"You donít have to get up this early" she said as I emerged from my bedroom, "I can drive myself. You go back to sleep."
It was four oíclock in the morning. Saturday morning. The night before Mom had casually asked if anyone wanted to join her at her marathon run on San Diegoís Coronado Island. Her 6:00 a.m. run. No takers. Until I decided to surprise her with my groggy appearance and volunteer my chauffeur services. "Momíll get a kick out of that" I said to myself. She did.
It was still dark as we backed out of the driveway and nosed the car onto the west bound lanes of Interstate 8. Our white and burgundy Dodge Aspen quickly devoured the miles between our El Cajon home in East San Diego and the coastal community of Coronado.
Mom and I chatted as the sun crept over the horizon, sharing a comfortable conversation that glided easily from one topic to the next. We talked about my plans to transfer to Biola University the next fall, her work as a secondary education supervisor at San Diego State University. My younger brotherís trumpet lessons, my older brotherís track meets. My kid sisterís gymnastics and Dadís golf game. It all seemed so natural. So permanent.
Traffic was light and we made good time, crossing the cobalt blue girders of an all-but-deserted Coronado Bay Bridge shortly after five in the morning. We had plenty of time to find a parking spot and get Mom warmed up for the competition. Mom had pre-registered for the marathon weeks ahead of time to avoid the long lines at the Walk On registration table. She was like that. Organized, thorough, efficient. Able to plan far ahead.
Mom finished her final stretches and headed to the starting line, chipper and cheerful. Yawning, I have her a hug.
"Good luck, Mom. See ya at the Finish Line."
She flashed one of her effervescent smiles and waved, "Here we go, honey. See ya later!"
The starterís gun barked and Mom was off, her red hair blowing in the crisp morning breeze. I ambled back to the car to snooze while she churned out 26.3 miles on foot.
I donít know why I decided to drag myself out of bed and join Mom that day. Maybe I wanted to repay a small fraction of the unconditional support she had always given me. Maybe I wanted to be there for her, like she was for me. In my corner, cheering me on. Maybe I just wanted some time alone with Mom. If I had known how short our remaining time together would be, I wouldíve wanted more.
It was Easter, a few years later. I had graduated from college, married, and settled in the Los Angeles suburbs. My younger brother was in college in Florida. My older brother was working for a local aerospace firm, and my sister was completing her senior year of high school. That April weekend was the first time my family had been together in almost a year.
Mom met us at the door when my husband and I arrived, glowing with the effervescent smile that was her trademark. Chris and I were surprised to find her leaning on a walker. "From my surgery," she explained, "the doctor suggested I use it until I get my strength back."
We had no idea. She wasnít ill or ailing. The doc pronounced her "healthy as a horse, with the heart and lungs of a 30 year-old" at her last annual check-up. "All that running," he winked, "exercise keeps you young!"
Not wanting to worry us, Mom and Dad decided not to tell us about her surgery a few weeks previouslyóor its causeóuntil it was finished and she came home from the hospital. I was startled, a little annoyed.
"We didnít tell Kurt either" Mom said, referring to my younger sibling. "He had final exams and didnít need anything else on his mind while trying to cram." Typically Mom, she reasoned that there was "no sense" worrying her kids with some "minor surgery" when "you couldnít do anything about it" anyway. "Besides," she beamed, "I feel great!"
Well. She may have feltóand lookedólike a million bucks, but I had some questions.
"Uh, Mom, you wanna run that part about the `minor surgeryí by me again?"
Mom patiently explained that she had awakened one morning without any feeling in her legs. Minutes later, she was paralyzed from the waist down, unable to move. Neurological and other tests revealed a tumor on or in her spinal column. A 90% blockage, the tumor obstructed the free flow of spinal fluid, hence the sudden paralysis.
"We caught just in time" the specialist said. "A 100% blockage wouldíve meant totalóand irreversibleóparalysis."
Scalpels removed the bulk of the tumor, but since spinal surgery is considered extremely delicate and dangerous, the surgeon wasnít chancing total removal. Radiation treatments were ordered to eliminate what the knife had missed.
Hearing "tumor" and "radiation," my jaw hit the floor. Still smiling pleasantly, Mom quickly assured me that the biopsied tumor was pronounced "benign." Doctors issued a 90% chance of complete recovery, with no serious side effects. We believed them. We believed her. So we shoved the precarious past aside and enjoyed our Easter weekend as if it was our last. It was April 1984.
When the phone call came from Dad in early June, I knew I was in for a shock. He choked out the news in between sobs.
A neighbor had arrived that morning to stay with Mom after everyone else had left and Dad departed for work. Noticing Momís labored breathing, Miriam phoned Dad at work and then called the paramedics. They arrived within minutes and had Mom prepped for transport to the hospital when Dad arrived, tearing home with the speed of panic. Mom was gone before the ambulance left the driveway. She was 54.
Oddly enough, her death wasnít related to the tumor. It was caused by a pulmonary embolism resulting in cardiac arrest. Her unexpected death threw our lives into emotional chaos, plunging us into the rabid smelting fires of bereavement. It was a grinding, wrenching process. A season of winter. Strained smiles, sleepless nights. Groping for answers that didnít come.
