Chapel Hill: Opinion

Lynden Harris: The distance between hearts

By Lynden Harris

My mother and I don’t always see eye to eye.

She called this summer, saying she wanted me to add something to my bucket list. Intrigued, I asked, “What?” She replied: sorting through her cedar chest.

I mentally reviewed my bucket list: Tour pousadas in Portugal, visit Sardinia’s Coddu Vecchiu, trek the Lycian Way. Silently, I did not add: refold Mama’s pillow cases.

She also suggested I remove the white porcelain nativity set from the antique display cabinet and imprison each piece inside its original Styrofoam box. Note: If you’re imagining the three main players plus an ox and ass, you don’t know my mother. Suffice it to say her Nativity has close to one bazillion pieces. It looks like a Holy Land football game with the baby as the ball.

When I agreed to pack each item into its excruciatingly tedious foam silhouette, she added, “It’ll make you lose what little religion you have.”

Take that as you will.

My mother’s health was declining. She emphasized the direness by stating she could no longer stand long enough to iron her pillowcases. Then, in September, she awoke unable to put two words together. A benign brain tumor. A few days later, the palliative care doctor hinted at three weeks and suggested we call hospice. We did.

A few days later than that, Mama suddenly spoke. “My interim minister visited and even though he doesn’t follow the liturgical calendar, I do like him.” We called hospice back. Mama may have lost the old familiar neural pathways but she was clearly finding her way around.

My mother graduated from high school at 16 and enrolled at N.C. State. Soon after, government scouts appeared and Mama, who has always loved a good puzzle, tested into Military Intelligence. Imagine her giddiness at finding her small-town self scooped up and plunked down at Arlington Hall, the center of the Army’s cryptography efforts.

Some of her facility with puzzles was surely due to my grandparents and great-grandparents’ love of cards, with Rook and Pit, Michigan Rummy and Hearts always available, and Chinese checkers and jigsaw puzzles decorating game tables. My grandfather was well known for telling customers at his store to make their own change if he was in the midst of a hard-fought checkers game. He was also the county tax assessor, and that paradox about sums up my mother.

Therefore, when the speech therapist arrived at her rehab with word games for the group of elderly ladies, Mama got a tad competitive. The therapist challenged them to think of a drink that began with M. My mother did not quickly lock down milk, but instead hollered, “MARGARITA!”

Although Mama questioned whether everyone’s lists of planets were valid (“I couldn’t recall whether Pluto was in or out at the moment”), she gained ground on Things One Finds in a Closet when her list included: cookbooks. Mainly because no one else has an entire closet dedicated to shelving recipes. But Mama won the round decisively with her final entry for Things One Finds in a Closet.


When I mentioned I was writing about her, Mama said, “Well, don’t write something frivial.” Apparently not only does my mother no longer suffer from aphasia, she’s now channeling Shakespeare, coining words at need. Frivial: frivolous and trivial, both. I’m sharing it because I’ve already stolen it. You’re welcome.

At rehab, Mama’s windowsill danced with cards. One stood out. A single, long-stemmed rosebud under an elegantly scripted “Thinking of You.” Surrounding the hand-inked rose were precisely-placed glitter accents – three pieces per spot. The card was particularly precious because if you looked closely you noticed it was handmade from construction paper and recycled resources, the glitter salvaged from other cards.

Inside were neat, handwritten notes:

“Say a prayer, my friend. The Creator is always listening.”

“By letting go of all that is heavy you become free to fill with all that is light. Sending you warm thoughts and seeing you in the light.”

“My heart goes out to you in this difficult time. I pray you find the strength to endure. Keep faith that all is well even when it seems it is not.”

Mama said the words were some of the truest she’d read. I told her she was likely the only person in her rehab circle with a card from men on death row who were praying for her.

I know my mother was touched by the men’s vulnerability, their offering of capacious love from within a seemingly sterile box. And I know that if a woman who has never known anyone who ever went to jail, much less prison, can be touched then the distance between hearts is a mirage, a scrimmage line marked only by our resistance. Because, really, who doesn’t have skeletons in their closet?

I’m reminded of another prisoner’s bucket list. About to be killed, he wanted two things: to feel the grass under his feet and to pet a dog. I imagine the soft grass he never got to feel. It reminds me that the real paths on our bucket list may be ones we fail to see we’re walking. The healing we need is I to I. And sometimes, the shortest distance between two points is simply erasing the line.

You can reach Lynden Harris at