In every life, there are heroes. The most beloved
are the unexpected ones who stand in sharp contrast
with persons you think will act heroically without prompting.
We were running out of time. But A.J. didn’t know that. Anxiously, I glanced first at my watch, then at the clock on the living room wall.
“Are you sure, Honey?” she asked me, obviously wanting to do something other than what I was wanting from her.
I pulled the receiver a few inches from my ear, anxiously listening to catch any noises from my daughter, Lizzie’s borrowed port-a-crib around the corner. She could be waking up any minute, needing to be changed and fed again. Thankfully, I didn’t hear anything.
Maybe the subtle, gentle approach I had tried with A.J. wasn’t going to work. I would have to be more direct. “She really needs you!” I practically shouted. “I think she would appreciate a visit from you.”
A.J. was clearly not buying it. I could hear her shuffling around in her kitchen. “You know,” she began, “I have a lot of stuff going on right now.”
This was not the first time she had mentioned that since I had called a few painful minutes earlier. Yes, I knew A.J. was busy. Yes, I knew she didn’t have a lot of time to spare today. But, if I could just make her understand how important this was.
Minutes earlier, my dad had asked me to call my mother’s closest friends, and invite each of them to come visit her right away. Busily, he hovered between their bedroom and the front door, eagerly ushering visitors into my mother’s presence. And they had not only come, but many of them had called others they knew would also want to drop in.
My mom had been sick for a long time. Over five years. But that was only since her diagnosis. Doctors and others said that cancer had to grow and develop for sometimes up to ten years before it became detectable. To tell the truth, although she had been very strong in the beginning, able to walk for many miles at a stretch, or work all day on dishes, laundry, gardening, and sewing projects for hours on end, these days, that strength was mostly just a memory.
Then, on Monday, she had paced anxiously all over the house for an hour or more, her hands clasped together while she looked over everything in her domain one last time. Immediately after this, she sat down, never to move freely again. My dad had put her to bed, where, he said, he could see that she had no strength left for any more walking.
That evening, he called me. My mom’s home hospice nurse, Heather, had told him that once a cancer patient finished this last walk, the end was near.
Of course, I wouldn’t believe it. We had been through this kind of stuff before. More times than I wanted to count. My mom would sink into some terrible relapse that threatened to end her life that very week. Her doctors would decide that nothing more could be done. They would discontinue treatment.
Right about the time that my family had started to resign ourselves to walk through the worst, the doctors and my mom would have a sudden change of heart. There was something else they could try. No guarantees were offered. But something was better than nothing, right?
Before we realized that the our lives had jerked into another unexpected direction, we found ourselves again climbing the steep hill of hope that the cancer roller coaster of ever-changing emotions provided, never knowing when we would suddenly be free-falling again into the abyss of lost hope when everything looked impossibly bleak. We had been on this emotional roller coaster for 5 and a half years by now. But, the coaster, unbeknownst to us, had been gradually speeding up as my mother’s body began breaking down faster than it could be rebuilt.
“Can you get home?” my dad finally asked me on Thursday.
“Lizzie and I will fly out tonight,” I told him. “I just need to wait for Sergei to get home to drive us to the airport.”
My husband arrived home from work a few minutes later to find me almost finished with my packing. “What time does your flight leave?” he asked.
“A little after eight.”
He relaxed while I stared at him. Didn’t he know we were running out of time?
“So we need to leave right away,” I continued.
He blinked. “You mean tonight?” His voice cracked a little, as a tear almost wandered out of the extra moisture trying to flood his eyes. “I thought you weren’t leaving until tomorrow.”
The trip took longer than expected, as most trips do. My uncle picked Lizzie and me up at the airport, then drove us to his house, where his wife, my Aunt Winnie was waiting for us with food. After we had both eaten all we wanted, my uncle drove us the rest of the way to my parents’ house, where we arrived, tired and disheveled a little after two in the morning. But my mom was still awake, waiting for us.
I read my favorite scriptures to her, sang her some of my favorite hymns and worship songs, then hugged her and trudged off to bed with Lizzie in tow.
The next day, my mom’s sisters and her mother came to visit her, mournfully cooing over her, while trying to coax her eat something. Anything. Wasn’t there anything that sounded good to her? They would drive any distance and pay any price to provide it for her.
But nothing sounded good. My mom sighed painfully and looked away at the mention of food.
