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I’m sitting here looking out at her roses. They are lovely white Cherokee roses winding over the fences. Cherokee roses are the state flower of Georgia. My mother was from Savannah. She had cuttings of these roses sent to me for Mother’s Day years ago.They were from her family’s dilapidated plantation in Adabelle, Ga., shortly before it burned down. Miraculously, they bloom every year on Mother’s Day, my favorite day of the year.
My mother was a true Southern belle. She was beautiful, gracious, joyous, charming and the kindest person I’ve ever met. She adored a good party and had a wicked sense of humor. Before she quit, she smoked with a cigarette holder and she never went anywhere without her favorite Perrier Jouet champagne. Everyone loved her. She was a people whisperer. My father always said she had an inner beauty that was more important than what was on the outside. When she entered a room with “Hi darlin’” you just knew you were in for a good time. She brought out the best in everyone. She was the person who would seek out the loner in the corner and bring him or her into the center.
It’s hard to believe but she and I never had a harsh word in our lives. She was my best friend. We talked on the phone five times a day. There was nothing I didn’t share with her or that she didn’t share with me. She called me “sista’ belle.” I called her Mama until I decided that was too childish and began calling her Mother.
She always told me I was beautiful and smart and I could do anything I wanted to do. She made me feel truly cherished. When I was really little, I would proudly tell everyone I met, “My mama loves me to pieces.” When I said my prayers at night, it was my mother I always prayed for first. “God, please don’t let anything happen to her,” I would implore.
She died nine years ago, but not for me. Just seeing her roses makes me know she is here with me right now. I sleep with her baby pillow. I wear her wedding ring on my right finger. I have a lock of her hair with me always. And a small vial of her ashes is buried at the edge of my labyrinth. The labyrinth is a sacred circle on the ground, a place for meditation, which looks something like a maze. When I walk to the center, I always find clarity.
I talk to her constantly. When I am in pain she tells me, as she always did when she was alive, “This too shall pass.” Cliched as it is, it works for me. Most things do pass, but thinking about her is hard.
I remember when I was six, skipping happily home from school on a gorgeous fall day in my little black-and-white checked pinafore dress. Suddenly I thought my world would fall apart. What if something happened to my Mother? I realized I couldn’t survive. I began running toward the house and threw myself into her arms, begging her never to die. She was waiting, the house redolent of smells of my favorite baked custard in the oven. It’s amazing how all these years later I can summon up that sense of fear and panic that I had those many years ago.
When I was 10, we lived in Japan and my father, who was in the Army, was sent to the front lines in Korea. I was so upset by this that I became sick, couldn’t retain food and was sent to Tokyo General Hospital which is where the most seriously wounded soldiers from Korea were brought. I was in the pediatric ward for eight months. In those days they didn’t let parents visit their sick children so I went for months without seeing her. She joined the Gray Ladies and would come to the hospital every day to try to see me. I knew her step, could hear her heels coming down the hallway, hear the discussions at the entrance to the ward, hear my mother crying. It was torture for both of us. But still she kept coming until finally I was transferred to Brooke General Hospital in San Antonio on a hospital plane with dying soldiers and my mother came with me.
When I grew older, my brother and sister had moved away but I went with my parents to Germany when my father was stationed there after I graduated from college. When he retired and moved back to Washington, I lived with my parents until I was 29 and started working for the Washington Post. When I got my own apartment downtown, they sold their house in Chevy Chase and moved into a building a block away. When my husband and I got together, we bought a house a two blocks from their apartment.
My son Quinn was born 30 years ago with a hole in his heart and he and I lived at Children’s Hospital for nearly three months until he was old enough to have open heart surgery. My mother came to the hospital every morning with a container of tea and a newspaper. We never spoke about our experience in Japan but she knew how hard it was for both of us to be in a pediatric ward and how important it was that she be there.
