This year, due to COVID-19, was the first Mother’s Day in my life that I did not spend with my loving mother, Lydia. It now seems prescient to what would befall our family yesterday, in that we lost her to natural causes in the depth of the afternoon.
My mother was a lovely, beautiful woman, but only 5’1” and three-quarters tall (she’d bristle if I failed to mention the three-quarters). Yes, although I top out at 6 feet, my mother was quite tiny but she packed a lot of life and love into that diminutive frame. In her eighty-one years, my mother endured a lot. While her childhood and earlier years included more than her share of loss and pain, things changed when she met and married my father in her early twenties. I enjoyed recently hearing a cousin of mine say it was like a fairy tale wedding, my dad coming in as a prince to marry my princess of a mother so they could begin their happily ever after. Their love affair would last over fifty years, produce three children and four grandchildren. I go there quickly because that’s what made my mother happiest: Family.
Everything my mother did was about her family. She was the mother who put everyone in her life ahead of herself, the mom who would happily trade a meal with you at a restaurant if you didn’t like yours. She would watch the film you wanted to see, she’d go to the store you wanted to visit, and even play the board game you picked out. And she went above and beyond just your health and immediate happiness. In Disney terms, I’d call it “plussing it up.’ She didn’t stop at what you needed, she’d do more to make sure you were happy and felt she cared. I still recall one day when I was extremely ill as a child, how she left work early to come home and spend more time with me. Yes, she brought the medicine to make sure I felt better. Yet, she also stopped at the Clarks Drugs counter and bought me an Atari cartridge so that when I felt better, I had this little ‘feel even better’ gift to enjoy. That’s a tradition with us now, we all tend to give little feel-better gifts when someone is really not well (my sister just sent one to my daughter). That was my mom’s way and it counts, that stays with you – notably, I can tell you that the game was Laser Blast (she had called and made sure it was one I wanted) because I still feel good from her generosity that day, almost forty years ago.
When I was older and learned of the difficult life my mom endured as a child, I was flummoxed. How did she live through that trauma and still turn into the most generous, kind, and wonderful mother? She simply took pain and transformed it into love; it became a desire to protect and to care for her children deeply. She was always was ready to help. She really didn’t want much for herself but she delighted in giving and helping. Not that she was entirely opposed to receiving something. If you had a yummy dessert on your plate at a restaurant, she would collect her ‘taste’. From when I was very young, I recall she’d tell us that if she didn’t get a little bite of whatever you had, she’d ‘get a bump on her tongue.’ I can recall getting to an age where I saw through the emotional appeal. I demanded to see the bump, to which she’d say that it’d only manifest if I were to be so ungenerous as to NOT give her a bite. I always did. All that time, I never saw a bump. She could be pretty persuasive.
My mom was also a fibber. I will use that term instead of ‘liar’ because all of her falsehoods were of the ‘white lie’ variety. She would often tell a fanciful version of things to avoid hurting people’s feelings. But she’d also dial them up to get herself out of trouble. As she got older, it was easier to catch her in these little fibs. When she’d say she took her pills to avoid getting hassled for forgetting. We’d catch her and she’d laugh at her deception and demand to know who told on her. She’d get away with it every time. She’d earned it.
She also had a sneaky sense of humor. While she was quite proper for the most part, I recall her laughing loudly (her mirth was high-pitched and catching) at some pretty raunchy jokes when we went to see Chasing Amy in the theater. My own fault for taking my parents to a Kevin Smith film. She also happily participated in practical jokes. My dad told traditional jokes, which I’ve never done. But I definitely got my tendency to deliver deadpan ludicrous details to prank people from my mom.
Both of my parents taught me compassion. While my father spoke about it intellectually and did what he could in his noble work, my mother was a passionate debater that would get into it with someone as he rarely would. While she wasn’t a deeply churchy person, her Catholic ideals of protecting the meek and poor never faded for a moment. She hated bullies, she railed against the obscenely rich who exploited the weak, and she expressed tolerance for everyone. I can recall trying to pull her away from arguments with family who found a way to believe otherwise, but she didn’t go away quietly. In this kind-hearted woman, this is where she got fierce. She was a person of enormous compassion for the common person. I will always love and respect her for that; it was an extension of how she protected her family and loved people.
If my mom’s generosity as a mother was huge, it was truly epic as a grandmother. Her grandchildren could basically do no wrong. Her kids – sure, we were an imperfect bunch but she loved and defended us anyway. But the grandkids? They were her perfect angels and no amount of reality could get in the way of that. Did a grandchild break something? Her fault for leaving it on such a high shelf. Did they misbehave? She’d clearly failed to address all their pent-up energy. Did they do something that their parents directly said not to do? Well, clearly her child failed to make rules that worked well for her grandchild. As a parent of half of those kids, I can tell you that this could be very irritating! Grandma was something of an enabler and when I’d determine a punishment suitable to a crime, she’d openly defy and discount the judgment. Definitely not helpful for young parents, but I knew it came from her indomitable love of her grandchildren. For my kids, she would host sleepovers and they loved to go. She’d make those nights so special for them, with treats and games. I recall her telling me how much she loved them being over. She told me once that they both crawled into bed and snuggled with her, one on each side and how that, for her, was “heaven.” She would do anything for her grandkids. In all cases, she was the primary or only grandma, the one who was closer (physically and emotionally) and participated the most. I bet they’d all say that she more than made up for lacking a partner, so ample was her attention and her care for them. I’ve learned ‘grandparenting’ well from her example, and my children will just have to deal with it. I fully intend to be the exact same way.
