Christopher Robin and I walked along
Under branches lit up by the moon
Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore
As our days disappeared all too soon
But I’ve wandered much further today than I should
And I can’t seem to find my way back to the wood
So help me if you can, I’ve got to get
Back to the house at Pooh Corner by one
You’d be surprised, there’s so much to be done
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh
Loggins and Messina, House At Pooh Corner
My mother passed away last week. She was seventy years old, barely what we know as ‘old’ by today’s standards. Cancer, however, does not pay attention to age. It does not pay attention to someone’s “bucket” list. It does not back off if someone’s agenda is too full, nor does it agree to come back later when things are more convenient. Cancer charges into the life of the patient and family like a rampaging beast trampling everything in its path, and leaving nothing but destruction.
When my mom got her diagnosis, we took the oncologist’s words to heart when he said “We could be talking years. We could be talking months.” We took some small degree of solace in the fact that we had some time, even with her decision not to attempt any sort of treatment. There were some treatments available, but with her medical history of pulmonary fibrosis, the treatments would likely have done more harm than good. Is it worth the cost of quality of life to gain, at the most, an extra month or two? My mother thought not, and we accepted her wish.
Whatever the oncologist’s words were, though, time became a factor. We only had twenty-three days from diagnosis to her death. And, truth be told, she only showed true signs of the disease for maybe six days. The tumor had done the damage to her internal organs, and when those organs had had all they could take, they began to give up. Once the process starts, there is no stopping it. The final clock begins to tick, and all anyone can do is watch the hands move.
On that last night, I sat with her. I like to think she knew I was there. I talked to her. My sister and I both talked to her, asked her if she remembered the stories of our childhood, and tried to laugh at those memories, hoping the stories were making their way past the medications and the cancer, and into her heart, to bring her some peace. There were times when we would change positions around the bed, and my father would sit next to her, holding her hand, letting her know he was there. She was at her most peaceful when it was my father holding her hand. A portrait I now store in my head is of that particular picture – my mother, lying in her hospital bed, and my father sitting beside her, holding her hand.
I’ve had almost a week to think about my mother and her life. One of my favorite stories about my family is how everything started with her and my father. My mother worked for the dean of students at Oglethorpe University while studying there. One early morning in September, the dean called her and asked if she could go to the old downtown train station in Atlanta and pick up two transfer students from North Carolina. She did as she was asked and met the train. The two students would later become my godfather, John Day, and my father, Lee Daniel. My mom and dad became a couple a week or two after that meeting and were together for the next fifty years.
My mother was somewhat of a rebel in her time. The civil rights movement was just beginning to pick up steam in the first few years of the 1960’s, and my mother was a part of it. Not too many little white Southern girls thought much about people being treated equally, regardless of race, but my mom did. She never judged anyone with any regard to skin color, or religion, or ‘place in society.” She saw people for who they were, and the potential they had to be better. That became a mantra she served every day for the rest of her life – everyone has the potential to be great, if they are given a chance to find that greatness.
She started her professional career as a first grade teacher in North Carolina, but after I was born, she and my father moved back to Georgia when he accepted a job in Milledgeville. Much to the chagrin of my father’s mother, my mom took a job doing social work at what was known then as Central State Hospital. Most people know the facility by an easier term – the mental hospital. My mom started an adult education program at Central State, teaching female inmates how to read and write, and teaching basic skills like working a cash register and balancing a checkbook. There was not much in the way of childcare back then in South Georgia, so with no other choice available, she took me with her. My bassinet sat by the desk in her classroom while she taught murderers, drug addicts, and others of the ‘criminal element” that had been sent to the ‘crazy house’ instead of one of the many state prisons. I have been told that the women were fascinated by the little ‘white girl’ who was not scared to bring her 6-month old baby to work with her. And I have been told that one of the rewards my mother gave her students for exceptional work was being allowed to hold me in their lap for the rest of the class time. My babysitters during her run as a teacher at Central State included a woman who had murdered her husband with a hatchet because he had beaten her, an older woman who was apparently very good with a straight razor, and a young girl who had helped her boyfriend kidnap a young girl from North Georgia and bury her alive. Some find the desire to comment on these early influences in my life, but I shall refrain…
The majority of her professional life, my mom worked for DFACS. Some scoff at the notion of the Department of Family and Children Services, waving it off as the ‘welfare department,’ and belittling the work done there to protect children. I will not get into a political rant now, because those who sneer at the mere mention of DFACS have no idea what actually goes on in that particular department, nor do they know the people that work there. Rarely do they even bother to find out…
My mother did Child Protective Service. She would step into a home where a child was being abused or neglected and find a proper placement for that child. Many times she would have an armed escort to these homes, either a sheriff’s deputy or a city policeman, but more often than not she would tell the officer to wait outside the door, and she would call out if she thought she needed protection. I have been told, much after the fact of course, about the times she stared down the barrel of a gun or had knives pulled on her. She stayed her course, armed only with her clipboard and her purse. Little did most of these people know, but my mother’s purse could have easily been considered a weapon of mass destruction, but those are stories for another time…
My mother never hid these stories of neglect and abuse from my sister and me. She wanted us to know it existed and recognize it if we saw it. We spent many a Christmas season shopping for toys for ‘her kids,’ wrapping them in beautiful paper and making sure each one of those kids had at least one gift under a tree, a tree that, in some cases, we also brought with us. It changed my outlook on the holiday, handing a child a present and knowing that one gift might be the only gift come Christmas morning. Seeing that moment, that light in a child’s eyes as the gift was accepted, makes whining about not getting the new Atari game system a lot harder.