She was as good a grandmother as she was a mother although she spoiled Quinn hopelessly, even against my protests, serving him breakfast in bed. He spent two nights a week with my parents on nights when we went out. It was one of those nights when she had her first stroke. It was a few weeks before Christmas. She collapsed in the kitchen fixing dinner with Quinn. He couldn’t wake her up and ran to get my father. Quinn rode in the ambulance with her to the hospital. He was completely traumatized. She recovered and left the hospital but she was never really the same.
The doctors warned it could happen again and told us Quinn couldn’t be alone with her. She couldn’t drive anymore so she couldn’t pick him up from school on her days and he wasn’t allowed to spend the night again. In January she had another, more serious stroke and was at Walter Reed Army Hospital for several months. My father had a big surprise party for her the night she got out of the hospital in March and she was in seventh heaven, even sneaking a glass of Perrier Jouet. But the recovery was short lived.
On Easter, she suffered a massive stroke which left her with brain damage and a paralyzed left arm. She never recovered. Shortly after that, my sister and I moved my parents to a retirement community in Arlington, Va., where my mother had round-the-clock nurses from then on.
Even then, though, she was irrepressible. She loved the idea of her champagne, though she really only could take a sip or two. She loved parties, even though she really couldn’t carry on much of a conversation, “I can’t hold my own anymore,” she once said to me. It was so heartbreaking because she knew.
The worst part was her loss of inhibitions. My lovely mother, who had such a sense of decorum, would say the most shocking things in front of people and then grin mischievously. Once, when my brother took her out to dinner when she and her nurse were visiting him in Arizona, she turned to the man at the next table and asked, without a qualm, “Do you have a big penis?” It was hard to say who was more mortified, the poor guy or my brother. In a crowded elevator, a short time later, with my sister and me, she announced in a loud voice, “I just farted.”
The funniest experience was one Christmas dinner. We always have Christmas dinner with Bob Woodward and his wife Elsa Walsh. I would put my mother between Bob and me so I could feed her and she could be part of our conversation. At the end of dinner, Bob helped my mother up and walked her slowly on his arm to the hallway where everyone was saying good-bye. My mother turned to Bob and asked innocently, “Bob, did I ever f— you?” We all burst out laughing. Bob froze for a moment, then pulled it together and gallantly replied, “I don’t think so Bette…unfortunately.” She was thrilled.
The strain of losing my mother and then overseeing her care was too much for my father. He died a few years later at Walter Reed.
After my father’s death, she didn’t have much will to live either. She lost interest in seeing people and spent most of the time with her nurse watching television and sleeping. When I went to see her, her eyes would light up and she would clearly be happy to see me. But she couldn’t concentrate on a conversation so we would sit and watch TV together.
The September that she was 86, she announced to me that she wanted to die. “I’m not having any fun,” she said. And she was right. After discussions with my brother and sister, we decided to give her our support. I started taking anti-depressants. I knew I couldn’t go through with this without them.
She stopped eating and drinking. We tried to get her to drink water but she really didn’t want to. It took her three weeks to die. We talked about her life a lot during that time and how much we loved each other. The day before she died I brought over a bottle of Perrier Jouet and poured each of us a glass. She drank the whole thing. It was the last thing in her mouth. I’m afraid to say I finished the bottle. Then I slept with her in her bed that night, holding on as if I could stop her from leaving me. She died at seven the next morning.
She had given me, years earlier, an empty magnum of Perrier Jouet to bury her ashes in. We had a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery with two white gloved soldiers carrying the bottle to the grave site. We laughed and cried as the Chaplain kept referring to Mrs. Quinn and glancing nervously at the champagne bottle.
That night we had a party at my house with, you guessed it, champagne for everyone before and during the service . We served all of her favorite southern food and had a combo play her favorite music including “Because of You…my life is now worthwhile and I can smile, because of you,” the song that was played at my parents’ wedding.
Now it’s Mother’s Day again. I will be celebrating it with Quinn and his magical wife Pari, a people whisperer just like my mother. I will be as happy as I can possibly be without my own mother present. I will walk the labyrinth and kiss the spot where her ashes are buried. I will get clarity from her about all of the issues in my life. And I will be so grateful to have had the greatest mother in the whole wide world.