She was always the epitome of beauty to me. Her thick, healthy, auburn hair fell down past her waist. She was lithe and lovely, feminine and free-spirited, and her perfectly photogenic face was decorated by a dimple every time she smiled. She was intelligent and talented. She wrote literature and painted. She healed and encouraged. She helped and loved people--complete strangers, even. She was amazing.
November 10th, 2002, John Peter Smith Hospital, Fort Worth, Texas, 8:00 p.m.
When I arrived in her hospital room, Larry, her ex-husband, was there, diligently keeping watch over the woman he still loved. I could not stop the tears as I first glimpsed her lying there in her hospital bed. She looked like a machine. Tubes ran out of each arm, leading up to bags filled with liquids in varying colors. Metallic heart monitor leads snaked out from under her blue and white hospital gown. An oxygen mask was strapped over her nose and mouth. She lay motionless, except for her chest which--aided by a respirator--rose and fell in a marked cadence. She was fifty-nine years and fourteen days old, but because of her lifestyle and the fact that Death hovered over her quiet body, she looked more like eighty. Sitting in the chair next to her bed, I leaned over so that my mouth was next to her ear. I whispered to her, encouraging her to do whatever it was that she must do. “Don’t worry, Mother,” I said. “Your sister, Lana, Jon, Amelia and I—we’ll all take care of each other. It’s okay if you need to let go.” It was four hours later that she did, at twelve-forty-five in the morning on Veterans’ Day.
Summer, 1980, Arlington, Texas
I got to ride shotgun this time because Lana and Jonathan hadn’t joined us on our trek to the store. I was excited about getting to spend some time with her alone--just me and mother. As soon as we drove into the parking lot, Mother noticed a lady whose hands were full of shopping bags, plodding away from the store. She pulled up alongside the woman and rolled down her window. “Pardon me, Ma’am? I noticed that you look exceptionally weary. My daughter and I would love to offer you a ride home. Please, let us help.” The woman agreed and I scrambled into the back seat, allowing her to climb into the more comfortable front passenger seat.
Following the lady’s instructions, we drove the mile to her house. Just before the woman hefted herself out of the car, Mother went into lecture mode. “Now, I have a condition to the help I’ve given," she said earnestly. "Since I’ve saved you these 30 minutes of walking time by giving you a ride, I want you to promise me that you’ll rest for the same amount of time. Grab yourself a cold Dr. Pepper and prop up your feet. Take a nap or—better yet—a hot bubble bath! Just make sure you do something for you, please?” As she exited the car, this woman--a complete stranger even--promised that she would.
I was in awe. I must have asked her why she helped the woman because she began explaining. “Loralee, from the moment I first saw her, I could feel the weariness rolling off her in waves. I could do something so simple and it would make her day brighter. It was just so easy to help her. It cost me only a few extra minutes of my time and about twenty-five cents in gasoline. Loralee, please understand this fact—everyone is worth some compassion.”
1979-1987, Universal City, Texas
I was raised in a Yours, Mine and Ours family by my military daddy and my step-mom. The four of us kids knew we were loved, but the instances when we received hugs or actually heard the words 'I love you' were few. It wasn’t this way when I visited Mother, though. The minute she spotted me leaving the airplane, her face lit up in a smile. Each time, I had barely come into her arms reach before I was enveloped in a bear hug and asked the question she often asked, “Has anyone told you today that they love you? If not, can I be first? If so, can I be next?”
Life would teach me in later years that Mother’s more outwardly, showy kind of love isn’t always the best kind of love—or even the most honest kind of love. Back then, however--to a romantic teenager--Mother’s love felt so much more real than the steadfast and quiet kind of love I received every day back home with Mom and Daddy. I wanted to feel her kind of love all the time. And more importantly, I wanted to be just like this beautiful, vivacious, charismatic and outwardly loving woman.
November 13th, 2002, Arlington, Texas
We found mother’s braids in an old checkbook box stuffed in her daddy’s antique secretary. Lana wanted to throw them away, but I vehemently protested. At the time, I was thinking “Locks For Love could use this hair.” There were two braids, each measuring between 10 and 20 inches long. It was in my plans—sometime in the next few months—to cut off my hair and send it in, also. I liked the idea of our hair going in together to the Locks For Love foundation to help make wigs for kids with cancer. This reason alone was a good one for not assigning her hair to the trash bin, but there was, buried way down deep—and not sorted through quite yet--another reason for keeping these braids. I wouldn’t understand for many months that these bits of braided hair represented a mother to whom I was not ready to say goodbye.