We have heard from so many of ‘her kids’ in the past week, kids she rescued from situations that were horrendous to contemplate in many cases. The one phrase each one of them has used in conversations with my family is “She saved my life.” As I write this now, I remember one girl in particular, a case my mom worked with, fought the laws for, and finally rescued, almost at the point of no return. The girl was nine years old when her name came across my mother’s desk. She had gone to school with obvious bruises on her face and arms, but was not telling anyone at the school what happened to her. This was a kid from the “poor side of town,” a child most would not look twice at if she had passed them on the street. My mom talked to the girl at school for hours, and gradually she got the truth out of the girl. Suffice it to say that bruises and black eyes were only the tip of the iceberg of abuse this girl was living with on a daily basis. The little girl was taking this abuse on a daily basis because she did not want her little sister and brother to become the next victims. At nine years old, she was volunteering to do things most of us would not even know about until later in life and was being beaten repeatedly if she tried to refuse, in order to save her little sister and brother from taking the same abuse. I don’t know how the little girl’s parents found a lawyer to even try to argue their case, but they did. Over the next few years my mom would remove the girl, her sister, and her brother from the home and place them in Foster Care, only to have the parents somehow regain custody later. And within weeks of regaining that custody, the little girl would show up at school with bruises, split lips, black eyes, and assorted other signs that the abuse was continuing. I remember being in the car with my mom once when she had to pick the little girl up at school and take her to a doctor because her shoulder had been dislocated.
That little girl is now almost forty years old. My mom finally managed to get her and her brother and sister out of the home permanently. They were in foster care for a couple of years and were adopted by a family who raised them in an environment of nurturing love and care. She stayed in contact with my mother over the years. The ‘little girl’ now is married, has a family of her own, and credits my mother not only with saving her life, along with that of her brother and sister, but of also restoring her faith in others.
My mother was not a saint. Some saw her as an angel of mercy. I saw her as a human. I saw the tears she wept when she was not able to save one of ‘her kids.” I heard her anger and frustration when people tried to interfere with her job. One of the most notable times was when , as part of her job, she trained new foster parents and adoptive parents on how to bring abused and neglected children into new homes. In the late 1980’s, a gay couple showed up to start training. These ladies had been together for many years and had decided to open their home to children, specifically children who were born with the HIV virus. Yes, even in this small town, there were children with AIDS and HIV, and for obvious reasons, finding them protective placement was not the easiest task, especially in 1987. My mother welcomed these ladies into the class, got them trained and prepared for these children, and immediately placed three young children in their care.
Being a small town, most everyone knew the couple in question. And while ‘live and let live’ might have been an unspoken rule to most, when they showed up at church, or the grocery store, or at school, with children they called their own, the gossip began. Whispers turned to voices, and voices went from behind hands to loud shouts. My mother had always refused to make our home phone number unlisted, so when those who wanted to voice their opinion of these new foster parents and the ‘diseased children’ they were ‘parading around town,’ they called the person responsible – my mom. I was not at home much then because I was at college, but I was present a few times to answer the phone. I was never allowed to hang up on the callers, but rather, I was to simply say, ‘Hold on a moment,” and pass the phone to my mother.
One night, my mother got such a phone call. I recognized the voice as one of the many ministers in town. I did as I had been requested and handed the phone to my mother, mouthing the name of the caller to her as I handed her the phone. She shook her head, but she took the receiver and listened. She held the phone away from her face, so I could hear some of the conversation. Words like “godless,” “abomination,” and “curse from God” were used several times. The man accused my mother of being ‘in league with Satan’ for even letting these children “into the system.”
My mom listened to the man for several minutes without trying to speak. She took every word he said without arguing or trying to dispute his claims. Then she said, “You know, you are right. I had never considered that at all. I feel terrible about what I have done. Listen, the couple you are talking about lives about ten miles from me, right down the road. I can go down there now, pick the kids up, tell them that their service as foster parents is no longer welcome in this community.”
I am sure my mouth dropped open in shock. My mother NEVER gave up that easily, not to anyone or anything. She looked at me and winked.
