One Month At A Time

TBT: Losing my Mom

This particular column has been on my mind for over a week, mostly because it documents my recollections about the passing of my mother.

I don’t know that a day passes that I don’t think about Mom and don’t feel the horrible regret that inevitably follows my memories of a year ago.

 

All it seems to be doing lately is raining.

Bill Motsinger at Hangar 9 Aviation warned me we probably wouldn’t be getting up in the air during the first week of my time with him.

“The forecast says rain until Saturday,” he said.

But it didn’t really matter. There were plenty of things to do while the weather was crummy. Just learning about radar, weather conditions and some of the instruments would easily take a couple of hours — and we hadn’t even talked about parachutes, which seemed important to me.

So we planned to meet Friday morning to look at computer screens and talk.

“If for some reason the weather turns good unexpectedly, we could see about getting you up in the air earlier,” he said.

No promises, and the weather didn’t get better. The rain just poured.

Wednesday afternoon, I got a text from my sister, Laura, in Johnston City, Tennessee.

“I’m headed to Mom’s,” she messaged. “The nursing home called. Mom is having issues with breathing and her heart rate.”

The doctor told the staff to keep her comfortable. My sister would figure out what was up once she arrived in Giles County, Virginia.

All I said was OK.

Mom had a stroke six years ago and has lived in a nursing home since. While they’ve taken pretty good care of her, Mom’s health steadily declined.

She was getting weaker, and a few weeks ago she slipped into something like a coma and was unresponsive. An ambulance rushed her to the emergency room, where she woke up frightened, disoriented and surrounded by people she didn’t know.

Mom didn’t want to do that again.

By the time my sister got to the nursing home, our mother was unconscious. Things looked grim. Laura told me I should consider packing a bag.

I told her OK.

And then I went back to work. Wednesdays are big deadline days. There was a lot to do.

In the meantime, my other sister, Susan, arrived at the nursing home. She asked if I was coming that night or the next day. Mom wasn’t doing well. The staff was trying to keep her comfortable, were giving her morphine, which sounded ominous, but Mom was responding to questions, which sounded like she might be coming out of it.

It was already 8 p.m., and I was exhausted.

I told her I’d get there tomorrow, that I’d leave around noon.

There were things to wrap up, and I needed to get cash for the tolls.

In the morning, Laura texted to tell me Mom was resting. She hadn’t woken up or spoken since the night before. Mom’s pulse was a bit weaker.

Laura messaged, “The doctor will be here late this afternoon and will discuss the status then.”

I emailed Bill. I told him I didn’t know if I could meet him Friday and explained.

Thoughtfully, he wrote back, “Bill, take care of your family. When things settle down let me know. You need to be with your mother and you don’t need any additional concerns.”

On Thursday, I left at noon, drove downstate, which was just about as gray and miserable as March can get.

My girlfriend kept me company and laughed at my stupid jokes, but the closer we got to the nursing home in Giles County, the fewer jokes I made.

I really couldn’t laugh my way out of this one.

•••

During the work week, the nursing home seemed less grim than on the weekends — livelier, busy. There were more nurses and orderlies. The residents didn’t seem as confined to their little rooms like they did when I usually came to visit, which was never often enough.

I think they were playing bingo in the day room. It was loud.

The door to my mother’s room was closed, which only usually happened when the staff needed to clean up.

From down the hall a short way, one of the nurses looked at me and said, “It’s OK. You can go in.”

Full of dread, I pushed the door.

A small crowd hovered around my mother’s bed — both of my sisters; Susan’s husband, Robbie; an assortment of nieces; and my Aunt Joyce, Mom’s sister.

Every eye looked sore and sad.

Mom lay pale and motionless. Her fingers looked almost bleached.

“Mom passed away about an hour and a half ago,” Susan told me.

I stood completely still. My family circled me, wrapping their arms around me, and we wept.

My aunt pulled me close and whispered that my mother had gone on to be with my grandparents in heaven.

I stared down at the floor and felt small.

“I got here as soon as I could,” I said, which seemed both true and false at the same time.

Mom was gone.

Mom’s wishes were to be cremated, for practical reasons. As far as she was concerned, a body was just one more thing to let go of. Memorials could be scheduled whenever. She didn’t care that much. She wasn’t planning to attend.

•••

I didn’t meet Bill on Friday, didn’t even go to work at the newspaper that day. Instead, I went to my morning radio job, where all that was required of me was to read the lousy weather and tell people which station they were listening to.I could handle that, but not much more.

The morning host at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Teresa Wills, asked me why on earth I came into work.

