I knew she was sick. I knew she had a heart condition and something weird going on with her thyroid. And more recently diabetes. Did she change her eating habits? No. Did she change her exercise habits? No. Did she change her exposure to the stress of supporting an adult child who lives a Dom Perignon lifestyle on a Mountain Dew wallet?
No, she did not.
She was not following her real doctor’s orders when she sat hours in front of some inane television program instead of exercising her heart by walking around the neighborhood. Couldn’t do that or someone would yell at her! Anti-heart attack activities may cause a massive heart attack told her “Doctor Sam” (Sam is not his real name. He has no actual medical degree, but likes to pretend. So much so, that he wears a set of scrubs into the hospital whenever he visits a doctor or sick friend.)
Don’t get me wrong — she was a brilliant woman. She was creative and artistic. In another time period she might have been a famous fashion designer, or a college professor at some Ivy League School. But she grew up in the 1940s and 50s. The daughter of a woman who insisted she never be called Mama, or Mommy or Mom, but “Mother.” Her mother both idolized and resented men concurrently, and her father so disrespected women that he would bring his latest “floozie” with him when he dropped off his laundry at the home of his wife. Where this stern “Mother” attempted to support four children on the modest salary of a meat department clerk in the local grocery.
The Youngest of Four
So, she grew up poor, the youngest of the four. One brother was a ruffian, with a dark olive Greek complexion like his mother’s people, and an angry streak. Once he got so angry at their father for his disrespect of their mother, that he punched his father square in the jaw. The other brother, fair and blue-eyed, favoring the father’s Scots-Irish roots, was thought to be their mother’s favorite. The only time any of them reported seeing their mother cry was when the fair-haired son went off to join the Navy.
With a flamboyant older sister who resembled Elizabeth Taylor, she felt like the “ugly duckling.” She was not of course, but she always said her sister got the face and she got the body. In those days women could be only two things — Madonna (Mary, Mother of Jesus, not the one) or a Whore. She chose to be a Saint.
So, despite her high intelligence, her ability to write and draw and reason, her mother insisted on the straight Secretarial tract for her in high school — there would be no college prep classes. She joined the steno pool — her shorthand so perfected that 60 years later, she was still leaving notes in the long-forgotten script that few could read but she.
She Meets The Handsome Prince
Like her mother before her, she both resented and idolized men — probably looking for the Ozzie and Harriet father she never had. So when she caught sight of the slender dark-haired, freckled school teacher parking his Thunderbird near the School Board office where she worked, she was smitten. Back in those days a teacher had to “check out” films, much like a library, from the central school board office. So she started watching for the Thunderbird every week. When she saw it drive into the parking lot, she would go down to the supply room for mimeograph paper, so she would be there when the teacher came to check out or in a film. The funny thing was that the teacher started checking out a lot of films for the same reason. When he finally got the courage to ask her for a date it was one of those rare magic moments when two people just know. Ten days later they were engaged. Three months later they were married.
I found a Bible she had given him for his 26th birthday, the first after they were married. The inscription reads,
“…for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgeth, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and they God my God…if ought but death part thee and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)”
He called her Rose
Her husband always called her “Rose.” When people asked why, he would tell them it was because he used to have an old dog named Rose. No one really believed the story. I think it was just something he told to keep people from seeing him as the sentimental softy that he was. She was his Rose. The gifts of ceramic roses, and quilts, and boxes and clothing with roses scattered throughout her house can pretty much attest to that.
She really hated living in the town of her birth — not for what it was, but for what it represented. A childhood of poverty. Living in a duplex where she would hear rats run across the floor at night. Where the family had to share a bathroom with the neighbors. Where her father’s drinking had taken him from the job of an accountant, to the job of church janitor — one obtained for him as a favor to his long-suffering wife. Her brothers had long since moved away, and her sister’s “exotic” lifestyle was a constant embarrassment. Even with a respected husband, a prominent church of another denomination, and a 17-room home once the President’s Mansion of Morris Harvey College, she still felt like the urchin who “grew up on Maple Avenue,” in the poor part of town. So that kept her from reaching out to too many people. “If I only had some friends, she would say.”
She did have a few close friends, an artist named Betty, with a family of her own. Another named Joselyn, with whom she team-taught second grade after going back to college and earning a Master’s degree in Education. With Jocelyn, who was ten years younger she gained an ally to help her become more independent, to be less-defined by a man. More the beloved teacher, versus the “School Principal’s Wife.” She and Joselyn would take shopping trips to the nearby cities of Lexington and Columbus.
There was the weekend that changed her — when she called home and told her young daughter, “Tell your Dad I am not coming home tonight.” She was spending the weekend in Columbus. Her first act of courage in many to come.
She Moves West to Texas
She finally had enough of the city of her birth, and felt “called” to Texas. A woman of great faith, once “called by God” to be a teacher, she now felt called to help her children who were struggling as young adults in Houston. So she and her husband found jobs in Houston schools, and settled in the community of Clear Lake, 25 miles south. There she made friends through her church. It was her faith and church that sustained her, when her husband was diagnosed with cancer soon after she had suffered a heart attack and near death from a medical screw-up that left her with a lung infection that turned to pneumonia, and kidney failure in response to being given an overdose of medication to fight it.
