Last week I was proud to use a fragment of the signature line from my mother’s farewell letter to share my heartfelt appreciation and love for my older sister, Leslie. I may be “the pretty one” Mom was referring to in her parting line, but I will forever think of Leslie when I read it.
All my love always to “the pretty one” from “the only one.”
Once upon a lifetime ago, Mom was … well … kind of a “woe as me” person. At least, that’s how she appeared to me. As I write this, I can hear a mournful, protracted rendition of an old gospel song running through my head. You know the one.
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.”
To understand where that kind of anguish could have originated, you need a glimpse of Mom’s world as a young mother. The seed, to be fair, was probably planted even deeper than that, but this is what occurred in my own lifetime and what I know to be true.
When my sister, brother and I were young, our father would spend months away from home working as an engineer on mammoth ships that transported oil and other commodities to foreign ports. The ocean called often, and he obediently answered. He would periodically drop into our lives, bearing hugs and toting presents, and drop out again, leaving tears and loneliness in his wake.
During our father’s absences, Mom was the quintessential single parent, far ahead of her time. She worked as a bookkeeper in medical offices, kept the cars and household operating relatively smoothly, and raised us with support from our two grandmothers. It was a heavy load to manage in the era of television role models like Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed who kept the home fires burning while their husbands navigated the halls of business. When the weight became overwhelming, Mom often would lament,
“I’m the only one who ever …”
You can fill in the blank with a broad range of grievances from “feeds the dogs” to “cleans the house” and everything in between. She repeated it so frequently that eventually, and with youthful disdain, we sometimes did fill in the blanks.
As an adult, I get it. Her marriage was hardly the stuff of romance novels. She had no consistent partner to depend on and no real balance in her life. The latter was true even when our father was home. He didn’t know how he fit in to the family between voyages, and she didn’t know how to temporarily create a place for him. The stress mounted when our father tried to transition from a sailor’s life to a shore job. He was seriously injured on his first day and spent months in a body cast. His lengthy recuperation and loss of income threw even more responsibility onto Mom’s plate.
As I said, as an adult I get it. As a child I did not. I loved my mother with all my heart but, while growing up, the opinion I formed of her was tainted by the burden she carried. I came to view her as something of a martyr. By the time my sister and I reached our teens, we were bold enough to threaten carving “I’m the only one” on her tombstone whenever she dared recite it.
Thank goodness that our irreverence gradually changed the flavor of that tiresome phrase. It evolved from a symbol of self-pity, to a vehicle to tease her, and finally to a term of endearment. Even Mom eventually began poking fun at herself. Sometimes she would throw the back of her hand up to her forehead in dramatic fashion to mimic an exaggerated stage gesture of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Later, her favorite way to lighten up pity parties (her own or someone else’s) was to rub her thumb and index finger together and say in a high voice, “I can hear the tiny violins playing.”
When I began to take on my own adult responsibilities, the periodic crying jags and bouts of depression I had witnessed as a child started to make sense to me. However, because I had a front row seat to some of her most vulnerable moments when I was at an impressionable age, the perception that she was fragile and perhaps a bit unstable was difficult to erase. It wasn’t until we moved in together, and then began our long partnership as caregiver and care recipient, that I finally saw her in a completely different light. She was far from fainthearted. On the contrary, she was remarkably strong to have served as the head of household in a generation of June Cleavers.
It took nine years for Mom’s heart to fail after her health began to seriously decline. Her list of diagnoses included kidney, heart, thyroid and acid reflux disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and osteoarthritis. Her list of medications was so long that I had to create one of my legendary spreadsheets to keep track of prescribing doctors, doses and special instructions. In addition, Mom was dependent on a rather rigid meal regimen and four daily insulin shots to control her diabetes, was constantly tethered to an oxygen machine, and frequently suffered from diarrhea, bladder infections and external yeast infections.
The osteoarthritis probably affected her quality of life more than anything else. It ravaged virtually all of her major joints and eventually robbed her of the ability to walk more than a few steps. She graduated from a small aluminum walker, to a snazzy Cadillac model with a basket and seat, to a wheelchair. Since anti-inflammatory medications are processed through the kidneys, she was limited to less effective narcotics to manage the debilitating pain.
I lived through all of that with her. Yet, seeing it in print is incredibly powerful and only serves to reinforce the point of today’s installment. Mom was a soldier with amazing courage and strength. Dutifully, she pricked her tender fingertips four times a day to test her blood sugar, dialed up insulin shots, repeatedly drove tiny needles into her bruised tummy, and ate the mostly well-balanced but sometimes monotonous meals I served her. She shook dozens of drugs out of her pill case twice a day and counted them to make sure none were missing. Her life was entirely organized around her medical needs and, quite frankly, she hated it. Yet, she paid the price day after day because it bought her more time to enjoy her family, her dogs and the birds that visited the garden outside her window. With each sunrise, she could read another chapter in the book by her bedside, check one more movie off her must-see list, cheer on her favorite football team or identify an obscure answer for a crossword puzzle. She rarely had time to complain; every moment was precious.
After wasting so much of my own time being unfairly critical of my mother, it was a blessing to have the opportunity for a wake-up call of epic proportions. I firmly believe that things happen for a reason. Mom coming to live with me was serendipitous and undoubtedly opened the door to lessons we both needed to learn. For me, none was more profound than the gift of seeing my mother as the remarkable person she truly was.
“The only one” is a nickname that my mother most certainly earned through the hardships I’ve recounted here. However, in closing, I must add that she was also MY only one. She was my Momma — the only one who knew and loved me from before the day I was born. Other kindhearted adults drifted in and out of my life as circumstances changed, but she was the only one who was always there for me. She was the only one who could calm my fears with a gentle hug, heal my wounds with a magic kiss, listen assiduously to my changing hopes and dreams, and inspire me to be strong even as she was slipping away from me.
It’s been 10 months since Mom left the shackles of earthly life behind, and I am slowly transforming her bedroom into my own peaceful sanctuary. One of the things I will never remove from the wall is an award that the family presented to her at a reunion in 2007. We all laughed when we handed her the “I’m the Only One” award. It was not a joke that we added,
“The only mother and grandmother the Samsel clan would ever want to have.”