My mom died a few hours ago. I’m an atheist, and I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if there is one, Mom is probably pissed at me for putting her personal business out on the Internet, even if I don’t use her actual name or mine. “Why?” she’d ask. “What the hell is the point?”
But I want to tell you about her, because she was a character. I almost completely fucked up her life by being conceived when she was in high school and becoming the proximate cause of a shotgun wedding between two wildly ill-suited mates. By the time she was 18, Mom had two pain-in-the-ass daughters, a failing marriage and no money.
But she had an escape plan: When she was in her early 20s, she left my father and moved herself and us kids to the nearest sizable town and worked her way through nursing school. She became a cardiac care nurse, a teacher and a leader, but always someone who pushed back against what she perceived as the stupidity of institutional thinking.
For example, when some of the “suits” at her hospital pushed the staff to come up with snappy acronyms for processes, she made sure hers were near-profanities such as “TERD” and “SHYT.” She was 100% serious about patient care, but she had a strict no-bullshit policy about schemes hatched by administrators.
She would eventually try marriage again, but it wouldn’t last. She got a son out of the deal, though, so she considered the relationship a qualified success. Her boy grew up loved, harassed and scolded by a mom and two older sisters. And while matrimony never quite took with my fiercely independent mom, motherhood sure did. She loved each of us ferociously.
Mom was a witty woman, with a tendency toward sarcasm and irony. My sister followed in Mom’s footsteps and became a nurse. When she graduated from nursing school, she went for a job up in Savannah. So Mom, sis, little brother and I made a family trip of it to take my sister to her first real job interview.
After the interview, we were in our crappy little hotel near the waterfront (a “fleabag,” Mom called it), watching the local news. The announcer mentioned that a Coast Guard cutter was docking at the waterfront that evening. Without missing a beat, Mom reached into her purse, handed my sister and me five dollars apiece and said, “If you can’t drink all night on that you’re no daughters of mine.” And we did. And we are.
Some years later, after my sister had returned to Florida, my little brother decided to steal the family van at age 14, sell baseball cards along the way for gas money and go look up a girl in Virginia whom he’d met at the beach. He and a friend got as far as Savannah when they ran out of gas and could find no takers for their baseball card collections.
Naturally, Mom was frantic about the missing son and vehicle. She’d contacted my brother’s friend’s parents, and they figured the boys were somewhere together in the van, but since they’d left in the middle of the night, no one knew how far they’d gone. My brother finally broke down and called Mom. He said, “Mom, I’m in Savannah.” Mom said, “Savannah better be a girl, you little shit!”
Mom and the other boy’s father rode up together to fetch the miscreants. On the way home in the van, Mom played the soundtrack of “Cats” on an endless loop at high volume to punish my brother. Twenty years later, he still can’t hear it without involuntary retching.
The women in my family tend to live long enough to seriously flirt with or surpass the century mark. Mom’s own mother is alive and in tolerably good health for a very old lady, though I suspect the news of Mom’s death will kill her. We dread telling her tomorrow, but we must.
Given what we thought were fortunate genes, we used to jokingly conjecture that Mom, my sister and I would end up living together again someday as three cranky old ladies, and that our much-younger brother would be obliged to have a stiff drink before visiting us each week to clean the cat box and pluck our chin hairs.
But as it turns out, Mom, the cardiac nurse with a fiercely loving heart, was born with a bad aortic valve. And that’s what took her from us decades too soon.
All during the last month that was consumed by her health crisis, I kept finding myself wanting to text her or call her to tell her about some stupid thing someone did or said that would have amused her. I miss her so much already, and this mom-shaped hole will be in my heart for the rest of my life.
Goddamn it, it’s not fair, I keep thinking. There was so much more fun to be had, more trouble to get into. But life’s not fair, as Mom often reminded us. You get to be alive, and then you’re gone, so make it count, she would have said. And demonstrated.