Because They Promised

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This woman. She’s been my mom for over thirty years. I’ve called her mom since the day I married her son. Easier, I suppose, since I no longer had one. We’ve been very different people for those thirty-some years, except in our mutual fierce love of our children. I know she didn’t understand me in the beginning or, really, for quite a while.

But she loved me. It didn’t matter. Honestly, when your son marries a 23-year-old who knows a lot about Shakespeare but not about life, you can assume she won’t even understand herself for a good many years.

Kneeling by her bed and crying last week, I listened to her soft voice, almost inaudible from dehydration, tell me those things we seem to only tell when we know we have limited time to speak them. I heard, “You’re one of my girls. You’re my daughter.” And I will treasure those words for as long as I have my own breath.

She deserves her loved ones around her, fiercely protecting her this time, and she has them. Children and grandchildren, being the loving humans she taught them to be. I see her nearest granddaughter drop by regularly, her grandson sitting at her side whispering kind words. I watch my own daughters paint her toenails, hold her hands, and caress her hair.

I am undone by this.

It’s the hard work of 85 years to have family like that. There is a legacy that will remain a thing of beauty long after breaths are taken and heartbeats cease.

I’ve never walked with someone at the end of life. I’ve lost a lot of people. Both parents and two sisters. But they all were there one moment and gone the next. No preparation. No ability to say all the things that need to be said and hear all the things that need to be heard. No time to process all the feelings that come with this downhill walk, and no choice in whether you want to make it.

I do want to.

I had this discussion with my daughter recently about our two cats that passed. One quickly and with no warning, the other with a diagnosis a few months before. Which was worse, saying a sudden, unwanted goodbye, or dragging through the daily hurt of watching it happen and being helpless? We mourned out kitties—we loved them so, and two in quick succession was too much. We both knew we were talking about more than the cats. We both agreed warning was better.

Yet we don’t know how to take this slow walk down the hill, a quicker walk than we had hoped, really. We don’t know when to laugh, when to cry, and we’re figuring out that both are OK, and they happen when they happen. We hate the tug-of-war between our lives here, jobs that demand us, lives that need living, and our longing to be there, sharing every minute we can. We don’t how to dance that choreography, and we realize no one does.

And what of this man? He’s walked beside her for over sixty years. When I tell him he’s a good man and a great husband, he merely says, “Well, it was all in those vows.” Indeed it was, but I’ve seldom seen anyone live his promises so well. He knows that a man’s promise is where his character is determined. But I don’t think he’s thought that—he’s simply done it.

I know this is supposed to be a series on young peoples’ voices. But these words needed to be said. Maybe these words need to be said to young people, not by them. I know marriage isn’t so popular anymore. I know suspicion of institutions leave the next generation wondering if it’s worth the risk. Commitment is frightening, and there are no guarantees. If there’s anything we have taught the next generation, it’s that they should always demand guarantees. Never try anything that isn’t sure to succeed.

Silly us. Why? That was such a foolish lesson. These are the lessons we needed to teach. The lessons of time. Long-haul belief in the family you’ve created. Faith that others will cling to after you’re gone. Love regardless of comprehension. Commitment to people who change, hurt, and confuse you, because they’re your people, and we keep hold of our peoples’ hands. Even, especially, when they have no idea where they’re going.

I’m glad she knows well where’s she’s going.

Men who delicately wipe their spouse’s forehead and hold her hand and walk with her through the pain of loss. Because they promised to. 

If only we had taught you that, rather than “success.” Because that right there is what success looks like. Like my mom and dad.

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