When I walked into the little tiny apartment my parents shared in the assisted living complex, my dad zipped out of the bedroom and shushed at me.
He motioned to my mom, asleep in the monstrous medical bed that took up most of the front room. She was asleep and her little tiny body looked swallowed up between all the bed sheets and pillows that had been tucked around her in hopes of easing some of the pain.
At 77 years old, she was facing death. The doctors had diagnosed her with lung cancer almost six months earlier, and had told her she had about six months to live. She laughed at that most preposterous thought and kept walking ten miles a day or better said, speed-walked ten miles a day, and enjoying her trips to the casinos for Bingo with the ladies downstairs.
She didn’t feel sick, and actually had started feeling better once the surgery was done and the chemotherapy treatments stopped. But the doctors warned her that the tumors were growing rapidly and would press on her spine soon, causing so much pain. She didn’t believe it, we didn’t believe it, until it started to become true.
Forced to live her world in the squeaky metal bed she would sit up as long as she could and talk to whoever would happen to stop by. One evening as I sat with her, my brother showed up and we began to argue about who was her favorite child. Weary of our chattering after a while, she leaned back on her pillow and closed her eyes.
My brother announced that he, of course, was the favorite because he had never been mean, hateful and just an all-around selfish brat to our mother like “somebody” he knew. We all laughed about it, even my mother.
But we all knew it was true.
I had excelled at being my mother’s heartache as a youngster. Strong willed, sharp-tongued and brilliant as I knew I was, we spent hours, weeks, sometimes months only speaking in shrill screams at each other across the rooms.
She would start to lament how tough her life had been, and I would begin to make fun of her and tell her how sad her stories were, but that she needed to know that I didn’t need to hear them. Those were her problems, not mine, and I certainly didn’t want to be bothered with them. “Just get over it, mom, just get over it!” I would spit the words out at her like a snake’s venom.
There were actual times of peace, though few and far between the constant struggle of mom versus daughter.
During one of those peaceful respites, I remember sitting in the sofa and asking her why she kept a big white Bible displayed on the coffee table. She told me she kept it there to remind her of Ireland, her home.
I asked her what the Bible was about, and she replied, “It’s God’s book, God wrote it.”
So I wondered why we didn’t read it, daring to open the flimsy gold edged pages. She told me to get away from it, I wouldn’t understand it anyway. I told her that I surely might, that I wasn’t as stupid as she was. And well, as you can imagine, another fight started between us. This one lasted for days.
At school, a friend of mine asked why I didn’t go to mass. I told her I didn’t know, not knowing what mass was. So, I went home and asked my mama why we didn’t go to mass. She looked surprised.
“You’ll not be going to mass until you’re older. Your father has said you will decide your religion for yourself, he’ll not have it pushed on you as a child.” I noticed her Irish brogue was a little thick getting the words out.
“And do you go to mass, mama?” I asked.
“I don’t need to go to mass,” she replied, “I was born a Catholic, and I’ll die a Catholic. That’s all there is to it.”
So I determined to be a Catholic. I took off to St. Joseph the Workers every Sunday for the noon mass (I loved it because my mother had called it ‘drunkard’s mass’) and tried to copy everything everyone did, except take communion, because for some reason or other I didn’t qualify for that.
I didn’t ask my mom anything about the mass, or the meanings of the rituals, or prayers, but she eventually discovered my religious rebelliousness when she uncovered a head scarf that I had bought from the sisters at a bazaar held at St Joseph’s. Poor mom, she was livid and proud at the same time but my foray into Catholicism was as short lived as a fruit fly’s lifespan, and it became a great source of argument and distress between my mom, my dad and me.
During one of the rare moments of peace between us, she opened the big white Bible and showed me pictures of a sad bearded fellow who didn’t look much like God to me, but she told me he was Jesus, the son of God and that he had died on the cross for us.
I would look at the pictures and wonder why God only had one son, and why him dying on a cross was such a big deal. I came to the conclusion that it was all too scary to worry about. All of the pictures were dark and grim, with flying fat babies sporting wings and bleeding men with eyes turned upward to a cloudy sky. I decided not to look at the pictures any more.
One year, when Easter rolled around, my mother decided we were going to church. We lived in the middle of the desert, in a very small community where two churches existed. There was the Mormon Church and the Baptist church. Mom decided we were going to the Baptist church as she was sure the Mormons hated Catholics, and the Baptists would grin at her and be hoping to convert her with fervent hearts.
As my six year old self sat staring at the scene before me, I paid very little attention to anything except the bags of candy that I had been told were for the children after the service was over. At one point of the service, my mother started to cry. I looked up at her face and asked her why she was sad. “It’s the music,” she replied stoically.
I looked at the hymn page and saw the name of the song. “The Old Rugged Cross” was being sung by the choir and my mom was crying.
I vowed to always hate the Old Rugged Cross since it made my mama cry. She and I walked home after the service and we never went back to the Baptist church. I almost didn’t eat my bag of candy because they had made my mama cry but I decided it would be a waste to throw it away since there were starving children in India.
Life with my mom was always a battle but at the end of her life, the Lord had decided it was time to call her home as a Catholic who accepted Christ as her personal savior. When she whispered the sinner’s prayer days before her last breath, I was amazed at how far he had brought us from where we had been.
The day she left me, I watched her struggle with leaving this earth, and then I wept when she was gone.
Eventually that day, I got in my car and went home. And on my way home, I sang the Old Rugged Cross at the top of my lungs.
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This is such an emotional piece. You took my heart on roller coaster and it couldn't have been better. I originally clicked on this story because I wrote a story with the same name. Though they are quite different they both pack an emotional punch. It is beautiful.