Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mom's Milestone

Today would have been a milestone for my mother — if she had not died in a flash flood 16 years ago.

Today would have been her 80th birthday — and, if nature had not intervened, I am quite sure she would still be with us today.

I can't know a thing like that, of course. But I know the family history, and I know what Mom's health was like on the day she drowned. At the time she died, I believed she could have been with us for another 20 years, at least, and I still believe that today.

Anything else could have happened in the last 16 years, though. Family history isn't infallible. Mom's father died of a heart attack in his sleep when he was 70. The same thing could have happened to her.

But my grandmother outlived my grandfather by nearly 20 years — even though the quality of the last 10 years of her life is debatable. She suffered increasingly from dementia, and I know that Mom feared a similar fate.

She never said so, but she didn't have to.

Mom was a first–grade teacher. At times, it seemed to me that she drew energy from the 6– and 7–year–olds in her classroom. They kept her young, and I realized, after she died, that a significant part of her was afraid of ending up like my grandmother, unable to recognize those who came to see her, unable even to communicate in her final years.

Funny thing — when Mom died, she was the subject of several newspaper articles because she had been recognized for her classroom innovations. Someone (and I can't remember now whether it was an administrator or another teacher or a parent who said this) was quoted as saying Mom was "everyone's favorite grandmother."

I had trouble seeing her as a grandmother. Mom was a free and independent spirit. She also had a childlike fascination with things that I'm sure made her popular with the children who spent their first year in elementary school in her classroom. It permeated her life — and I never realized that until after she died.

I remember one day when I was sorting through my mother's belongings following her death. My father walked into the room while I was looking at a special vest Mom wore on an excursion to St. Louis with some of her colleagues. The vest was covered in buttons she got at a Cardinals baseball game.

One button was equipped with a music player. When you pressed it, it played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I pressed it, listened to it, looked up and saw my father, who had entered the room without my notice. He smiled. "Your mother was a child," he said, turned and walked out of the room.

Yes, she was. Maybe that was what made her such a great mother — and a great teacher (and, by extension, everyone's favorite grandmother). Above all other things, my memory is that it was fun having her for my mom. She made everything an adventure. I'm sure it was that way for the children in her classroom.

I am about to begin my second year of adjunct teaching in the local community college, and I am trying to apply things she taught me in my classroom. It is a work in progress.

After she died, a family friend sought to comfort my brother and me by observing that Mom "went out at the top of her game."

At that time and under those circumstances, it simply wasn't possible for me to be comforted by that thought — I didn't want her to be gone, still don't, and no thoughts that indicated an acceptance of the new reality could be tolerated — but I have drawn some comfort from it since.

I wish Mom was still with us, but if she was spared her mother's fate, then I am thankful for that.

You see, I understand now, in a way that I really didn't before, that no one lives forever. Oh, I said things like that, but it was more of an expression for me, I guess. I didn't really think about the truth of those words or however subtly they might be influencing me (sort of like the Pledge of Allegiance I dutifully recited each morning as a child). I do now.

I understand that, while no one really wants to die (probably because none of us can be absolutely sure what happens when we die — we may think that we know, but no one who is living can really know), it's going to happen to all of us. I can't imagine what that will be like, but I've concluded that there would be no advantage in living forever — not even if one could strike some sort of deal and be sure never to age or lose one's mobility.

Since such a Faustian arrangement is not possible — at least as far as I know — I would rather not linger past the time that all my contemporaries have gone. I would rather be taken when I am still alert and capable — and the people I leave behind believe there were still things I didn't do that I should have done before I died — than to overstay my welcome and die long after my quality of life began to decline.

Whichever it turns out to be, I would just prefer that my death wouldn't be an excessively painful or lingering one. I don't even have to know it's happening. My grandfather died in his sleep — wouldn't any of us choose that over being conscious?

Mom's quality of life definitely did not decline — and I can only hope that she did not experience too much pain. But that is something I will never know.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Mom's sense of humor. It was different, but I really miss it.

Mom had a great knack for laughing at herself.

When I was a child, she used to make a beef–noodle casserole that was absolutely delicious. As far as I could see, it was perfect. Mom used to rave about how easy it was to prepare, and I don't exaggerate when I say it was one of my favorite dishes. I actually looked forward to evening meals when I knew it was on the menu.

She served it once when some friends came over, and they went wild, insisting that Mom give them the recipe. She promised that she would.

