The blinds drawn, lights off, I leaned over Mama’s hospital bed and rubbed her neck. “I don’t know how you manage to be so strong,” I said.
“It’s like my mama always told me,” she answered. “Root little pig or die.”
My mother has spent a lifetime figuring out how to survive only to find out she’s dying.
A couple of months. That’s the guesstimate prognosis. A week ago she was out shopping — one of her favorite activities. Today she is at home — my brother’s house — with a host of loved ones, stunned and ministering to her.
I once heard the late too-oft overlooked genius of a writer Barry Hannah comment that it’s the juxtapositions of life that gets to us — “The rich, the poor, the black, the white …”.
The healthy. The sick.
The strong. The weak.
The father. The mother.
The grandmother. The grandson.
Zack & Ashley brought Sullivan across the state to introduce him to his Great-grandmother Shelby. Mama cupped her hands underneath his head and whispered over him, “Grow to be a strong man of God. Be a great man.”
Sister Tater stayed by the bed and wept. Just the day before when asked what her greatest hope is Mama replied that she wanted to live to see Mannie’s son born. Mannie is Sister Tater’s son. He and his wife are expecting Sister Tater’s first grandchild in November. Like all of Mama’s great-grandchildren, this one is a boy, too. That makes five great-grandsons altogether. If we were a Jewish family, Mama would be revered for all those male heirs.
Mama wants somebody to have a girl, to name her Matilda after her mother, Matilda Ruth Shropshire. An English woman who lived in hills of East Tennessee, who gave birth to five sons and one daughter, Shelby Jean Mayes, who was taught by her mama “Root Little Pig or Die.”
With all those older brothers, Mama had no choice but to grow up scrappy. A tomboy of a woman who loves to fish and garden, drive fast and speak little, a smart-ass who pays more respect to the homeless than the politicians who help put them on the streets.
When Ashley asked Mama what her favorite scripture is, Mama replied with a passage from Job.
Job. Of course. What other book of the Bible would my mother relate to better than the long-suffering Job? I prefer James because of that widow and orphan remark about true religion, but anyone who read After the Flag has been Folded can figure out why Mama would feel a kinship with Job.
Mama starts full-brain radiation on Monday. It will last two weeks. For the past couple of nights Sister’s Tater’s daughter Tay has been with Mama. She rolled out a cot at the foot of bed and slept in the room with her grandmother, rising at all the appropriate hours to give Mama her meds. If Mama went into a nursing home all of her care would be paid for but because she is at home, the insurance will not pay for Home Health Care. Hospice is her only other option but she can’t even do that until radiation is complete.
Mama was incensed by that. Independent as the day is long, Mama doesn’t want to be a burden to any of us. But she raised three strong-willed kids and we, in turn, have raised the most amazing group of grandchildren. We three kids just told the medical staff flat out — we are her family, we will care for our mother. Mama tried to argue with us — “I can just pretend I’m going on vacation someplace. A nursing home wouldn’t be so bad.”
What? And miss out on the blessing of having your grandchildren and children minister to you? No way.
Hospitals are full of people suffering and dying. So many of them have no family around. The doctors all commented on what a strong family unit we are, which, is just further testament to my mother. In After the Flag, I remarked that after Daddy was killed in Vietnam, it was as if someone had come into our home with a machete and decapitated our entire family. We didn’t know who we were as a family without Daddy at the head. We had to fashion ourselves into a new family. An unfamiliar one. It was hard, hard work. There are many scars, yet, from all that. I also wrote about my own greatest fear after losing Daddy — the fear of losing Mama.
Can I tell you how proud I am of Brother John and Sister Tater? As strong and independent (read opinionated) as we three are, we have come together during all of this with one goal — to make our Mama as comfortable as possible, and to honor her in every way possible.
And the grandchildren are doing the same, as are their spouses. I don’t know what we would have done without Nancy Spears, the surgical nurse at University of Washington, who is smart, who is beautiful, who has taken every opportunity to be available to Mama, to intercede on her behalf, to ensure that our mother is getting the very best of medical care.
This one thing I know for sure, Mama could not have received better medical care than she has received at the very fine and capable hands of the 7th Floor Cancer crew. The work they do won’t capture the headlines, won’t stir up the chatter on the talk-show because they are devoted to their work, their jobs, and their patients. They were professional and kind, smart and humane, attentive and compassionate, and fighting for Mama, who they all recognized as a fighter. I wanted to invite them all over for dinner, to hang out with them, outside of the hospital. I wanted to talk books and politics and world affairs with them.
“Who will I talk books with?” I asked Mama.
“I’ll be watching,” she replied.
My mama is a reader. I fear I am losing all my best fans. The Redhead and the Veteran have already passed. Mama tells me when I get it wrong and when I get it right.
“Maybe you’ll write some dog stories,” she said. “Everybody loves dog stories.” Mama is still disappointed that I don’t have a New York Times bestseller.
“You’ll have to help me,” I said.
When people know they are dying it’s a grace. They have time to say the things they want to say to everyone. They have time to figure out who ought to get their most prized treasures.
Mama wept openly when she took my hands into hers and asked me, “Will you take my dog?”
Mama has owned dogs all of her life. I have often teased Mama that it was better to be a dog of hers than a child of hers. The dog she loved best was Dixie, a big black curly-haired bouvier. Dixie died a decade ago but a year ago, Mama went out and got herself another bouvier — this one a blondie named Poppy.
A week ago Friday, Mama had a headache. One very bad horrible headache. Since then she’s lost her health, her independence, her ability to drive, and now her dog.
And now Tim and I have three dogs in this household: Poe, Portia and Poppy, one of which pants like a train chugging and slobbers like toddler eating chocolate.
This just may very well be Hero Mama’s way of repaying me for all the grief I gave her over the years. A promise to love a bear of a dog, despite the panting, the drooling and the challenges that lay ahead for all of us.
I’m already pondering exactly what kind of dog I want to leave for each of my children.