All thought she had given up. But she rose to the occasion and became the caretaker instead of being taken care of.
She was a strong believer in the power of prayer. But even prayer could not spare her watching her once strong husband of over 40 years suffer through four years of radiation and chemotherapy, until his body was so riddled with cancer that there was simply nothing left to do, but watch him slip away two days before Christmas in 2004.
The Red Hat Ladies, UMW and Prayer Group
The once poor little girl from Maple Avenue used the significant nest egg left to her through her husband’s insurance and retirement to do good, going above and beyond the call of tithing — donating to missions, the American Cancer Society, American Heart Foundation, and numerous other causes. She provided clothing to the homeless and food to the hungry. She was generous to a fault.
Too generous it seemed. In her last few years she took care of everyone but herself.
In e-mails and letters to her closest friends, she mentioned her failing heart and her failing health. She said she needed surgery, but was too worried about her son to take care of her own health. For four years she neglected her own emotional, physical and fiscal well-being to care for the same of another. Until everything she had just gave out.
My Mother, the Worrier
My mother had always been prone to exaggeration. She had been telling me she was going to die since I was about four years old. She always expected the worst-case scenario, so it was often difficult to tell her anything remotely negative for fear she would start worrying about the worst. So I didn’t tell her last winter when Joe took me to the hospital because I was having chest pains. I waited until I knew what was going on. First, to keep my brother from rushing down to Clear Lake to start ordering doctors to run a bunch of unnecessary tests. Or to insist I go to the most expensive cardiologist in Houston he might recommend. Or a number of other costly procedures that insurance wouldn’t cover. While he believes he is being well-intentioned, he usually just pisses off the doctors and runs up a bunch of fees that simply are not necessary. I had seen him run off my mother’s doctors time after time, and I didn’t want or need his doing that to me.
But mainly, I did not tell my mother, because I knew she would think the worst. It would stress her out. Then her worrying would stress me out and drive me nuts. So I did not tell her until after I was pronounced free of heart problems, and simply a victim of too much spicy food late in the evening which caused my esophagus to spasm to the point it just felt like a heart attack. When I told her all this she still didn’t believe me. But there was nothing much I could do to convince her other than to continue to live a healthy life across the street from her where she could see I was perfectly okay.
Did I Miss All the Signs?
Years of listening to “The sky is falling in” did not help me to believe her when she told me she was “broke.” We brought her groceries. Checks she gave me to pay us back I accidentally “lost.” When we went out to lunch right before Joe and I left for Italy, I paid the bill. On the way home she told me, “I am glad we went to lunch. We need to go out to dinner when you get back and talk about some things.” She told me she had been putting off a surgery because she was afraid she would die on the table. “And I don’t want to do that to you kids over the holidays like your father did.” But I didn’t want to listen. Part of me thought she was exaggerating, as usual. Part of me just did not want to talk about her death. But in a way, I knew if she made it to Christmas it would probably be her last. She was walking slower. She was forgetting things. We would have conversations at her house, and then later she would call me at home to thank me for something I had brought to her. As if we had not talked 30 minutes before.
When we left for Italy I had a sense of impending doom. I never have that — that was my mother’s shtick. But it kept nagging at me. I thought perhaps our plane would crash. Silly, people would think, if they knew me. So I did not tell Joe. Instead I sent a letter to a friend, giving her information about bank accounts, our landlord, and such, in case we did not make it back — so someone could make arrangements for Jake. For those who know me, I am sure you would have thought me nuts.
Apart from losing our luggage for a couple of days and looking like Texas rubes at swanky Italian galas in our not-so-fresh-from-a 14-hour-flight clothing, the trip was wonderful. I e-mailed and texted my mother when we had service to make sure she knew we were safe. Most of her texts were complaining about Mitt Romney, and as usual, predicting the worst for her candidate President Obama. No amount of reassuring her that the poll numbers were a media shell game would suffice.
In Just Three Days
On the way back I caught a terrible cold. I knew her condition made her more highly susceptible to contagion. When we landed I sent her a text:
“I got a bad cold from my travels so I will not come over to tell you about them until I am 100% well. It’s a nasty cold and congestion.”
She and I were both “night owls” so if she saw my light on in my computer room, or I saw one in hers we would send text messages to each other, rather than waking Joe up with a phone call:
Saturday, October 20
Me: Hey did you watch the second Obama debate? I watched it this afternoon. It was awesome! 12:49 AM
Me: Oh yeah you saw it. I thought it was great. And “Romnesia” is brilliant 12:51 AM
Me: I just took some cold medicine and am going to try to sleep. My body clock is still on Europe time. It is 7 hours ahead. 12:53 AM
Mom: Yuck…. So sorry. I have been so short of breath the past 10 days. My nose ran non-stop last week but it was thin and watery so I figured it was allergies. I certainly hope so but the shortness of breath makes me wonder if my lung is infected again. Hope you get well soon. Yes… I feared they were going to come to blows. I can’t stand Romney but I think he will win. Monday’s debate, I fear, will turn into a mess over the recent fiasco and death of the ambassador. There has been some breaking news by journalists on it. Doesn’t look positive for Obama.