September 28, 2002, Arlington, Texas
The trip I made from San Marcos to Arlington seemed really long. Even so, at ten a.m., I was the first child to make it to mother’s home for our impromptu family reunion. The smell of cigarette smoke instantly sparked a headache as I walked into my mother’s cluttered home. I found her seated on her ragged couch in the living room, dressed in her leopard skin baby doll nightgown. Already, her hand was curled around a wine glass which sat on an end table. Within her hand’s reach were several familiar items—a blanket, a lighter, a crossword puzzle book with a pen affixed to its front, a well-worn romance novel, and a plate--3/4s full with the leftovers from last night’s meal.
She asked for my help in getting ready which I gave without hesitation. I hadn’t realized when I’d agreed what it would entail. I helped her up from her couch and we slowly walked the fifty feet to the bathroom. It took five minutes. As we walked, she let me know that she didn’t feel strong enough to stand up by herself in the shower. So, when we got to the bathroom, she stripped off her nightgown and knelt down beside the tub. She looked weak and tiny and frail. Her ribs stuck out in such contrast that, in the right light, she looked like a continuous mountain and valley range. At one point, as I reached down to steady myself, my hand closed completely around her ankle. I felt horrified, but I strove diligently to erase it from my voice as we continued talking about work and school and what was going on in each other's lives. But, in my heart, I was crying with fear.
Summer, 1997, Six Flags Mall, Arlington, Texas
Mother and I saw the older couple walking around the mall as we left the food court to head back to her gift shop. I was 28 that year, so I was fully accustomed to Mother’s way of greeting people--complete strangers, even--and making friends of them. It didn’t surprise me, therefore, when we made the slight detour on our way back to the shop. As we approached the older couple, I heard her say “Sir? I just wanted to let you know that I think you have a beautiful wife.” Both of them beamed brightly as they thanked her and continued with their walk. Mother usually found ways to turn situations like these into life lessons. This day would be no exception. “Loralee, it is so important to give people their roses while they’re still alive. Tomorrow may never come and we hear such an awful amount of negativity in our world. Just a few well-placed words may really brighten someone’s day.”
February 03, 2003, Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas
I was talking to Robert after our literature class one Monday Night. There was no sorrow in me. I had already come to grips with her death, I thought. I was just sharing, matter-of-factly, the little details of my life—like the fact that my mother had passed three months before. But suddenly and intensely—and for the first time, really—I saw her head on that threadbare blue and white pillowcase. With perfect clarity, I saw the ugly, charcoal brown hair, liberally sprinkled with gray. There was no trace of brown or red or blonde anywhere. There wasn't even any of the dyed red in it. Suddenly, I felt her death all over again. She was gone and I would never see her again. My heart, having just started to “heal” from the intellectual understanding of her death, broke again in what seemed like a much more solid and tangible and permanent way. She was gone. And each, every, and all of the wonderful things about her had to be gone, too, didn’t they? I was devastated.
June 1983, Terrell, Texas
It was a Sunday evening and we were driving back from the Texas Greco-Roman Festival in Terrell. I sat in the back passenger seat behind my mother. A strong gust of wind blew a bit of her hair back toward me; so I grabbed it and examined it with care. The sun mixed in with her browns and reds and blondes. At that moment, I was completely certain that there was absolutely nothing in this big wide world which could compete with the beauty of my mother’s hair. Another gust of wind blew a piece of my hair out of my loosely made bun. It landed just next to mother’s hair. I sat there staring at the two locks of hair. Disbelief and awe warred within my 13-year-old insecure brain. My hair was the same color as my mother’s beautiful hair. As this thought sank deeper into my understanding, I smiled with joy. Did this mean I was beautiful, also—like my mother?
May 2005, Austin, Texas
You are a jewel in the sight of God as you are a good friend to those who know you. You have something about you that makes others (complete strangers, even) feel intrinsic worth and that is a gift.
W. A. Baker.
June 5th, 2008, My Dreams
I dreamed about her last night. She was the same, but different. Her hair was cut short like before, but she had let the dye grow out. It was just a regular sort of brown instead of that unnatural red she used to color it. When I arrived at her home for a visit, she was sitting outside under the trees, sipping a glass of something cold and enjoying the setting of the sun. It was a beautiful twilight—my favorite time of day. The sun was gone, but it was still light out. The sky was a beautiful soft blue with pale pink streaked through it. It was breathtaking. Somehow, everything just seemed right with the world.
She was living in an old fashioned cottage that seemed much bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. It was cozy and comfortable and she had all her favorite things surrounding her—her brushes, her paints, and a laptop so she could write. The place suited her perfectly.
We finished our cold drinks—mine was iced tea, no sugar, no lemon—and went inside to clean up. We were meeting some of her friends for dinner. She was smiling and comfortable and happy there in that home. She was dreaming of a peaceful, hopeful life again. She was so different from the woman I had known the last few years before her death. In my dream, I was so very thankful to see her happy and to be able to spend time with her again. But then I awakened. And I remembered. And I missed her. And I cried.