I told her it was the same reason I had shown up the day before. I had to earn a living.

For the first couple of days, I walked around in a toxic emotional fog. I was angry. I was guilty. I was grief-stricken. I avoided phone calls, skipped parties and fought the urge to update my Facebook page.

There just weren’t enough likes in the world, not enough prayer emoticons to make me feel anything but heartsick.

Saturday, I spent the day looking for a Swiss army knife.

When I was 22, my mother bought one for me to help soothe my burning envy. Susan was studying in Spain.

The knife was a present, a kind of token to say I could fix my own problems, but it only lasted a year.

A tow-truck driver or a junkyard employee stole it out of my car, along with a fistful of change, after the engine caught fire outside of my college dorm.

Why it was so important for me to find a replacement 25 years later, I don’t know, but I drove all over Charleston looking for a Swiss army knife.

In case you’re interested, Kmart and Lowe’s don’t carry them. A clerk at Lowe’s in Kanawha City told me they used to.

“But we had a lot of those walk away, so we stopped,” he said.

Lowe’s did have a couple of scary-looking Gerber knives that looked like something Hannibal Lecter might keep around in case company dropped by.

Home improvement may mean different things to different people.

Dick’s Sporting Goods had one puny pen knife, but it really wasn’t what I was looking for.

The knife I was looking for turned up at Cabella’s. It had several to choose from, including a $90 model that does everything but file your taxes.

What I chose was relatively simple, came with a bottle opener and a corkscrew, but reminded me of my mother, who didn’t really drink wine or beer and preferred Diet Coke.

•••

With several days used up, I tried to put something together last minute about flying, but Bill was out of town. Nothing he suggested as a substitute sounded very hands-on. I reached out to Yeager Airport, but nothing came together.

Instead, I remembered what One Month at a Time was about. At its core, the column is about me learning about something I don’t know much about. Often, I’m seeking teachers to help me along the way.

My very first teacher, of course, was my mother. She was a very good teacher, a professional, in fact.

Given the recent teacher strike in West Virginia, I am reminded of that.

My mother, Doris Lynch, was a public schoolteacher in Pearisburg, Virginia, where I grew up. When people ask me how long I’ve lived in West Virginia, I sometimes say Pearisburg counts as part of my time because my hometown was nicknamed “the wedding capital of West Virginia.”

Couples from West Virginia used to cross the New River at Rich Creek to get to the first county courthouse over the border that would marry people without a blood test, which was Pearisburg.

Basically, they just didn’t want to wait.

For around 35 years, my mother stood on a linoleum-covered concrete floor in front of a chalkboard, teaching squirmy 13 and 14 year olds how to multiply fractions.

To me, that sounds like a pretty good description of hell, but somebody had to do it, and Mom loved being a teacher. She loved the kids.

Their names got mentioned at the dinner table, even the kids I didn’t like.

Teaching wasn’t an occupation for my mom. It was a way of life that didn’t end when the bell rang to go home. Outside the classroom, she oversaw student clubs, coached academic teams and chaperoned a few dozen school dances.

The extra hours were tacked on quietly. Sometimes Mom was at the high school more than she was home.

Teaching is not a soft life. It wasn’t for her.

The aggravations were minor but endless. The heat in my mother’s classroom wasn’t always reliable, and the hard floor hurt her back. She took a teacher’s share of grief from people who didn’t like school, didn’t like math and/or didn’t like her.

No teacher is universally loved, and my mother wasn’t. She had students who mocked and tormented her. Every now and again, one of them would get brave enough to call the house late at night to giggle and yell over the line.

For years, she kept a whistle on a shelf next to the phone.

The job paid more the longer she taught, but there never was a lot of money.

To make ends meet, she took on extra work. I don’t know how many Thursday and Friday nights she spent selling tickets at high school football and basketball games.

Mom loved sports, but the money helped raise three kids, and we weren’t cheap.

All three of us needed clothes, college and braces.

Just like today, there were plenty of places that paid better, but also some that paid worse. Through my years in the Giles County school system, I met plenty of teachers who came from the other side of the New River.

We were lucky, I guess. Mom didn’t make a fortune, but she made enough that we never had to pull up stakes and start over again.

Even after she retired, Mom stayed in Pearisburg to give us a place to come back to.

I never had my mom in class, but I learned a million things from her, including a love of libraries and a fondness for chocolate-covered peanut brittle.

She taught me to strive to be patient and kind, particularly when you don’t feel particularly patient or kind. She gave me my work ethic, encouraged me to speak my mind, but told me to watch my language.

I loved her and will miss her for the rest of my life.