Not too long ago I was cleaning out a desk drawer when I ran across a birthday note from Mother. Mom was always big on writing notes back when she was at the height of her powers. Most of the time her notes were an attempt to get in the last word after arguments in which I either walked away or hung up the phone.
Some of them concerned the morbid obsessions about mostly imagined trouble facing me and my brothers. There was the letter to me in which she offered me 500 bucks if wouldn’t run the marathon. She should have saved the postage. I got hurt after training and playing competitive tennis at the same time. No marathon. She should have written to complain about what an idiot I had turned out to be.
She wrote many letters to me about a certain girlfriend of my brother John’s that she thought was leading him to Perdition. She was and he enjoyed it. She wrote me about how she worried about Dave’s finances. She thought he was poor. Dave’s not poor. He’s a tightwad. Which is cool. He’s got more money than he can spend.
I guess she wrote me thinking that I would go talk with my brothers about these difficulties she had mostly manufactured in her head. And of course I never did. But these items were typical of my poor Mother’s obsessive correspondence after I returned back to Little Rock. And most of them I tossed. Some without imparting to them the dignity of having read them first.
But the letter I found in the desk drawer the other day was different. I remember it well. It is undated but it had to have been written in the last years of her stay in the assisted-living facility in Conway. By the time she wrote this letter she had started the descent into the Parkinson’s induced dementia that eventually claimed her life. Some of it is illegible and it is written at an upward slant across the page.
Oct 24 (my birthday)
A few years (ago) the first snowflakes were falling and I could see them through (the) hospital window.
Inside, a beloved 9 ½ lb. son was being born.
Your dad walked up and down (the) street spreading the word.
What a beautiful son you are.
For much of the last 10 or 11 years of her life I was as much of a parental figure as I was a son. It was a difficult balancing act. I read a book on the subject. The book pointed out that the person in my care was an adult with a lifetime worth of habits and baggage. The book didn’t call my job “parenting.” The book referred to caring for an elderly parent as “childing.” And so I was childing the final years of her life. And sometimes I wasn’t much good at it.
The last couple of Mother’s Days were pretty awful. The dementia had rendered Mother virtually incoherent so she didn’t talk much. I would join her for Mother’s Day lunch at the nursing home. I would cut her food for her and I would help her eat. After lunch we would sit in her room and hold hands. I would talk talk talk to fill the dead air. She would just gaze at me. She knew I was her son. She just had an imperfect understanding of the fullness of what all that meant by then.
God took her in His time as the Catholics say. December 9, 2009. Mother had the constitution of a diesel. She suffered greatly the last year of her life. It would have been OK with me if God had hit the accelerator. “It took too long didn’t it?” a friend asked at the time. Yeah. It took way too long. Then again, nobody knows the hour of their end except the suicidal and the condemned. Even people that smoke cigarettes who ought to see it coming. Like Buck Bowen who dropped dead at 52.
But 56 years ago my mother watched the snow fall outside that hospital window in Indiana while my father passed out cigars and slapped backs.
Back when they both were young. Back when I was just a little baby. Way before the trouble started.
And she wrote me one last letter to tell me about it.
This one I kept. This one fills my heart on Mother’s Day.
Arthur Paul Bowen is a lawyer and writer who lives in what he calls the “People’s Republic of Hillcrest” in Little Rock. He may also be found on his blog, The Moving Finger Writes.
A tribute to our seniors by John Prine.