She had always loved peaches. But now she could hardly move her mouth enough to chew. Even talking had become such an effort that she used her words only sparingly.
One of my mom’s sisters tiptoed in with a bowl of peaches. It had the consistency of baby food. My heart sank as I realized that this was exactly what it was.
“We’ve brought you some peaches, Annie!” she chirped, trying to smile. “Why don’t you try some!” She handed the peaches to me, along with a very small, plastic-coated spoon, the kind a person uses to feed either a very young baby, or a person too sick to risk an assault from a sharp, metal utensil.
Dutifully, my mom looked me in the eye, then opened her mouth just wide enough to accommodate the small spoon, topped with a taste of peaches. Then she opened her mouth again. And again. But her eyes were tired. “Mommy,” I said to her, “I am taking your open mouth as a sign that you still want more. Do you want more?” While I prayed that she might want just a bit more, she looked me again in the eye, then slowly, carefully shut her mouth tight. The meal was already over, almost before it had really begun.
But we were together, and that was all that mattered.
After I changed Lizzie into a clean diaper, I brought her back so that my mother could get a good look at her. She was the first grandchild, and, it seemed, the only one my mother would live to even meet this side of heaven.
Hungrily, my mother gazed at Lizzie, trying to smile.
The day passed more quickly than I would have believed. The next day, I spend most of the morning with her. Until my dad made his request. “I think your mother may be dying. She may not have much time left. Why don’t you call some of her friends from church and see if they want to see her one more time.”
In a short time, there was a steady stream of visitors. Except for A.J., my mom’s best friend from down the street. Somehow I had forgotten to call her until now.
“Are you sure this a good time for me to visit her?” A.J. was asking. “I’d be glad to come over and see her tomorrow afternoon.”
I felt my anger rising. Why was she making this so hard for me? In the two days I had been home, I already seen a steady deterioration in my mother’s condition. Trying to stop myself from screaming the words over the telephone line, I slowly but carefully ground out the words, “I think my mother may be dying. Right now. If you want to see her alive, PLEASE COME OVER RIGHT NOW. Tomorrow may be too late!”
A.J. huffed impatiently into my ear. “Well, ok. If you just insist, Honey. But I can tell you that tomorrow would be much easier for me.” I couldn’t hang up the phone fast enough.
After a quick check on Lizzie, who was still sleeping, I found I still had enough time for one more phone call. After this time of heart-wrenching wrangling with A.J., I dreaded even the thought of another call.
But my mom had been good friends with my friend Stefania, and her mother, Loveta. Reluctantly, I dialed their number.
Loveta answered on the second ring. “What a nice surprise, Honey!” she began. “What’s going on?”
Hesitantly, I began to tell her my dad’s prediction of my mother’s limited time, and asked if she and Steffie might like to see my mom one last time.
I nearly fell off my chair when Loveta answered right away, “Honey, Steffie and I are stepping into the car right now. We’ll be there in just a few minutes.” What a wonderful contrast with the previous telephone call.
“Hey, Annie!” Loveta was saying to my mother only minutes later. “It’s so good to see you again! I am glad we had a chance to see you. Steffie and I had some errands to run, and we decided we wanted to see you while we were out.”
Although my mom was not able to say anything, she smiled sweetly, clearly pleased. Steffie had been one of my first real childhood friends, and we had had many pleasant visits with her and her mother over the years.
Some time later, A.J. also arrived and was ushered into my mother’s presence. The next day, before church began, when my mom’s body had already been at the funeral parlor for half a day in preparation for her burial on the morrow, A.J. was singing a different tune than she had earlier: “Oh, Honey, I am so glad you insisted that I come over yesterday when I did. I had no idea that she really was dying. I would have been so sorry to have missed seeing her one last time!”
I would like to tell you that I have finally forgiven A.J. for her callousness on the day my mother was dying. But forgiving that one flagrant moment of selfishness in A.J. is a process that I find myself still having to repeat from time to time.
In contrast, Loveta’s kindly, “We’ll be there right away” message when we needed her and Steffie the most always warms my heart whenever it comes to mind. “Did you know?” I told Steffie, “that every time I think of your mother, I think of this time. How she was there when we needed her, without asking any questions or making any excuses. She will always be my hero for that. Please tell her for me.”
In this tale of two women, which neither knew she was writing at the time, one woman, Loveta (her real name) built a memorial to herself of kindness and compassion that has endured for over twenty years.