Her eyes were blue and green and gray. The color changed based on the weather or her mood or when she wore her favorite sweater. She was hopelessly nearsighted at a time when contacts and LASIK surgery didn’t exist. She would joke about her teenage vanity, saying that her dating years were a blur because she would whip off her glasses whenever a cute young man entered the room. I don't think I've ever seen a picture of her wearing them until after she was married. She calmly raised her children, learning to keep her face neutral whether confronted with a temper tantrum or as she rushed one of her daredevil children to the emergency room. But the eyes always gave her away.
I am the youngest of her six children, a “happy surprise” in her mid-forties, arriving as the oldest child was preparing to graduate from high school. She loved being a mom. She encouraged her children to have fun and gave us freedom to engage our imagination. We would play outside until the fire siren blew at 6:00 PM. She would not hesitate to give up her clean dishes when sandbox pails were missing or tadpoles needed a home. On rainy days she would empty the linen closet for a blanket fort. Sometimes they would stretch from one end of the room all the way to the other! I even remember coming home from school one day to find her roller-skating around the dining room table. She just wanted to see if she still “had it”.
As I got older it was obvious that the thrill of parenting yet another teenager was long gone. She had less patience when my friends came to visit or when I needed a ride, and our clashes became more frequent. But now that I’ve raised two teenagers of my own, I look back on those years and see my mother in a new light. When I was a teen, she was in her early sixties. 60! That's older than I am today. She suffered from chronic neck and back pain but was still a full time housewife and mom. My father had retired and he was my partner in crime, but she was delegated to the role of warden. So maybe her patience had run thin. It’s a miracle it hadn’t run out.
The mom I remember left us a long time ago. The truth is she was stolen away by dementia and old age. At 97, her physical self remains: immobile and plagued by the effects of years spent worshipping the sun. It gets harder and harder to visit her at her care facility. It's a well-worn place filled with people just waiting for time to pass. She rests in her hospital bed or her wheelchair, usually lost in a fog. Sometimes she seems to know who I am, although often she thinks I am her sister. Other times I can see her searching her memory for a name to put with my face. But the hardest days are when her gaze just trails away blankly.
Today I am so thankful for all the time I had with my mom, and for her selflessness, her humor, and her sage advice. ("Mother's Law!") She taught me how to love my children unconditionally; how to make others feel welcome; the value in sticking to a schedule; and that complaining about something won't make it any better.
I sat with her the other day, like so many days before, and held her hand while she dozed on and off. It was one of the bad days, when I just couldn't get her to engage. At one point l bent down and looked into those blue eyes, now red-rimmed and watery. “Are you in there?” I asked softly, expecting the usual empty stare. But this time she lifted her gaze and looked directly into my eyes, and then slowly nodded her head yes. Yes, she is still there. I squeezed her hand and whispered that I loved her. She squeezed my hand back and whispered, “I love you, too.” And then she slipped away again.