Tag Archives: loss of a mother

The Kingdom of the Wing Chair

I knew that when Dad died, it would be hard to have a room in my home that was so linked to him in my mind. I didn’t want it to be a mausoleum nor did I want to purge it of his presence. I want it to be a sanctuary where guests are welcomed but where I can still retreat to remember the last seven years that he lived here. My big idea is to have a friend create a painting that honors my memory of him. And as time has gone on – now four months since he died – I realize there is no way to create something about Dad that doesn’t include Mom. Though they were strong individuals, they were that rare couple that becomes a single entity through the strange chemistry of attraction and the catalyst of shared experience.

When I initially imagined a painting, I thought about it honoring my parents as I knew them at the end of their lives. But now I picture it drawing upon a long-ago period, a period when they were the pillars of my world, and I was small.

I don’t write poetry – at least I haven’t in years – but somehow thinking about the painting prompted this:

It should have a wing chair in it.

We always had wing chairs.

It was where Daddy let the stress of the day ooze out of him

While he read the paper, sipped a scotch on the rocks,

And maybe another.

Sometimes his hand would rest lightly

On the head of one of our spaniels,

Who sat stock still for his attention.

It was where I sat on his lap.

Where he read to me about the Land of Oz.

I wanted to be like Ozma who rescues Dorothy

From the terrors of the disturbing Wheelers.

People shouldn’t have wheels where hands and feet should be.

But then Daddy’s shouldn’t have heart attacks,

And dogs shouldn’t bite you in the neck,

And Nana’s shouldn’t die.

I wanted to be brave.

Sometimes Mom would stand next to the chair,

Her hand resting lightly on the wing

The hand with her wedding ring

Loose at her side.

Smiling as a present was opened,

Laughing at a joke,

Meeting Daddy’s eyes and sparkling.

Sometimes he would look at her and quote something

About a barge with purple perfumed sails and love-sick winds.

Next to her I could smell the delicate scent of her bath powder,

Which she applied with a fluffy puff that made me sneeze.

There were fights sometimes, and those scared me.

Mother’s voice rising, then father’s, and mother’s right back.

I knew bad things could happen to parents,

Would it happen to mine?

But when it was over it was over.

But nothing bad ever seemed to happen in the kingdom of the wing chair.

It was sacred space.

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Seeing Mom Among the Flowers

A member of the Washington National Cathedral Altar Guild

Friday was my “Mother’s Day.” Mom, gone since 1999, felt so present to me all day. I came east to see my friend Sharon and the premiere of the documentary she produced about the author Elizabeth Spencer, “Landscapes of the Heart,” but also for a mission: I hoped to secure a date for my father’s and mother’s interments at Arlington National Cemetery.

Though it was Dad who I focused on during the past seven years, and Dad who died in January, the trip was about both of them.

After meeting with a representative at Arlington, I asked Sharon if she would mind visiting Washington National Cathedral. My mother always talked about it, and continued to buy the Cathedral’s annual Christmas cards long after we left Washington, D.C.

Washington National CathedralUpon entering the Gothic-inspired masterpiece, we walked up the center aisle and diverted to the right around a stage that was being prepared for a concert.

Like many European cathedrals, the nave and transept are embellished with small side chapels.

In the first of these chapels, below a round contemporary sculpture of Jesus’ face, stood a woman in a pink shirt and apron, stoop shouldered, slowly trimming the stems of lacy blossoms that she was using to complete the final touches on two symmetrical arrangements of pink lilies. Her salt-and-pepper hair was short, mostly gray, a little curly. Perhaps the last vestiges of a perm that was nearly grown out.

For just a moment, she was my mother.

The woman in pink was an Altar Guild member, one of the stalwart legions of the Episcopal Church Women who do so much behind the scenes in fulfillment of their faith and commitment to the church, in camaraderie with one another.

My mind involuntarily summoned the smell of damp linens, starch and heat, a visceral memory of one of my mother’s monthly turns ironing the altar linens. Just as readily, I remember the scent of fresh-cut stems when she trimmed a gladiola, a rose, a peony, or greens harvested from our back yard for an altar arrangement.

In the sculpture above the altar, Jesus’ eyes are closed, but his head inclines toward her. I don’t know if the image is meant to represent him in death on the cross, or is meant to express sympathy for those who pray here. Blade-like rays extend beyond his halo through which a jagged hole is blown.

Washington National Cathedral's Christ Child statueLater I learned the chapel memorialized those who served and died in wars. Near it, a bronze statue of the Christ Child welcomes visitors to the adjacent the Children’s Chapel. The statue is the size of a six year old, its palms polished to a sheen from all of the touches to its outstretched chubby palms.

It felt meant, just as the whole week has felt perfect. Here is “Mom,” creating a striking decoration for the War Memorial, within the hour that we have confirmed a date and time for her burial along with Dad, joining Midge in her resting place. And there, next door, is the Children’s Chapel, with the child Jesus extending his arms in welcome.

My brother Scott sent this reply to a note I sent to my brothers confirming the interment date. “Has anyone thought about what day it is today? Nice that we got this confirmation on the 14th anniversary of Mom’s passing.”

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Loss and Its Companions: Love and Forgiveness

Eileen Driscoll Campbell

In grieving Dad, my mind has turned to my mother, who died in 1999. I love her for who she was and her many gifts to me, and I have long since forgiven her for the things that I once ached to receive from her.