“As a matter of fact, “ she continued, “if I remember correctly, your children have all moved out and gone to college or gotten married. Why don’t I just drop these kids off with you for the next week, so you can pray over them, make their lives better, and save their souls that I so wrongly put in jeopardy by placing them in a home with two women who live in sin, who are abominations in the eyes of God. It may take me a few weeks, though, to find a new placement for them. Can you keep them for two weeks or so? The baby is still in diapers, but you know how to change those, right? I mean, there are other problems with them, but I can leave you a book about handling their waste, not exchanging bodily fluids and such. You are a college man, though. I am sure you learn quickly.”
There was a silence on the other end of the phone. Then I heard a lot of stammering and stuttering. My mom listened and then she said, “I know. I know. Do you want to keep these children? Does anyone in your fine church want to keep them safe, well-fed, and medically cared for on a regular basis? Because I can bring them to you or anyone else you name.”
There was another silence. Then my mother said, “Thank you for calling.” And she hung the phone up.
There was never another phone call.
My mother died at 6:00 AM on August 15th. The past six days have been a blur of tears, anger, and frustration. I tried to be angry at the fact that she did not fight the disease harder, that she gave in to cancer without even trying chemotherapy or radiation or any other sort of “cure.” But I know that those would have only brought more pain and suffering than what she had already gone through. I guess I wanted her to be furious that this disease had even dared enter her body and fight for her life like she had fought for so many other lives that had crossed her path.
Then I remember talking to her one night, right after she had gotten the diagnosis. I was asking her about possible doctors, second opinions, treatment options. She just kept shaking her head. I let my guard down and said, “Dammit, you’ve got to do something!”
She looked me in the eye, and said, “I did do something. Now, I’m tired.”
With those words, I knew my mother was going to die. And that it would be sooner rather than later.
A few days later, I was over at my parents’ house, visiting. My dad had left to run an errand or two, and it was close to time for my mother to get her next dose of pain medication. I got the pill for her, broke it into four pieces because she could not swallow much of anything due to the tumor forcing her stomach and esophagus into an angle that had it almost closed off. I handed her the pill, piece by piece, and I watched as her hands, once so steady, now shaking so badly she almost dropped the pieces as she got them into her mouth. And for the first time, my mother looked old. In a few short weeks since the diagnosis, my mother looked like she had aged thirty years. She looked old, she looked weary, and she looked beaten. I managed to keep my tears at bay until I got home, but just barely.
That last night, she was very restless and unsettled. She had not been responsive for two days prior. The only vocalizations she made were moans, with every exhalation. Around midnight we sent my father to bed, and I found a CD player to plug in by the bed, hoping some of her favorite music would somehow help soothe her. We played Alan Jackson’s “Precious Memories” because my mother loved old-school gospel music.
Music had always been an important part of her life. She had worked her way through college singing in the chorale at St. Phillip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. She sang loudly and with beauty, a talent I wish she had passed on to me. There was always music in our house, on the radio, or the stereo, or by her singing to herself as she did what needed to be done in the home. So that night we played the music she loved. Gospel music, Celtic dulcimer music, Native American flute music… things to make her calm and soothe her soul, as we told her it was okay, that she could rest. We told her she could rest easy, and that we would take care of each other, that we could handle the job she had taught us how to do.
And my mom went to sleep with music playing. She found her peace with her music in her ears, and, I hope, in her heart.
As we sat that morning after she died, waiting on the hospice nurse to come to help bathe her before the funeral home men came, I noticed that, for the first time, the house was silent. The TV wasn’t on, nobody was really talking, and most of all, there was no music playing. And it hit me then that my mother was gone. I felt my throat tighten as that thought entered my head. My mother was not there anymore. Then, for whatever reason, in my head I heard music. I heard “Amazing Grace.” I heard Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.” And I heard the song my mother used to sing to my sister and me when we were children, a song that may seem childish on the surface, but has gained more and more meaning in the last six days.
I heard “House at Pooh Corner” by Loggins and Messina, in my head. The song is about the A.A. Milne characters of Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Owl, and all their friends. But it is also about finding that childhood again, that sense of being a child again, when magic and dreams meant more than anything. My mother always wanted my sister and me to keep that sense of childhood about us, to never stop believing in dreams, believing in magic, and seeing the magic in every day of our lives. She never gave up on anyone’s dream, because she wanted each person in her life to have that dream to drive them. And she wanted us all to see the magic that makes the world beautiful, no matter how bad it may seem on the surface.
I will never hear that song again without thinking of my mother, and her love, and her pride in her kids. Not just my sister and me, but all those kids she saved, all those kids she helped live to dream a new dream. I can only hope that, one day, she will see my dream come true. She knew it was close to happening, and I had hoped to put a copy of my first novel in her hands.
Maybe one day, I will…