Mom: My nose decided it wanted to run again today only one nostril keeps bleeding. I have stuffed tissue in it and plan to go to sleep soon as I want to take some stuff to JSC’s recycle tomorrow before going to Stamp Camp so I need to get up early. 1:01 AM
Then later that next evening:
Mom: Have appointment with cardiologist Monday afternoon. I want to vote first. What is it about presidential elections and my health ?!!!! I don’t know why I bother as my vote won’t count in Texas! My chest/larynx is inflamed. In fact I feel just like I felt when I had to take three rounds of antibiotics after the heart cath. I hope I don’t have to stand in line long Monday to vote because I surely don’t feel well enough to do that. ARE YOU GETTING BETTER? 8:46 PM
Me: Sorry, we were watching football and phone was in charger. My head hurts and I am still congested a combination of sinuses and taking my glasses on and off to watch football. Because it’s pointless to put in contacts when I have a cold. 9:56 PM
Me: Could also be because I got up at 6:00 am worrying that Jake would sleep through his alarm and not make it to the SAT Prep Class this morning 9:58 PM
Me: I am going to bed now because my head hurts 10:06 PM
Mom: Your sinuses may be infected. Have you ever used nasal rinse… Non prescription packets and plastic bottle. It really helps. All otolaryngologists recommend it as part of the treatment. You might need to at least go see the doctor. Sinus infections can get worse and worse of not treated. Sorry about your headache. I know you must feel miserable. 10:12 PM
As usual, my mom was always worrying. But it convinced me I shouldn’t go over there and expose her to whatever I had caught on the trip.
The next evening came my last “conversation” with her.
Sunday, October 21
Me: I got up at 7 am, still not well but no headache today. Trying to get on a decent schedule. I have my wine class tomorrow evening at UH. I missed the first one because I was in Italy. So I won’t be home til late tomorrow 6:18 PM
Mom: Well, fortunately you know alot already and won’t be affected by the missed class. Joe can probably tell you what went on the first class. Had to take a nitroglycerin tablet and sit down. That is what used to happen before the heart surgery, bypasses and heart attack. Eat…pain or shortness of breath. 6:31 PM
Me: If only you had a glass of red wine every night with dinner for 40 years. Your heart and arteries would be a lot better. 6:50 PM
Mom: Then again, with my family history, I could have died with an alcohol saturated liver… My relatives didn’t tend to do anything in moderation. 6:54 PM
Mom: History of heart disease rampant in my family, particularly mother’s side. She avoided but died of a much more horrible disease. Unfortunately I inherited the genes for auto immune thyroid disease, heart disease and diabetes. 6:58 PM
Me: I must have gotten the other side’s heart then. No issues at all. 7:00 PM
Mom: I am very thankful. I do think you have more of your dad’s genes. Elta was in her 80’s, I believe, when she died but Jack was never certain what killed either of them. I think that is odd but Chester was an alcoholic and she had some arthritis, I think. I know her feet and ankles were swollen and she couldn’t walk in the mall anymore. Both were very heavy smokers all of their lives. 8:05 PM
Mom: Many cannot stop with one drink….such as my grandfather. I have never thought my dad was an alcoholic or his brother, but one of Starley’s son’s was. My dad used it as an anti-depressant. He had a very unhappy life. I think Arlen was an alcoholic, even though he denied it. He was also a heavy smoker for most of his life. I wasn’t around Everett enough to have an opinion. He was a heavy drinker and smoker and started smoking in his PREteens. One of mother’s brothers, Mannie, was an alcoholic but I don’t think any of the rest of the Patronas family was. Maybe one of Aunt Ethel’s twins. 8:05 PM
Mom: Uncle Conk died from a heart attack that he suffered while out fishing. So alcoholism and heart disease were very prevalent in my family which is why I couldn’t get much life insurance. 8:05 PM
Mom: And why I chose to refrain from alcohol and cigarettes. 8:07 PM
Mom: PS The heart disease came from the Bosarge side of Mother’s family, not the Patronas. 8:21 PM
Me: That’s me….one of the crazy Greeks. Haha 8:27 PM
And that is the last thing I said to her.
On Not Feeling Thankful
I was ready for my father’s death in December 2004. He had been sick for a long time. It hurt, of course. But he was so frail, and so sick, and cancer was everywhere. He just wasn’t my Dad anymore when he finally breathed his last.
I was not ready for this. I knew it would come sooner than later. But I was not ready. Too many things left not said and not done.
I could say I am thankful that I at least went to lunch with her before we left for Italy. That I had “talked” to her the night before she died. That I lived across the street from her for the last eight years. And that after every Thanksgiving, I would spend the next day making the turkey dumplings she loved so much.
But I am not feeling very thankful. I am simmering the turkey carcass as usual, but this year it feels a little pointless. It sounds silly and self-pitying, but I feel like an orphan at 50.
I just was not ready to see her go.