood was still there, in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, and so much of it. And that is when she said, “Then I think this is the end.” Paralyzed, all I could summon up was, “Okay.”

Then, began what I think of as the “seesaw” period. On the one hand she sounded very clear about what was happening. She talked about her good life, friends, my dad, my husband, my children, and me. Yet, in the next conversation, she would talk about, leaving the hospital, living in the skilled nursing facility, but perhaps being able to go back home to visit. This made me cry and I replied, “Maybe.” In another conversation, when I used the word hospice, she was indignant. I asked again if she understood what was happening. “Tell me again.” I told her. She said, “I understand but never use that word [hospice] again. “

Whether doctor or patient, care-giver or cared-for, we want to believe there is one answer that is right and one answer that is wrong. In fact, the wrong answers are often easy to spot. But what about the right ones? I am glad she did not have tubes down her throat, crushed ribs from being resuscitated, or a mind addled from anesthesia. I am glad she had a quiet space to visit with friends, that my father could sit with her, and that there was a place for me to sleep so that she was not alone. I am grateful for the nurses who helped me prepare her body and brought me coffee while I stood watch from 3 to 6 in the morning waiting for the funeral home folks to arrive. But for all that was comforting, the uncertainty of the situation, the imperative of choice with no chance for a do-over is something to be bourn rather than resolved. There is no right path when someone is faced with letting go of a life they still love, no matter how small it is becoming.

Perhaps you wonder why I write about all of this. This is the third post I’ve written about my mom’s death. And it may not be the last. Is she paralyzed by grief you might ask? No. Is she okay? Yes, I am okay. But life is busy and death is such a demanding teacher: one that requires honor and attention for a subject we always want to put last on the list. “I’ll think about that tomorrow or maybe next week.” But we fail this class through avoidance. So I write to try and make the grade.

When we’ve opened a vein…

In the end, my mother died of hypovolemic shock. This means that during the 48 or so hours between when we decided to stop treatment and when she died, the blood drained from her body. With nothing to deliver oxygen to her organs they stopped working. I watched as she became paler, weaker, turned inward, and then took leave. Little did I know that, even then, she was teaching me a lesson I would need very soon.

Her death this summer was not the only trial our family suffered. And while difficult, her death and my grief feels natural and bittersweet, shot through with grace and extraordinary kindness . The experience of her funeral was one of the most beautiful days of my life. People came to be with me when I needed it most. My oldest friend from childhood and her mother were waiting when we arrived at the funeral home. It was the most comforting site I’ve ever seen. My childhood minister’s successor and his wife, spent hours helping my father and me talk about my complex, beautiful, difficult mother. Teachers and friends from high school, friends of my parents, my father’s colleagues, people I’d not seen in years came together in support. There were repeated daily phone calls from friends who could not be physically present. The invisible web we create over time became visible and held me up. My husband, always a prince among men, out did himself in his tenderness. My children learned what it means to say goodbye in the best way, why the life of the spirit is important, and how to honor someone when life is through. Watching their maturity and grace that day was the greatest gift I have received as a mother.

But sadly, another death followed my mother’s “good death” and chaos came with it. One person was literally on life support and someone else was figuratively there. As I’ve thought of all that unfolded , the phrase “opening a vein” came to mind. But, in current parlance, “to open a vein” indicates that you no longer find whatever you are experiencing worth your time and you want to open a vein to escape. That is not what I mean.  Fredrick Buechner uses the phrase http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2017/7/23/open-a-vein to describe a writer pouring their experience into a reader. This definition hits closer to my own:  lending life to someone deeply and dangerously suffering. Such an outpouring is sometimes necessary and always perilous. The blood supply, whether literal or figurative, can be depleted much faster than the body can replenish it. When you “open a vein” for another, you risk your life to save theirs. In my case, others stepped in just as I was approaching the emotional doppelganger of hypovolemic shock. Patience, empathy, and compassion –  the vital organs of the spirit – were on the brink of shutting down. The subsequent tiredness that enveloped me is like nothing I’ve ever known. Yet, I would “open that vein” again and do not believe that I should receive particular sympathy or accolade for what I did. None of us know when we will find ourselves battered and bleeding on our own Jericho road. There but for the grace of God…

