Christensen: My mom’s amazing swan song

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMay 11, 2013 

This is my first Mother’s Day without my mom, who passed away earlier this year of congestive heart failure. She died just a few days short of her 86th birthday.

There was nothing extraordinary about my mom. She was raised on a farm. Her parents met while working in a textile mill. Looking at her Social Security records recently, I learned that she and my late father never earned a combined salary of more than $22,000 per year.

My mom was the glue that held the family together. She had known poverty during the Depression. She came from a family of seven and was 11 when her mother died. Her father became blind, one brother was given up for adoption, and much of the rest of the family was scattered among aunts and uncles.

But I never once heard her complain about the circumstances of her childhood. She received a scholarship that helped her earn a two-year nursing degree, and she worked most of her life as a part-time registered nurse while raising her two boys. My father, a saw smith, liked to say that my mother is where I got my brains – such as they are.

It was my mom, who stayed up all night when I was colicky, wiped my nose, read me bedtime stories (my favorite was “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell), cleaned my cuts and scrapes and checked my homework.

Practical lessons for life

She was old school. Got a bloody nose? Let me clean it up. Now go stand up for yourself and look out for your brother, too. No mama’s boys allowed here, especially not in a working-class neighborhood. Need money? Get a job. She could squeeze a nickel until it begged for mercy, and by the end of her life had accumulated a respectable nest egg.

It was my mom who encouraged me to follow my dream to go into newspapers, although I suspect that she was always disappointed that I didn’t become a Baptist minister as I had originally planned. I always avoided taking a drink in her presence. She was a lifelong Republican, although she surprised me by voting for Barack Obama in 2008.

My mother had an artistic side. As a girl she wanted to go to art school, but couldn’t afford it. In middle age, she took up painting again, filling her house with the country scenes of her youth.

She had her ways. She was highly opinionated, could be controlling and was independent to a fault. She continued living in her old house, alone, turning away all help, even as her heart was giving out, until her final illness. One cardiologist fired her as a patient because she wouldn’t follow his directions. Her last cardiologist was teased by his nurses, who reminded him of the time my mother lectured him: “You can’t tell me what to do.”

Welcome to the club, doc.

Grace and heartbreak

Her obstinacy was part of a strong life force. She always thought she was going to get better. I believe she thought old age was a temporary malady.

Her last weeks were difficult, involving some gut-wrenching decisions that no son should ever have to make about his mother. There is no manual or handbook for such things.

I was stroking her hair when she took her last breath. By that time, she was in a coma.

But before she went into a coma, a curious thing happened – she began to sing. What was odd was that even when she was in good health my mother hardly ever sang. At that point in her illness, she could barely talk. First she sang along with a radio belonging to a patient in the adjoining bed. The next night, the hospice chaplain came by late after I had left for the evening, and they began singing hymns together including “Amazing Grace.”

A day or two later my mother lost consciousness.

Now those are the facts as I know them. You are free to offer your own interpretations. But this is what I believe: My mother left this life with a song in her heart.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. And thank you.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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