Circle of Life
"Mom? I need you do something for me.” I watched, barely able to draw a full breath, as my mother-in-law stared into my husband’s face with painful intensity. I could not fathom what he wanted to ask of her.
“She normally looks better than this.” That from Rosalie, my husband’s mother, upon her introduction of me to visiting relatives.
Yep, I normally look better than I do early on a Saturday morning when I am not expecting company and I’m tackling a pile of laundry that looks like the Grand Tetons and a kitchen floor that could only be described as crunchy.
You had to know Rosalie Barnes to be nodding your head in total acceptance of the way she presented me to her sister. Just shy of seventy when I met her, Mom had a fierce countenance and set jaw that could frighten an IRS auditor. She was short on pleasantries. She expected things to be a certain way and, when they weren’t, someone was going to hear about it. There was no gray with Mom. If she liked you, you could find a clue here and there to confirm it. If she didn’t like you, you knew it. Everybody knew it.
She was independent to a fault. Our daughter visited on a whim and found the eighty-five-year-old on her knees washing dishes in the bathtub. The sink faucet had been busted for a week, but she wasn’t planning to tell anyone. That self-reliant streak of hers was wound into every fiber of her being. I had taken her out to dinner after a summer storm; the resulting power outage had left her small village in darkness. I was insisting she return to our house to stay over.
“Why?” she had snapped.
“You have no lights,” I reasoned.
“You think there’s a spot in my house that I don’t know after sixty years?” she reasoned right back.
She dragged her feet about leaving the restaurant, deciding on another trip to the salad bar, and lingering over a dinner roll like it was a rare wine. I agreed to head towards her home, but stated without debate that if the power was still out, she was coming with me. On the road to her place, I watched in astonishment as every house, farm, and business we passed illuminated with the sudden return of power. Don’t throw “coincidence” at me. Those electrons knew what was what.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, a mild-mannered lady turned up in her hospital room to talk to her about getting a wig.
“I don’t need a wig,” she said, jaw like granite.
“Mrs. Barnes, you have an aggressive treatment plan, I’m sorry, but your hair will fall out.” I swear to you, you could hear the gears in Mom’s head locking into immovable position.
Flustered, the wig lady left the room. She didn’t lose one hair. Not. One. Hair.
Hers was a determination born of the Great Depression, a lifetime of work in the family business, and a steadfast devotion to her community. So set in her ways was she, that when we got her some modern conveniences, she simply refused to acknowledge them. The cordless phone was left on the desk in the office while she went into the other room to check on the order. The microwave was used for storing her Tupperware. The copier/fax machine? Well, that wasn’t going to dish the local dirt like the ladies at the post office, so forget it.
But even she had to yield to the intractable march of time. After my father-in-law died, she tried to keep the business going. She insisted on living alone, a demand that forced us to develop a secret network of informants around her to let us know when she needed help. (I still smile when I think of the furtive phone calls. Grown men whispering, “Don’t tell her I told you but...”)
Eventually she came to live with us. Battling illness and denied her independence, she faded into some ethereal, unreachable place between life and death. She hadn’t spoken in days.
It was a Sunday, not long before Christmas, and the nurse had told us that we were getting near the end. We took turns tending to Mom, talking to her with the full knowledge that she was unresponsive and, despite her eyes often being opened, would not really see us. I understood what was happening and accepted it with the comfort of my faith and the knowledge that we did everything we could for her. If we could only have one more moment.
When I rounded the side of her bed, Mom’s eyes were open, and I could see that she tracked my movements.
“Hi Mom,” I whispered, “We’re here with you.”
She stirred, opened and closed her hands and lifted her arm. Her mouth moved. Bright eyes and a little sound from her and I rocketed back up the stairs, calling for my husband.
“Bobby! She’s here! She knows! Hurry!”
When the sight of her only child came into view, Mom illuminated from somewhere deep inside. Her recognition of him was total. She raised her arms and enveloped him in the kind of hug only a mother could bestow.
It was early, not yet 6 a.m., and Bob hadn’t stopped to throw a shirt on. I watched them and was overwhelmed by a sense of the circle coming around on itself. When he was born, Bobby was placed in her arms, wet and naked and crying. And now, all these years later, she cradled her son against her chest, tears on bare skin.
Hovering his face within inches of hers, Bobby told his mother that all was well, that the family was strong, and she had made everything fine for us. There was nothing to worry about.
“Do one more thing for me, Mom,” he asked, brushing her hair from her forehead. “Go find Dad.”
She passed nine hours later.
Everything is in readiness for Christmas. The monster tree has been wrestled into place. The wrapping is done and the menu is set. I’m sure it will be a lovely holiday with much laughter and wonderful surprises under the tree. But no present will ever rival the one we were given on that frosty Sunday, when a loving mother and son gifted each other a sweet release to go on to what came next.