Soon it will be time to fully return to the world of the living. But I know I have to replenish. Just for awhile, I am giving myself what I want as often as I can. And what I want is quiet. To sit on the screen porch listening to the natural world, to drink coffee, to walk with my dog as the leaves begin to fall, to survey the profusely blooming morning glories that I planted just before all of this started. I want to be with the truth-tellers, the mystics, those who are gracious, nurturing, joyful, compassionate, funny, and sincere. Those qualities in others feed the spirit and will call me back to who I am at my best. So for right now, don’t count on me to engage in every fight, solve problems, or right wrongs.  The blood supply is coming back up and I am feeling stronger each day. But the porch is open and I welcome good company.

No More Silence on Sam

So many colleges and universities have them. A monument that has been on the campus as long as anyone can remember, located in a prominent place that people pass by each day, and often with a silly, if somewhat offensive legend surrounding them. “General ABC will get off his horse the day a virgin graduates from XYZ University.” Or in the case of the monument currently under scrutiny at UNC Chapel Hill, “Silent Sam will fire his gun the day a virgin graduates from UNC.” For years, these legends were all I could tell you about these monuments on the campuses where I’ve been a student or faculty member. I’ve been around such monuments all my life; many have their roots in the confederacy.

Several years ago, having worked at UNC for quite awhile, my views on monuments began to change. Students and others on our campus were calling for the statue known as Silent Sam to come down. They asserted that it was a symbol of white supremacy and an object of oppression. At first, it was hard for me to muster strong feelings either way. I had no big stake in the statue staying up. I did not feel it was an important representation of my values or “southern heritage.” It was a big statue with a stupid legend attached to it that was passed down from first year class to first year class. Statue up, statue down, whatever – not my issue. Such is white privilege. Nothing in the culture forced me to think about what Silent Sam might mean to people of color in my institution. I had the choice to think about it or not, take a stand or not because the confederacy and what it stood for, a state’s right to enslave black Americans, never felt threatening to me. The confederacy was something for the history books, a question on test, something people I knew romanticized, but not a threat to my very humanity.

However, the student voices were loud. My colleagues were having conversations. There were articles in the newspaper, op-eds, letters to the editor. Those voices pushed me to engage, asked that I listen: listen to how shocked colleagues from other parts of the country were to come to UNC and find a monument to the confederacy at the symbolic “front door” of the University, to listen to how students of color felt walking past Silent Sam every day. For them, Sam was not a statue with a silly legend attached. He was a visceral symbol of hatred and exclusion, something that undermined their ability to trust the institution where they worked and studied. Finally, I learned the Silent Sam’s history. The plaque attached to him described him as a memorial to UNC students who died during the civil war. However he was not erected until 1913 – nearly fifty years after the civil war. The confederate dead had done fine without him until that point. Why was he needed then?

The answer is in the dedication speech made by one Julian Shakespeare Carr, a local businessman of the time.  Here’s a link to the dedication speech.  Look at pages 9B and 10 in particular. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/files/original/c1160e4341b86794b7e842cb042fb414.pdf.  This speech is evidence that demands a verdict. The speech references saving the “Anglo-Saxon race.”  The speaker proudly describes himself “horse-whipping” another human being of African descent and sleeping well afterwards. Though couched in tributes to young men who died in battle for a “glorious cause” and some “all’s well that ends well” language regarding the civil war’s outcome, the violence and values described in the speech churn the stomach. As part of a wider white supremacy movement that was active in the early 1900’s, Sam’s installation sent a hateful message that is and was antithetical to the Lux/Libertas, (light and liberty) creed that UNC holds dear. Sam’s message echoes even if many of us don’t have ears to hear it. He should come down, not because his time has passed, but because he never should have been there to begin with.

 

All views stated here are my own.

