My mother would have been 96 on the day I’m writing this column. She died four months ago, at 95. In our frequent conversations, mostly over the phone from two provinces over, and in her last four days as I sat at her bedside, never once did she forget her age. She forgot everyone else’s.
“How old are you?” she asked me, three days before she died. A stroke had distorted her speech. She battled for every word, but she got them out somehow.
An expression of horror crossed her face, as though she couldn’t comprehend having a child that old. “No! Really?”
She shook her head in amazement. “And how old is Rick?”
“Sixty-one, I think.”
She lifted one tiny blue-veined hand. Dismissed sixty-one as one would a pesky fly. “Pffft. He’s just a boy yet! And how old is Anthony?”
“Um…thirty-five, now? I forget my kids’ ages too, Mom!”
“Thirty-five? Thirty-five?” she squeaked. “He’s just a BABY!” She continued her interrogation. “How long have you been married now?”
Numbers dart willy-nilly through my memory banks, blithely ignoring my beckoning. I fudged. “We’ve got a long way to go to catch up to you and Dad. You two have had… sixty-two years!”
She sighed. “Poor Daddy. He’s a GOOD man to put up with me for such a LONG time.”
I hooked our anniversary digit as it do-si-doed through a gray cell. “Well, we’re getting up there too. Rick has put up with me for me…for…uh…thirty-eight years!”
“And THAT’s going some,” she shot back. No hesitation. Eyes twinkling. Enjoying my mock indignation. How did God do that? I wondered. Mom’s stroke and heart attack devastated her freedom of movement, garbled her speech, and robbed more of her already fading memory, but the mischievous streak survived intact.
I haven’t wept hot, bitter tears for my mother. Not like those I had for my older sister, Sandra, a decade and a half ago. Those tears have evaded me. Sweet tears of laughter and joy have not. Laughter at decades of good memories. Pure, undiluted joy that she has no more pain. I am more prone to weep for my father’s grief, and my siblings’, who living nearby, for decades have had the responsibility and blessing of so much hands-on care of our parents.
Ninety-six, Mom would have been today. This morning, as the Preacher and I said grace over our cereal and toast, I asked God to tell her we love her and miss her. To give her a hug from me. To whisper “Happy Birthday.” Of course it’s happy, my heart says. She’s with Jesus. But it felt right to ask, and Jesus cares about things like that.
Grief is a long debt, I tell people, and it must be paid. But let no one dictate the coinage you must use. Today, this is mine.