Phil Gulley: A Few Words About My Sweet Mom

Whom I wish were hear to read them.
My mother died this past July. It seems final to see it in print, even though it’s anything but final in my mind. Four months after her passing, I still say to my wife, “Let’s go see Mom and Dad,” and automatically include her when planning family dinners. I read somewhere that it takes a year to adjust to death’s finality, which means I have eight more months of startled sorrow when I remember she’s gone. I mean gone in the physical sense, but even then not really. I still hear her voice, hinting that a hot fudge sundae from the Dairy Queen would taste good right about now or inquiring after our granddaughter Madeline, who everyone says looks just like my mom, which I hope is true, though I know it’s unwise to expect one person to take the place of another.

If I could change one thing about my mother’s death, I would have wished for it sooner. Her last three years were miserable, a zealous cardiovascular surgeon having frightened her into undergoing a triple-bypass operation from which she never recovered. She was heading into dementia and we saw little point in unnecessarily prolonging her life, so I had urged her to forgo the operation and let nature take its course. Then the surgeon phoned her, describing in detail the hellish death awaiting her, so she agreed to the procedure, and could not be dissuaded. She believed without question in the virtue and wisdom of her surgeon, so certain that he wanted nothing but the best for her. In that way, she was not unlike those poor, beleaguered souls who trust the faith healer even as he pockets their life savings and packs his tent for the next town.

It’s a struggle to remember my mother prior to her decline, the recent layers of suffering obscuring the earlier layers of vitality. But there are moments when a memory, unprompted, returns in full force. It is 1974, and we’re vacationing in a log cabin on an island in Ontario, five miles in a temperamental boat to our car, then 30 miles down a gravel road to the nearest town. No electricity, no indoor plumbing. Mom is cooking for 11 people, and singing Donna Fargo’s “The Happiest Girl In the Whole USA.” I thought her sincere at the time, though I now suspect irony was involved.

Like most interesting people, my mother was a bundle of contradictions. She enjoyed nothing more than a vigorous discussion about God, but was skeptical of religion, especially her own. When she retired, she volunteered as a chaplain at the hospital in our town, even after confiding in me she wasn’t sure she believed in God.

“What will you do if someone asks you to pray for them?” I asked.

“I’ll say the Lord’s Prayer, then change the subject,” she said. Then she brightened. “I’ll tell them they have nice hair. Sick people love it when you compliment their hair.”

She thought her five children were perfect, without blemish, but was quick to point out ways we might improve ourselves. When I was 20, she told me I was free to be whatever I wished, so long as I was happy. I told her I wanted to be a pastor, and she replied, “A pastor? You don’t want to be a pastor. You should be a lawyer.” The week she died, she told me I was handsome, then suggested I get a haircut and lose a little weight.

Her counsel went far beyond vocation and appearances. She also felt perfectly free to correct our grammar. She loved Alex Trebek for his precise diction, and watched Jeopardy! every night at 7:30, come hell or high water. A few days before she died, my cousin Judy was visiting her. By then, Mom was bedfast and sleeping most of the time, not even watching Jeopardy!, so we knew things were bad. Fearing bedsores, Judy was attempting to roll Mom on her side, but Mom was resisting.

“Aunt Glo, just lay still,” Judy said.

Mom gestured weakly for Judy to bend near, which Judy did.

“It’s lie still,” Mom whispered.

She was a consummate worrier. My four siblings and I were able to attend college and earn good livings, but in Mom’s mind, we were a week from the poorhouse. I was once paid a healthy sum for speaking at a convention, so I replaced her kitchen appliances from the 1970s.

“That’s awfully sweet of you,” she said, grasping my face with both hands and kissing my forehead, “but you’re going to need that money someday. What about your kids? They’ll need help with college. What were you thinking?”

“I’m doing fine, Mom. Don’t worry.”

“You’re doing fine now, but what if you get sick, can’t work, and lose your home?”

“Then we’ll move in with you and Dad,” I said.

“Oh, for the love of Mike, that would drive me crazy.”

I’ve known enough mothers to know they’re not all good, no matter what Hallmark says. I took my mother’s virtues for granted in the early years, though as time passed, I realized that for all her peculiarities, she was a keeper. I never doubted I was loved, even when she spanked me for shooting my brother Doug with a dart gun. I revisit the scene in my mind, the pull of the trigger, the dart’s suction tip striking Doug in the forehead and sticking, Doug flopping on the floor as fake as the TV wrestlers we watched on Saturday mornings.

In our 56 years together, I saw Mom cry twice. Once, when our squabbling so wore her down, she fled to her bedroom and wept. We gathered around her, promising never to fight again, which we managed to do for an hour or so. The second time was when my brother Glenn was near death in a Muncie hospital. He recovered, but it was touch-and-go for a while. If there’s a greater sorrow than watching your mother cry, I haven’t known it.

Mom was a stickler for appearances and couldn’t imagine any scenario in which she’d look good in a casket, so she opted for cremation. Bruce Baker from the funeral home picked up her body, weeping with us as we carried her to the van that would bear her to the crematorium. What is left of her resides in our front closet, in a container slightly larger than a cigar box. Her remains await my father’s death, when we shall mingle their ashes, burying half in the back field at the house we grew up in, and the other half in Danville South Cemetery. Until that day, it’s a comfort having Mom stay with us, albeit in a different form. When one’s mother dies, one takes solace wherever it can be found. Our consolation resides in memories, both strong and faint, and in the people remaining, friends and family alike, who by their loving presence make bearable our afflictions.