Never one to put off such things, Mom typed the recipe on an index card the very next day and passed it along to her friend while she was out running errands.

(Now, when I say "typed," I mean that — literally. It was long before personal computers and word processors with spell checkers or any of that other stuff. Mom used a typewriter — and it was the old–fashioned, manual kind, too.)

Mom didn't proofread the card first, and it turned out she had typed an o instead of an e in the word "noodle" in the title of the recipe (which was something very basic, like "Beef–Noodle Casserole," but, with the typo, it read "Beef–Noodlo Casserole").

Someone noticed the typo and remarked that the dish was "Goodloe's Noodle–ohs." Mom liked that. We ate it at least once a week every week — and we called it "Goodloe's Noodle–ohs" for about as long as I can remember.

It became kind of a family joke. I can remember having friends over to spend the night, and I would ask Mom what we were having for dinner. She would reply "Goodloe's Noodle–ohs," seemingly oblivious to the fact there was a guest in the house who wasn't familiar with the joke.

Mom also liked to joke about what she called the "Goodloe luck." It was sort of a family variation on Murphy's law. I'm not sure if she originated it or not — or if perhaps my father played a role — but if something went wrong, we were sure to hear the "Goodloe luck" mentioned.

The photo of Mom sitting in our foldout camper was taken on the occasion of my favorite example of the "Goodloe luck." We had driven from Dallas to South Padre Island during the Christmas holidays — about an 11– or 12–hour drive, as I recall. It was something we had done — without incident — the year before, and the entire family was looking forward to some sand, surf and fresh seafood.

The picture that shows Mom smiling and laughing in our camper was taken about an hour after our arrival. The weather was gorgeous, and everyone was in a jovial mood. But, during the night, a storm front moved in, and we spent the next couple of days huddled around that small table, eating modest meals and playing card games while wind and rain pounded the tiny trailer outside.

Finally, my parents decided that we had had enough, and we left on the third day. We took down our camper in a pouring rain and began the long drive back to my grandmother's home in Dallas. On the way, we heard on the radio that the storm was the worst to strike the area in decades. Boats were missing at sea.

That, my parents agreed, was the "Goodloe luck."

I guess the most extreme example of the "Goodloe luck" was the flash flood that took Mom's life. But that would be a real misnomer. There was nothing lucky about that night.

Well, anyway, today would have been her birthday. It isn't the anniversary of her death. It's an appropriate time to remember who she was, not how she died.

I can't help feeling somewhat wistful on this day. I think of the world that existed on the day Mom died and the world that exists today, and I can't help wishing she had lived to see some of the things I have seen.

The flip side of that, of course, is that I'm glad she was spared some of the things that have happened since her death — so I suppose it is something of a tradeoff, as it is in every life, be it wealthy or privileged or longer than most.

In the great scheme of things, I guess one life is pretty much the same as the next. Some are longer than others. Some are more accomplished.

Religious people often speak of "God's will" and his "plan." I guess it is the only way some people can make sense of the irrational. There must be a reason why terrible things happen. We just aren't smart enough to figure it out.

I guess it's comforting, in a way, to believe that things that appear to make no sense — like the deaths of children — really do have a purpose. And some people believe the purposes for all things will be revealed to us when we die.

But some people will tell you that, whatever the reasons for these things may be, those reasons are God's, not man's — and God is under no obligation to explain himself.

So life continues to be, as it has always been, unfair. Some lives end far too early while others go on for a century or more, and there is no justification for it. Some lives are harder than most while others are easier, and there is no obvious justification for that, either.

I don't think I ever discussed this with Mom during her life. I know she believed in God, but I don't know what her conclusions were about the inequities of life.

Mom's life could have been longer than it was. Perhaps it could have been more accomplished.

But today, I want to remember Mom's life, and I want to do something to mark the occasion. Today is Saturday, and I'm going to the cemetery.

Maybe it seems odd to say that, but it isn't. Not really. In the years since Mom's death, the cemetery is the only place where I can feel close to her. I don't know if it is her "spirit" or not. I just know that is the way it is.

I used to go there every year on the anniversary of her death. I preferred going to the cemetery in May over going there in August, even though going there in May always seemed like more of an observance of her death than her life. It's always hot here in August — and it has been especially hot this summer.

But, since this would have been a milestone birthday for Mom, I will brave the elements, however severe they may be, and pay a visit in the morning hours. I'll keep it short, though. Classes at the community college begin next week, and I have last–minute preparations to make.

Mom would have understood.

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