The Long Wait

My mother’s quavering voicemail was right: I hadn’t called in a long time. I justified my neglect with the assurance that I’d called on her birthday, I’d called on Mother’s Day, I’d made my dutiful calls even though I suspected she was mad at me. I made them and she didn’t answer. I hadn’t called in a long time, but goddammit, neither had she.

My mother’s tears always put a knot in my gut. Once as a boy I fell asleep on her bed, and woke to her weeping. On the television were men, some in brown uniforms, some wearing white sheets. They stood shouting in the parking lot of our local library. The next day Mama put a letter in our mailbox, and the newspaper published it. A week later, angry people were calling our house. Mama argued with some, hung up quickly on others. I beat her to the phone once, and a woman asked: “Just what is your mama’s problem with the Klan?”

Only God knows what my mother would have done to that woman, had she possessed the power to reach through the phone.

Years later, I wrote something that enraged a cabal of neo-Nazis. They circulated pictures of me and my son on their website. “One day,” Mama warned me, a mixture of frustration and delight in her voice, “you’re going to write something that will get you shot.”

She used to marvel at my stubbornness, as if it were some mysterious property that had settled unaccountably under my skin.

This stubborn son knew he should call his stubborn mother. I knew, I knew, but I didn’t anticipate it going well, and I couldn’t spare the emotional energy. Not before this demanding work week. Not before this big meeting. Not before I got over this early-fall fever.

The weather had finally cooled, which often summons a memory of the summer we lived in tents in Tennessee. My brothers and I lived more in a nearby lake than out of it. We sweated through that summer and there wasn’t much money and I thought maybe we would live in tents forever. One night my mother took us to a cool, dark theater, where we watched “Grease” and I fell in love with Olivia Newton-John. I don’t know where Mama got the money, but what a blessed night she gave us.

I knew too many days were passing since her plaintive call, and I really was going to return it, but not before my eight-year-old’s laser-tag birthday party. Not before our drive to the beach, where we would stay in a house, not a tent, and my kids would be indulged too much, because when I give them things it staves off knowing what my mother must have felt all the times she couldn’t give to us, and ignoring that truth is essential to the self-pity I like to sustain when I look back on my childhood.

I know a son is supposed to call his mother. I can’t say exactly when, but sweet Christ, I swear I was going to call.

The second call came not from my mother, but from her companion. We came to the E.R., he said. We didn’t know what was wrong but she was in pain. Now she’s in arrest and they’re using the paddles. It doesn’t look good, mate.

My mother’s companion has a British accent. He calls you “mate” even when you’re a jerk who doesn’t call your mother.

“Can I talk to her? Can you hold the phone to her ear?”

They’re working on her. There are tubes and a respirator and too many people moving around. Can’t hold the phone to her ear, mate. Best call your brothers.

I called my brothers and though I’d made my heart a stone toward my mother, I begged God not to let her die this way. Not before I could tell her some true thing that is also what she needs to hear. I begged God and a few hours later the doctor called for permission to let her die. There’s no hope of recovery, he said. We’ve restarted her heart and filled her with fluids and if she feels anything that thing is discomfort. No, even if you were local, you couldn’t make it here in time.

I asked him not to let her thirst to death and he promised they would not, they would simply withhold the steroids and heart shocks; they would push morphine and make her comfortable.

I know from my daughter’s cancer fight that “make her comfortable” is a euphemism for “let her die.” But he promised no suffering, and this is no small promise.

When my daughter was dying in agony, Mama was the one who helped me give the doctors permission to stop saving her. “You know what you have to do,” she said. She’d nursed hundreds through cancer. She saw the suffering we living inflict on the dying.

So they commenced making Mama comfortable, and I asked if someone could hold a phone to her ear. Someone did and I told her I was sorry I didn’t call. I’m sorry I haven’t been a better son. I’m sorry and I love you and I’m thankful you are my mother.

I told her these true things, but I called too late and all that remains is to speak into the air, speak across some expanse only God knows, speak and now sit the long regretful wait, praying peace, blessed peace, peace for the living and the dead.

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal andThe London Times, and his short stories, two of which have been nominated for Pushcart prizes, have been published in ImageRuminate, and Saint Katherine Review. His website is www.tonywoodlief.com.

  • Chad Thomas Johnston

    Tony, I’m so sorry you didn’t get to have a happier earthly ending with your mama, but I’m also glad you were able to write about her like this.

    And lest you didn’t know, Olivia Newton-John covered Mark Heard’s “How to Grow Up Big and Strong,” which is a brutal song that looks on the surface like it could be about the way a mother raises a child. But the lyrics actually read like a punch to the gut, which is how your posts feel to me (and in the best way). Strange coincidence?

    Thanks for always writing so well and for putting yourself on the line (and/or the chopping block) so readily. Peace to you, good sir.

  • Brad Winters

    What does one say? A tear would be more fitting than a comment. This is the nightmare that I’ve had on behalf of certain loved ones; peace to you indeed, as Chad said.

  • Maureen

    This is a very moving piece of writing; more so, perhaps, because we all recognize in it some truth about ourselves and our own relationships.

    I read somewhere that there are just four sentences that ever need to be said at so critical a moment: “Do you forgive me? I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.”

    May peace be with you, Tony.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Tony, I echo Chad’s and Brad’s condolences. You have been given some extraordinarily tough challenges in your life. That you can write about them so eloquently, so profoundly, is a grace — for you and for us, your readers.

  • http://www.anamcara.com/ Tara M. Owens

    Tony. Oh.

    I am so sorry.

  • agh

    Prayers.

  • Denise Demesne

    I am so sorry, Tony, and wish to offer my condolences as well. I understand, too, that something felt unresolved for you in the details of your mother’s passing; however, we must recognize that we cannot totally script such things, nor would we want to. From what I myself have read of your writing, and from what I know about you, I can be certain that your mother felt fulfillment in the son she bore and raised, in the quality and depth of his thinking, the originality and intelligence of his written (and spoken as well, no doubt) expression, and in the positive influence he has on his readers and acquaintances. If I am not mistaken, she has even commented teasingly on at least one of your columns. I know you wanted to plant in her some final loving goodbye. But she had her loving son from the time you arrived, and surely she felt immense satisfaction in that. So in a sense, what else is there to say?

  • Tania Runyan

    Wrenching. Grace and peace.


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