In the early 1960s, our family learned a quirky smile from an equally quirky television comedian. It especially tickled my mother’s funny bone. She delighted in repeating his directive and then demonstrating the distinctive grin right up until the last weeks of her life.
If you run a search for the late Soupy Sales on the internet today, most biographies celebrate his trademark pie in the face or allege that some of the puns on his lunchtime kids’ show were not suitable for his viewing audience. I only vaguely remember the pies. The racy jokes, if any, must have whooshed completely over my 6-year-old head. To my frustration, I had a harder time finding something that documented the things I do remember about him. One was his wacky side-to-side dance that he dubbed the Soupy Shuffle. A half-century later, I’ve seen hip-hop dancers do something similar called the Slide Side. I wonder if they know they inherited that move from a once beloved television buffoon who regularly advised us to:
Who really knows why Soupy wanted anyone to jut out their lower jaw and simultaneously try to turn up the corners of their mouth to show happiness. As today’s feature photo (taken 13 months ago) illustrates, the result doesn’t even look much like a smile. I can imagine, though, that he conceived it for the same, simple reason we complied – the pure, unadulterated joy of being silly. For me, that’s certainly how it started. I can’t speak for my sister and brother, but I gradually came to view the bottom-teeth smile as a symbol of the conscious choice to be glad in the face of disappointment, defeat and virtually any formidable challenge. It was fitting that, in one of her posthumously delivered farewell cards, Mom wrote those words down to help me remember a tried and true weapon against melancholy and apprehension. In the past week or so, I’ve surely needed that reminder. In the next few weeks, I will need it even more.
This coming Thursday, November 27th, is Thanksgiving. For the first time in my 60 years, Mom won’t be part of that cherished family holiday. The sun will rise on her 90th birthday on December 4th, but she won’t be here to mark it. Five days after that, it will be 12 months since she passed away.
Bereavement counselors commonly caution that the first anniversary of a death is likely to regenerate the grief that you thought was passing. I’m here to tell you; that is absolutely true. My preoccupation with Mom’s final weeks actually began in mid-September. It was then I started pinpointing days that held certain significance. The last day Mom left the house – for a podiatry appointment followed by a spontaneous lunch out at our favorite Mexican restaurant. The day I knew it was time to call my sister and brother to tell them the end was near. The weekend family from the Pacific Northwest traveled to Nevada for one last reunion. An early Thanksgiving feast to ensure Mom could enjoy her favorite foods one last time on her mother’s China. Her last birthday, celebrated with a single, flickering candle in a cup of chocolate-vanilla swirl pudding and three of us singing as she lay comatose. The icy cold morning when she took her last breath.
The last, the last, the last. It seems like an eternity ago … and like yesterday.
I sometimes wonder whether those closing images will ever fade. Will I always be able to hear the doctor say, “Well, she doesn’t have six months,” as he paused near our front door after making a house call for a hospice assessment? Will I always have a vivid memory of Mom’s poignant observation after most of the family musicians gathered in the living room to play all her favorite tunes once more? “Did you feel like you were at your own wake,” I asked when I helped her into bed that night. “Yes, I kinda did.” Will there ever come a day when I am able to erase the December 2, 2013, recording of General Hospital, when I talked my barely conscious Mom through the moment she’d long been waiting for – Robin’s surprise return from the dead at husband Patrick’s wedding? And, finally, will I ever stop second-guessing how my sister, brother and I handled those last few days and nights punctuated with frequent doses of liquid pain and anti-anxiety medications? Lord, did we do a good job of walking Mom home?
From experience, I know that most of these heart-wrenching memories of our parting days will soften. After a quarter century, I can still conjure up images of my mother-in-law’s final weeks as she wound down a six-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Likewise, I clearly remember the shocking phone call two months later when my father died unexpectedly during an orthopedic surgery. And, in the still of the night, I can relive certain meaningful moments when taking care of my father-in-law as he slowly succumbed to congestive heart failure less than four years after that.
About once a year – not always in the right month – I remember their passing and am unfailingly amazed that so much time has passed since we last breathed the same air. I’ve noticed, though, that the exact days of their departures escape me now, and instead I am more likely to think of them on the joyful days that their mothers first held them in their arms. March 9, 1926. October 9, 1916. September 13, 1923. Those were good times on Mother Earth. Perhaps the one saving grace to come from their loss is the knowledge that many beautiful, precious recollections of Mom will eventually dominate the sorrowful ones. Sealing the deal is that I have more than 20 bonus years of memories with her than with any one of those three dear hearts who, in such rapid succession, beat her to the pearly gates.
Understanding that the future holds more peace is comforting. But, alas, this season the best I can really do is let the waves of sadness roll over me and cleanse my aching spirit. I won’t surrender completely to melancholy, but I’m sure Mom would not mind if I sit in her favorite chair and cry for a bit while that year-old episode of our treasured soap opera plays. She would love it if I continued to browse through photos and videos from our family’s last weekend together – images that clearly show the euphoria generated by more than a dozen hearts filled with abiding love for her. Before drifting off to sleep at night, I can wrap myself in the warm, down comforter she gave me and pray for solace. Every moment of every day, I can work on remembering her life rather than her death, and I can write this online column commemorating what a remarkable, priceless, completely unique mother I had. Most medicinal of all, I can slide to the left, sidle to the right in a zany rendition of the Soupy Shuffle and …
Smile with my bottom teeth.