Not too long ago I was cleaning out a desk drawer when I ran across a birthday note from Mother. Mom was always big on writing notes back when she was at the height of her powers. Most of the time it was to get in the last word after arguments during which I either walked away or hung up the phone.
Most of them concerned the morbid obsessions about mostly imagined trouble facing her sons. There was the letter to me in which she offered me 500 bucks if I wouldn't run a Marathon. She should have saved the postage. I got hurt while training and playing tennis at the time. No marathon. She would have done better if she had written about what an idiot I was.
There were many letters about a certain girlfriend of John's that she thought was leading him to perdition. She was and he enjoyed it. She thought David was poor. David isn't poor. Unlike his profligate older brother Dave is a tightwad. Bob, well, Bob needed to finish college and stop tending bar.
I don't know if my brothers got these letters as well. But I guess she wrote me thinking that I would go talk with them about these largely manufactured difficulties. And of course I never did. But these items were typical of my poor Mother's obsessive discourse after I moved back to Little Rock. Thank God e-mail and texting had not been invented by then. I would have never gotten a moment's peace.
But the letter I found in the desk drawer was different. I remember it well. It is undated but it had to have been written in the last years of her stay in assisted living. By the time she was writing this note she had started the decline that led to her current confinement in the nursing home. Some of it is illegible and it is written at an upward slant across the page. Here's what it said:
"Oct 24 (my birthday)
A few years (sic) the first snowflakes were falling and I could see them through (the) hospital window.
Inside a beloved 9 1/2 lb son was being born.
Your dad walked up and down (the) street spreading the word.
What a beautiful son you are.
As many folks know, my mother and I have had a difficult relationship. For much of the last 11 or 12 years I have been as much of a parental figure as I have been a son. It was a difficult balancing act. As one author of a book on the subject said you really aren't a parent. The person in your care is an adult with a lifetime worth of habits and baggage. She didn't use the word "parenting" under the circumstances in her book. She preferred "childing." And so I have been childing all of these years. You would have thought I would have gotten better at it by now.
Intellectually I know that, although God will take her in his time as the Catholics say, surely that time is not far off. And intellectually I know that I will take a measure of peace at her passing because her current station in life is absolutely wretched despite the best care money can buy.
A buddy of mine in Baton Rouge who has listened to me talk about my mother for 25 years lost his Dad recently. He told me to consider something.
"It is going to be harder on you than you think," Jim Nelson said. " Trust me. It will be hard."
I will go up to Conway on Mother's Day to have lunch with Mom. The dementia has rendered her virtually incoherent so we won't talk much. I will cut her food for her and hold her hand.
And I will once again marvel at our sad common human condition when I remember that 53 years ago in Indiana my Mother watched the snow fall outside the hospital window while my Father walked around probably passing out cigars and slapping backs the way men do at these times.
Back when they were both young. Back when I was just a little baby.
God will take her in his time. But this is one hell of a way to play out the string.