This piece was first published on May 9, 2013 as a Mother’s Day tribute to my mom. Last weekend, Mother went home to be with the Lord. She was 93, and though we suspected the end was near, none of my siblings nor I expected her to leave us as quickly as she did. Even when you expect it, losing a parent is a shock. So many things you wish you’d said or done before it was too late. I know my brothers and sisters and I all hoped we’d have a chance to say good-bye, to give Mom one last hug. After my sister called to say Mom had become unresponsive, I lay awake praying I’d make it home in time. But at some point, my prayers changed. I thought of Mom lying in the hospital bed, her body swollen from congestive heart failure, her lungs weakening, kidneys failing. And I let God know that if this was the end, He should go ahead and take her home, not make her wait for me. And that’s what He did, that very night.
In a sense, I gave my mother back the wings she once gave me. Not that she’s an angel. The Bible is clear that angels and human beings are different creatures, even when our human body takes on its spiritual form. But Mom once gave me permission to leave, to chase my dreams and start a new life. At last, I had the chance to return the favor. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
My Mother’s Day Tribute
Fresh out of college in 1978, I was eager to change the world. Or at least my corner of it. Volunteers In Service To America (also known as VISTA, the domestic branch of the Peace Corps) seemed a perfect fit. My degree in social work would serve me well in the assignment I’d chosen, and I’d gain valuable experience for a job in the “real world” later on.
Apart from any altruistic or practical motives, I knew a great big world was out there waiting for me to explore it. VISTA could take me far away from my rural, small town Wisconsin roots to a job in Houston, Texas. This was my ticket to exciting new adventures, people and experiences.
My mother wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about letting me travel alone a thousand miles from home. “What kind of work will you be doing? You don’t know anyone down there. Where will you live? Do you have to go so far away? Are you sure you want to do this?”
Yes, Mother, I’ve dreamed of this for years–at least two. With the optimism of youth and more patience than I felt, I answered her questions and continued packing. I had no time to consider her sense of loss. Only a year before, one day after I completed my junior year of college, Dad suffered a massive heart attack and died. Twelve months’ time had done little to ease Mom’s grief, and now her youngest daughter was flying off into the great unknown. My ambitions blinded me to any worries about Mom. I’d miss the close bonds of my family, but freedom called me to Texas, where I knew not a soul. In Houston, I’d prove I could make it on my own. Forced to think for myself, make choices, and provide for my needs, I’d earn my independence. The idea sent both tickles of anticipation and shivers of panic through my stomach.
In those days before security checkpoints, friends and family accompanied travelers right up to the gate. Mom drove me to the airport, leaving early enough to allow us time for a snack at an airport restaurant before I boarded. With the subsistence salary I’d receive in VISTA, I hardly expected to make it home anytime soon. We’d planned to make the most of our last hour and a half together.
With my VISTA-issued ticket in hand, I stepped up to the counter to check in. The airline clerk checked my flight and prepared to place the destination tag on my suitcase. Taking a second look at her schedule, she said, “There’s another flight leaving in a half hour with seats available. Would you like me to get you on it?”
“Yes!” I jumped at the chance. My future called. Bubbling with excitement, I turned to Mom.
Shock. Disappointment. Hurt. Grief. All crowded together in her eyes. She looked away, down at the floor, and pressed her lips together. She spoke with effort, her voice almost like a vapor in the vast terminal.
Annoyed that she didn’t share my enthusiasm, I led the way to the gate. After a couple of quick hugs and a hurried good-bye, I settled into my seat. Taking a deep breath to relax, I recalled Mom’s expression at the ticket counter, her forced smile when we said good-bye. The butterflies in my stomach morphed into foot soldiers slogging through mud pits. A bullet of guilt lodged in my heart as I recognized my self-absorption in stark contrast to Mom’s sacrificial willingness to let me go.
Now, thirty-five years later, I’m a mother who has given her children wings to chase after their own dreams. I know firsthand the effort it took for Mom to say those simple words, “Well, okay.” I understand more than ever the sadness in her eyes when I chose to follow my own heart rather than spend a few minutes soothing hers. Even now, the memory of her expression, the wounded echo of her voice brings tears to my eyes. How many times have I wished I could change that moment? How often I’ve imagined turning back to that airline clerk and saying, “No, thank you. I’ll wait.”
Thirty-five years later I’m still a thousand miles away from Mom. I found the new experiences, interesting people, and independence I sought here in Houston. I met my future husband here; his job kept us in Houston while we raised a family far from other loved ones. Along the way, the guilt I harbored over leaving too soon melted in the warmth of unspoken but certain forgiveness, to be replaced by an occasional pang of regret.
I visit Mom as often as I can but it’s never enough to completely erase the memory of her disappointment. She’s in a nursing home now. At 92, her memory fades along with her eyesight and her hearing. Each time I visit, I hope she still remembers who I am.
I walk into her room, lean down to look into her eyes that seem cloudier than the last time I visited. I take her soft hands in mine.
“Hi, Mom. It’s me.”
She smiles wide, laughs with surprise, pulls me close and lifts her face for a kiss. I sit down to spend whatever remaining time I have with her. Any dreams and plans for world-changing are set aside, because the future is never as important as the here and now.