If I want to, I can call to mind the feel of resting my head on her bosom, dozing on a long car trip, comfortably settled between Mom and Dad on the plastic-covered bench seat. I can’t exactly say that it’s a recollection. It’s more like a muscle memory, as if the tissues of my face can reconstruct the very feeling of her. She is soft and warm, a little damp with perspiration, and smells faintly of Shalimar talcum powder.

But I also remember Mom being perfunctory when I expressed feelings of hurt or sadness. Which seemed to happen often. “Stop crying like a fire engine,” she would tell me, exasperated. Her lips would compress above her strong jaw line.

A few years into my marriage, she bluntly told me that I would lose my husband if I continued my commitment to career. Prohibited from pursuing the career she had imagined in law, she found success in her role as wife. She believed I would succeed only by doing the same. Implied in her warning, I thought, was a threat that she would be on my husband’s side if I screwed things up.

This doesn’t seem like much of a homily to my mother. But I couldn’t have felt for her what I did by the time that she died if I hadn’t spent time pulling apart the threads of our relationship and reassembling them with the advantage of time, distance and age.

Several years before Mom passed away, when she slid more deeply into dementia, a blanket of sadness settled on my shoulders. I felt immobilized and I had no idea why.

This fits my pattern: having been well trained to ignore feelings of sadness, I don’t recognize them. They rise up. They demand my attention. When they are persistent enough, I attend to them.

Realizing that I was losing Mom made me examine our complicated relationship. I knew she loved me, sometimes with terms, but ultimately unconditionally, with fierceness and loyalty. I wasn’t like her. I would never be like her. But I knew she loved me.

By the time she developed lung cancer, I was at peace with my relationship with her. I forgave her for not always being able to give what I wanted from her. As cancer ate away at her personality and memory, love glowed in the gaze of her fading brown eyes.

Loss and forgiveness. They go together.

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Saying goodbye

While my “other mother” was lying in her hospital bed at St. Joseph’s Medical Center 10 days ago, in between periods of stark awareness, my mind kept rewinding and fast forwarding. I rewound to a night thirteen years ago when my mother was in a different bed in St. Joseph’s, fading in and out of lucidity following procedures that first discovered her late stage lung cancer and then sought to repair a hole in her lung so that she could go home with hospice. But I was also fast forwarding, imagining the day that I will hold my father’s hand while he struggles to leave this earth. I think that’s how it is for many people: when we lose someone we love, we also think about the others we have lost, and those who we cherish and are losing.

I almost published this journal entry from February 16, 1999 just before I headed up to Washington state. When I returned Monday night, it was the first thing I saw on my desk:

Last night, I spent the night with Mom at St. Joseph’s Medical Center. Two-and-a-half weeks into her stay, following her diagnosis of lung cancer, she was for the first time completely lucid.

At about 9:45 p.m., Mom was looking at the ceiling. I asked her if she was thinking or looking at something. She replied that she was thinking.

Over the next hour, in quiet and measured tones, she said goodbye to me. She began by saying, ‘You’ve been a wonderful daughter.’ After a few minutes, she added, ‘You’re a very competent woman.’

I realized that she was beginning to say goodbye. I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me but the words seemed so inadequate. I told her she was a wonderful mother — strong, loving and nurturing. I remember once, when I was quite old, that she had responded to my sadness by pulling me on to her lap in my Nana’s rocking chair.

I hugged her and apologized for crying. She said, ‘Why not?’ Then she said, ‘You are a beautiful daughter; now get some Kleenex and blow your nose.’

After a few minutes she said, ‘We’ve had a wonderful life together. Sons are special but there is something very important about a daughter.’  She tried to express her thoughts about what makes daughters different and struggled a bit with the right words. She said, ‘Daughters are more emotional.’ It seem to me that what she meant was that daughters are close to one’s heart in a different way.

I said to her that my brothers had been wonderful throughout her stay. I told her they had comforted her and been loving and compassionate. I told her that we had not left her in the entire 2 1/2 weeks. This seemed to surprise her. I added, ‘We didn’t think you would want to be left alone.’ She said, ‘You were right,’ and smiled softly.

She said that her grandmother was in her late 90s when she died and that she couldn’t remember how old her mother was when she died. Implicit in her remark was her consideration of the age she would be when she died.

‘It’s one of the hardest things you ever do to say goodbye to people you love,’ she said, ‘but it’s important.’

I asked her if she was worried. She said, ‘Not exactly.’ I said we loved her and would be with her every step of the way and that God was with her.

She asked, ‘How is your Dad handling all of this,’ glancing at her hospital bed and surroundings. I said that he was sad because she is so precious but that he was okay and taking care of himself. I said I would take good care of Dad.

She said, ‘I’m going to outlive your Dad,’ and then she added, ‘at least I think so.’ Then she reflected for a while.

I commented on her strength and said that we were raising another strong woman in Maddie. She agreed and added, ‘And Tommy is wonderful, too.’ I reminded her what she had said emphatically to Maddie that morning: ‘You know what? I like you.’

Finally I asked if there was anything I could do to make this easier. She said, ‘Well, one thing you can do is continue to be the marvelous woman that you are — competent, with a high level of activity, a very high level of activity. The world needs you.’

She drifted off to sleep. Not long after this was written, she did make it home with hospice. She passed away the day after Mother’s Day, on May 10, 1999. I miss her.

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