Photo Credit

A Letter to My Mother

Dear Fox, Old Friend, Thus we have come to the end of the road that we were to go together…
-Thomas Wolfe

 

Last year, I made a quick visit home to see my parents. When the taxi cab picked me up to take me to the airport, my parents stood on the porch and waved prompting the taxi driver to talk about how much love their simple action conveyed. He seemed to be from a far away country and to understand the difficulty of distance. Implied in what he said, was a directive to make sure that I said what I needed to say and  that it was never the wrong time to express to others all that they have meant to us. When strangers speak to me in this way, I assume that I am encountering an “angel unaware” and listen. In response, I wrote my mother the letter below. I am grateful that she received it and got to read it before her death. At her funeral last week, I shared it with those who came to honor her with a few additional comments. A friend advised that I share it here. 

Dear Mom,

The last few times I’ve been home, I’ve heard you praying in your room, sometimes at night and, during this last visit, in the afternoon. You are often praying for me and Adam and the boys. Thank you. Your prayers help and are reassuring to me.

There are many things I would like to tell you but it is hard for both practical and intangible reasons. The decline in your hearing inhibits conversation and that must be very frustrating to you. But I don’t know whether I could say everything that I want to even if your hearing was perfect. Sometimes it is too difficult to say things verbally and in person.

Ours has not always been an easy relationship. We have different temperaments and have lived such different lives that it is sometimes hard to see eye to eye. But that does not mean that I don’t love you or value all that you have taught me. In this letter I want to tell you some of what I’ve learned from you.

Some of the best lessons are epitomized in memories. I remember shopping trips to find just the right dress with a stop for a yummy lunch or milk shake along the way. Often these trips coincided with a teenage disaster – a romance that didn’t work out, difficulties with friends, or some other such drama. From you I learned not to get too bogged down in whatever was troubling me. In telling me, “Find the right dress and get on with your life,” you were telling me to define myself versus letting others define me. It is good advice and it has stood me in good stead through many storms. Also embedded in these memories is the lesson that taking care of yourself is important, even when you feel your worst. Over the years, I’ve seen others give up on many aspects of their life in the face of difficult moments. From our shopping trips, I learned that, failure or triumph, I was important enough to invest in, whether that be through something seemingly superficial as a new dress or through something more substantive like getting a Ph.D.

Next, I remember you telling me to clean up my room. At the time, I found it torturous. I have no idea what I thought I should be doing instead but I did not like doing it. And I really didn’t like being compelled to do it. But now that I have my own home, nothing makes me happier than creating and coming home to at least a semi-orderly environment. It will never be as orderly as yours but relative to where I started, I’ve come a long way! And I’ve learned that if I can’t manage to make my bed, it is unlikely that I can organize myself to achieve other goals. Most everything I do, both personally and professionally requires some level of planning and organization. I don’t come by these skills naturally. So if you had not taught and modeled these attributes consistently, I most surely would have no capacity to organize my family, my work, or myself.

I remember you helping not only me weather life’s ups and downs, but my friends and your friends too. Someone I knew would be sad or in crisis and would turn to me for help. Not having a clue what to say or do, I would tell you about it and you would say, “Go get her and bring her here. “ I would do that and then maybe we’d make brownies or play the piano. The friend’s crisis might be discussed or not. It was the being together that was important and communicating to someone, that as a friend, you would drop everything for them if they needed help.

You also put yourself in other people’s shoes and anticipated what it might be like to be the new person in school or the person without family at a holiday. I remember many holiday meals with older friends of yours who were otherwise alone. And I remember you encouraging me to reach out to those who were newcomers and to make them feel welcome. I didn’t always do this as a young person. For kids and teens it seems “cooler” to exclude than include. But I remember the lesson and regret the times I did not heed it.

You were a fierce advocate for me and for yourself and I’m sure for others. This was difficult for me when I was young because I didn’t see other mothers standing up for themselves and for their kids in quite the same way. You were not afraid to make noise when something was not up to snuff. Over time, I have learned that being able to take a strong stand, particularly as a woman, is an important skill. I employ it judiciously but when I do, I think of your strength and fire and channel you when I need to fight for myself or someone I love.

