Hello, friends. Yes, it’s my picture – but the column today is from my older sister, Judy, one of my valued editors. For Mothers’ Day, May 12, she delivered the following essay to a Spokane theater filled with people who had come to hear 10 women read stories about motherhood. The event was: “Listen to Your Mother, Spokane.” Similar events were held in Washington D.C. and cities across the country.
Judy read about her last years with our mother. Mom was born Jan. 1, 1921, and died at 97, March 30, 2018. In an earlier column, I have written to you about Mom’s death: “Nullifying Death,” May 26, 2018. I wanted you to enjoy Judy’s writing and read the rest of the story of Mom’s final years. Enjoy.
A new phase of the story begins
In 2012, when I was nearly 64 and she was 92, my mother came to live with us. After Dad died, she could no longer live alone. Early dementia and grief plunged her into a fog. She’d never heard Elsa sing: “Let it go!” but she did — she gave up her home in Colorado, along with family, friends, possessions and sunny skies to arrive in bleak midwinter Spokane.
She liked our downstairs guest room. But sighs and groans accompanied her up and down movements on stairs, even chairs.
And so does the worrying
I developed a worried ear listening for my mother.
At night, the loud moans struck sudden terror in my heart. Did I need to go down to reassure her? Had she fallen?
Mom’s sighs seemed infectious. My grandson observed. “Nana, did you know that you just sighed five times in the last minute?” “I don’t think so,” I retorted. “Yes, you did. I was counting.”
What was happening?
Like Mom, my back ached now. Neck too. And blood pressure? Hers — steady -- with medication. Mine? Climbing!
One day, she leaned in and said to me, “You know, sometimes I think I’m better off than you are.”
Our relationship morphed and changed.
Early on, Mom and I attended a women’s retreat. Late the first evening, I said, “Mom, it’s bedtime. Why don’t you start getting ready? I’ll come in a few minutes.” She stood to her feet, saluted me and said, “Ay, ay, Captain!”
Laughter erupted at her performance.
Was I becoming the mother?
The bond between mother and adult child
We had not lived under the same roof since I left home for college, yet, a mysterious bond bound us together -- an invisible umbilical cord. If she sensed any angst in me, I could count on her awaking the next morning, coming to the bottom of the stairs and crying, “Judy! I am so confused. Please help me!”
On trips in the car she muttered in the back seat. “I’m praying,” she’d say, as was her habit. The sound of “s” surfaced again and again. I’d think of Bilbo listening to Gollum’s s’s, “his precious.”
At other times, driving downtown, she’d perk up, “Well, look at that — Ruby Hotel! They named that one for me! And, here’s my street — Ruby!”
Eventually, the perpetual groans and sighs gave way to humming —the same three notes over and over. Just when I thought I’d lose my mind, the humming evolved into short snippets of songs. Here, some measures of “On Top of Old Smokey” while Mom swiffered the floor, and there, a phrase from the hymn
“It is Well with My Soul” while folding clothes.
Ultimately, her shuffled stations play list included complete melodies and lyrics. They followed one after the other: “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” “Fill My Cup, Lord” then “I’ll Be Loving You Always.”
Mom took up singing songs, even in the night. The words and notes rose upstairs from the basement.
I traded in my worried ear for a curious one. “Name That Tune” became a regular game for me.
If guests occupied the other room in the basement, I’d fly down the stairs to remind her. “Pipe down and go to sleep, Mom. There are other people in the house tonight!”
At Mom’s second annual check-up, I told her doctor this musical news. With raised eyebrows, she stared at us. “Really, Ruby?” she asked. “No more sighs or groans? You’re singing?! A life can still change, even at age 94. Let’s stop your antidepressants.”
The slow but sure cessation of Mom’s steady groans and the gradual increase of melodies and words revealed the unfolding of grace in her soul — an inner hymn of faith, hope and love. She’d relaxed into time, God’s time.
Listening to Ruby and God
Her life flourished with a new found song that eventually reached its crescendo on Good Friday, a year ago, when she died — or, as she told the hospice nurse, “I’m graduating.”
Near the end, I heard no words. But, I listened to her breathing – long, satisfied, relieved breaths, beautiful sighs – a sweet farewell.
Note 1: Well done, Judy.
Note 2: After the reading, a friend told Judy: “I’m glad your mom let her light shine.” Then, Judy’s friend started singing: “This Little Light of Mine.”
Note 3: Judy Palpant, mother of three, grandmother of 11, lives in Spokane with her husband, Sam, recently retired longtime physician-teacher (mostly internal medicine) of interns and residents at Internal Medicine Spokane (some of his former students now practice in Helena and other parts of Montana). Judy plays the piano at the hospital and church. She has served as the chair of a mission agency. Currently, she edits two Christian medical journals. Over 30 years ago, she and her family were medical missionaries in Lugulu, Kenya, for nearly six years. She follows Jesus.