One of my most vivid recollections during this time was learning how loss can be helped or hindered by the Pavlovian responses I rendered as did some family and friends. While my husband and I spent that first week in El Cajon without Mom, I had the oddest sensation of deja vu. Buried in the newspaper or pouring myself some milk, I would look at the clock and think, "Whereís Mom? Havenít seen her all morning." Iíd scan kitchen and living room aimlessly, mind refusing to accept the obvious.
"Oh yeah," I rationalized, "Momís out for a run. Sheíll be back by lunch."
I slumped into our brown leather recliner and awaited her return. My mind would sometimes take 15 or 20 minutes to catch up with reality. Sleep and song offered sole relief to the omnipresent ache of my waking hours.
In the meantime, many people entered and exited our lives. I soon discovered that visitors, though well-meaning and good-intentioned, often had little or no idea how to relate to us. Nor we to them. Most folks responded in one of two extremes. They either avoided us altogether as if we had the Plague, or they suffocated us with glib and pious platitudes that only furthered our feelings of isolation. Some scurried about the house spouting "Godís willisms" as if the speed of their declarations would hurry our healing. Embarrassed and ill at ease, these well-wishers mouthed quick condolences, trying to force feed us sugar-coated piety. We gagged.
"If I hear Romans 8:28 one more time, Iím going right through the roof!" I muttered. Our comforters meant well. They just didnít understand. We needed time to hurt.
A precious few rallied around us, unafraid of our tears. They listened instead of lectured. Washed dirty dishes. Prepared meals. Scrubbed the sink. Housed out of town relatives. Rescheduled appointments, screened phone calls. Vacuumed and dusted. Hugged us. Passed the Kleenex. They didnít say much of anything. They didnít have to.
After the June memorial service, my husband and I returned to Los Angeles and attempted to resume "ordinary" life. But what did "ordinary" mean, minus Mom? We didnít have a clue. No one else did, either.
We were surrounded with support, showered with attention immediately after Momís death, when shock buoyed our spirits with a cordial numbness. But the real process of mourning didnít begin until much later, after the shock waves dissipated. By then most of the support had also diminished. Cards stopped coming. The phone stopped ringing. The crowds seemed to figure that since they had "accepted" Momís death, so had we. The routine returned. Dry and barren, my heart was elsewhere.
Splattered with an endless succession of "Whys?," my devotionals became daily slug-fests. I couldnít make sense of Momís death. Vivacious, vibrant, gracious, she had so much to live for. She was so young. If God was going to take someone that day, why not someone old and ill, who had already lived a full and complete life? Why not someone who wouldnít be missed, a loner without family or friends, someone whoíd never done anything for anyone? Why my Mom? Why now? It all seemed so pointless.
Sputtering indignities, I summoned anger to mask my pain and accused God of everything from incompetence to apathy. And always, looming overhead like a dank, dismal cloud, was the smothering loneliness of an irreplaceable loss.
More than a year later, my whirling dervish ranting subsided, eddying into tearless pools of melancholy. I half-heartedly opened my Bible. It fell open to the Book of Job. I began reading with the all the speed and enthusiasm of a gimpy snail. Somewhere in the pages of the ancient text that "still, small Voice" spoke.
He did not answer nor explain. Instead, He reached for my pain and bore the loss I could no longer carry, the hurt that was too great.
"I have taken away," He whispered from Job 1:21, "now see what I will give."
Six years later, I had almost forgotten. "One moment, please" the lab technician said while she tracked down the results from my pregnancy test. We had put off starting our family until my husband finished law school, a five-year endeavor. I nervously awaited the test results.
"Congratulations," the tech said, "youíre pregnant!" I thanked her for the news and hung up the receiver. I glanced at my wall calendar, seeing it for the first time: June 7, 1990. It all came flooding back. The positive test results arrived six years after Mom left us, to the day.
"The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away," Job echoed, "blessed be the name of the Lord." Eight months later the obstetricianís first words were, "Itís a boy!" followed by, "He has red hair!" Just like Mom.
We were expecting our second child a year later. My pregnancy was confirmed and we were given an October 1 due date. Then I approached the Throne of Grace with a special request.
"Lord," I began, "our times are in Your hands. It would mean so much to me if You would see to it that this baby is born on Momís birthday."
I went into labor on October 11. Our second son was born the evening of October 12, Grandma Naasís 62nd birthday.
I still miss Mom, especially when my boys see her photo and ask, "Who dat?" My eyes sometimes mist and my voice may catch as I explain that the slender, red-haired lady in the picture is "Mommyís Mommy, your Grandma Peggy."
Frozen in time, she smiles that effervescent smile from behind a photo frame. My boys wouldíve loved her, and she them. But she finished her course before they were born; introductions must wait.
Meanwhile, I sometimes see her in my mindís eye, red hair drifting in the breeze, waiting for me on the other side. Smiling, cheering me on. Rooting for me as I run my race. "See ya later!" Mom used to say, and from our separate sides of the tape we both look toward the Finish Line.