I remember and witness still how committed you have been to your marriage. Sustaining a marriage is somewhat like building a structure. As the building goes up there are setbacks, things are more complicated than it looked like they were going to be at the start. Along the way the builders are tempted over and over again to abandon it. Perhaps, they think, it would be a better structure with different framing or a different type of sheetrock or lighting. Maybe the whole building should be scrapped and restarted with different materials. But the most important part of a building is the foundation. If it is solid, then all else can be fixed. You and Daddy had a foundation of commitment and partnership, which seems to have helped you through the spells when you wanted to tear the whole thing down. That is a powerful model for a child. Not every marriage can or should be continued. But almost every marriage contains moments where one partner or the other believes it should be discontinued. You and Daddy found ways to weather those moments. For that I am grateful.

You hate it when I go to China and I am sorry for making choices that worry you. But you should know that it is because of you that I am brave. You made me try things and encouraged me to learn by travelling. It was you who encouraged me to go to Spain during college. I didn’t know anyone else going on that seven-week course. I spoke the language in the most rudimentary way. There were no cell phones to keep in regular touch with home. I would be living with a family I didn’t know. It was a true jumping off point but you greeted it not with anxiety, but with excitement. You told me I’d never be the same after the trip and it was true. The result I’m afraid is that I’ve wanted more and more of learning about other cultures, languages, and people. My work in China is one of the greatest gifts of my life. But I would not have been brave enough to do it if you had not encouraged me to travel. Likewise, because I am adventurous, I have faith that my boys will thrive through their own adventures. Skylar in particular craves this. I will be able to let him have his adventures because you have been able to let me have mine.

You taught me the joy of books. From the soft books I had in my crib as a baby, to the “little books to put in a pocket”, to telling me about your love affair (pre-Daddy!) that featured Thomas Wolfe’s novels, through having me listen to poetry recordings, to encouraging me to write my own poems, to sending me books in college you thought I might like, you gave me a love of language and literature that is deeply a part of who I am. I love language and books because you loved them first.

You gave me faith. As I grew older and you told me about some of the deep difficulties of your own childhood, you told me how God sustained you and put people in your life to help and encourage you. Those difficulties did not characterize my life and so my faith is in some ways different. But I believe in a merciful, loving God who asks us to show the rest of the world His love because of you. If you, who suffered so much so early, can believe, then so can I.

Lastly, you taught me about cycles of life – birth and death – celebration and sorrow. Recently I facilitated one of the UNC summer reading groups for the first year college students. The book, “Being Mortal,” examines our collective experience with death and end of life choices. In the training to prepare discussion leaders, one of the facilitators was talking about how death used to be something children were taught to deal with quite naturally by their families. Yet, in the current age, parents avoid the topic. I remembered vividly Eloise’s funeral and all that you taught me through that experience. I had been to perhaps one funeral before that, Uncle David’s. But at this one I was older and you walked me through every step. We walked to the coffin together and you showed me all the details. How she was buried in the pink dress she had chosen. How she wore her wedding ring. You sat by me as we all talked with the minister about our memories of her. You showed me that, although we all wish those moments wouldn’t come, they could be faced with equanimity and grace and were more meaningful when we could summon courage to look whatever was before us straight in the face.

There is undoubtedly more to say but perhaps that’s enough for now. You have been a strong, beautiful, exasperating, and inspiring, mother. Like all mothers, there may be things you wish you’d done differently or perhaps you wish I’d made different choices. As a mother now myself, I know I question my own choices regarding the boys regularly and, of course, question theirs as well. But as we “approach the end of the road we will go together” none of that really matters. What matters is that you have given me all that I need to have a good life and that I love you with all my heart.

 

So that is the letter. And since she passed, I’ve been waiting for some sort of visitation. After all, if anyone’s mother were going to haunt them, it would be mine! But so far, all has been quiet. I think now I know why.

Thomas Wolfe described death saying: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth…”

I think my mom has found that place. And she is very busy getting everyone there sorted out.