Some of my fondest memories of my mom are from the trips we took. As a youth, we didn’t take too many vacations, although I got to do a special one with my mom and dad back to the Northeast and mid-Atlantic when I was sixteen. I was old enough to truly enjoy the time with my parents as an almost-adult and we had so many good discussions. Better yet were the many times my parents and especially my mom came with my family on vacation. When my son was a baby and my daughter was still on the way, we planned a trip to Walt Disney World. My dad wasn’t all that into it, but my mom loved every minute. And she carried my son EVERYWHERE. She knew my wife was already ‘carrying’ a baby, so she took care of my son. I kept offering to take him after we’d walked all day across the massive theme parks, but she would never give him up. To her, carrying a grandchild did not add encumbrance. She joined us many times on so many trips, with and without my dad, when we went down to Paradise Point, our favorite getaway in San Diego. She was always there to spend time with her grandkids, to let my wife and me have some quiet time together, and to be part of our joy. I’m also so grateful that we got to take her and my dad on their final big trip, a return to Hawaii and the islands we visited as a family when I was just eight years old. We stayed close to where we had before on Kawaii and revisited many of the locations, now with my wife and children in tow. As always, my mom was the MVP, helping wrangle the kids, watching them so Christina and I could get a break, and making any and every sacrifice to ensure others had the best time (those famous food-swaps, or indulging the kids with souvenirs and treats) and just being a listener at any moment, and a companion to share in the wonder and the joy. My kids’ grandma could out-grandma just about any other grandma, I can tell you.
Many say you look to your parents for the qualities you seek in a spouse. I was quite conscious of that when I asked my wife Christina to marry me. She has my mother’s care, compassion, and generosity. My mother knew this from the beginning and embraced my wonderful wife immediately, treating her as just another one of her children, similarly loved and defended. I can recall complaining to my mom about marital challenges at times. She’d listen but didn’t ‘take my side’ because she wouldn’t speak ill of her daughter-in-law. She was just another one of her children and I love my mom all the more for that. We lost my mother-in-law twenty-one years ago, and my wife has spoken of how my mother did what she could to fill that gap. She took so much care of our kids and helped us so much. My parents moved close to us when our kids were born so they could be those grandparents that are always around. And it’s no surprise that my wife took amazing care of my mom, too, also out of pure love.
My dad’s stroke some fifteen years ago changed all of our lives, but hers the most next only to him. The lifelong caregiver had to go into overdrive and she was more than equal to the task. She spent over a decade caring for him night and day, making adjustments, doing everything she needed to do to care for her precious husband. Her strength through this was amazing, even as she faced these struggles without my father’s endless optimism. It was tough, but she took such good care of him as they grew older and needed more care, moving from their townhome to a mobile home and eventually to my home (with my dad across the street in a board-and-care facility).
After my father passed away in early 2018, my mother was never the same. While she’d been touched with dementia in the year leading up to his death, the illness grew – often in aggressive spurts. She moved from our home to assisted living and then memory care. Although she had bouts of anxiety and difficulty at times, she remained thrilled to see me when I would visit her each week. We’d go out for breakfast even though she’d have already eaten. She’d delight in a second breakfast with me (I’ll refrain from the hobbit joke based on her size – oops!) and ask about the kids. Sometimes, she’d need to repeat that question rather a lot because her memory was fading, but that was always top of mind. Yes, there were anti-Trump diatribes (of course she hated him, he’s everything she despised), but mostly it was her seizing on and enjoying the details of how my children and my niece and nephew were carrying on. Each small detail was greeted with pure joy; her ambrosia was knowing the family was thriving. I really believe that the isolation from all of us had an impact on her. Yet, she’d have had it no other way. She’s want people to be safe and to be practicing physical distancing, even as it kept her from hugging her children and grandchildren for a couple of months. I cherish that last visit Alaric and I made just before the lockdown. Even as she wasn’t expressive in words, she closed her eyes with joy as she hugged her grandson and then me, knowing she had done well by the world and by her much-loved family.
As I kissed her head a final time, I was taken by how much she still looked like my mom despite the tubes, the state of her health, and the wear of decades. Throughout my life, she never looked different; she remained her same beautiful self from when I was young – perhaps even, back to the image of her wedding picture a decade before I was born – that shining princess smiling as if she knew, already and for sure, how much happiness she’d experience and create in her life. It wasn’t the hair dye. I looked at her that final time as I always did, with the love she showed me how to experience – the power to soften wrinkles, cloud patches of gray, and obfuscate whatever else had changed. I still saw my mom full of a desire for her family to be healthy, happy, and safe. Before I sat vigil next to her in the final minutes, my sister whispered to her that she didn’t have to take care of us any longer – we were ready to care for one another. I also said what I could to comfort her; I told her that all was well, that her family loved her and that it was time to be at peace. The words strung together and ended up in a kind of chant to ensure that her last thoughts would be free of the worry we both would tend to feel. I hope she trusted me about it. I believe she did.
Since my father passed away in early 2018, I feel his presence in my daily decision to greet the world with optimism. My mom is now by his side, reminding me to love before I judge and to work at converting the sense of suspicion we shared into a careful wisdom. That’s how I believe it will play out, although it’s still quite fresh in my head and my heart. Right now, it feels like her telling me to simply add love in heaping spoonfuls to every recipe for living life. It worked for her and I can hear her calming, sweet voice telling me that it should work for me as well.
For those who would like to donate in her memory, we have a funding page for the American Heart Association: https://bit.ly/lydiamemorial. Thank you for reading about our mom.