I realized the other day that Thanksgiving this year is also the 18th anniversary of my mother’s passing. It’s odd that I don’t recall that she died so close to Thanksgiving. The holiday had been five days before that year, and I have no memory of it at all. In looking for old Still Point articles this evening I ran across this piece I wrote in the aftermath of several deaths that occurred that year which includes my recollection of the last real conversation I had with my mother. Perhaps it is of some merit at this time, 18 years later.
These past few months Gyokuko and I have seen the passing of several relatives, people who have been important in our lives in a number of ways. First was the death of my uncle Levern “Bus” Root last August, shortly after our visit to New England. In October, Gyokuko’s maternal grandmother died at the age of 107. Born in the Netherlands in 1887, she come to this country at the age of 18, moving to Western Washington when it was still pretty much a frontier. She was a icon to Gyokuko’s family as a woman of both strength and faith. The day we returned from her funeral, there was a message from my father that my mother was quite ill, and he was trying to convince her to go the hospital. On the last day of Segaki, she was admitted into ICU, and I could tell by my father’s voice that it was serious. I went down to be with them, and found out she was in the end stage of congestive heart failure. We arranged hospice care, and I stayed until things were settled. In late November I returned when it seemed she was getting near the end. I was with my father at her bedside on Nov. 28th, when she died at 6:15am. It’s been a sobering few months, and I marvel that something could be so easy, so natural, as caring for my mother as she dies, while at the same time it shakes me to the core, affecting every part of my life. I was fortunate to be able to deliver a remembrance tribute at her funeral, which I offer here because it seems worth sharing.
Dorothy Ethel Carlson
December 25th, 1908 – November 28th, 1995
There are many little things that I’ll always remember about my mother. I particularly remember the stories she used to tell about her life, and I will always recall her sense of irony and her laugh. Last summer my wife and I spent time with her brother, listening to his stories, and he would laugh. It was the same laugh I’d hear from my mother, quick little bursts of laughter, punctuating the tale. When I think about my mother, though, I think of her as serious, and really quite intense. That’s the part of her that affected me the most, and that’s what I will remember the most clearly.
If you knew her at all, you knew she was a fighter. She stood up for her values, and she defended her positions; sometimes fiercely. She wasn’t very big, just five-two, and she had two older siblings that were both bigger than she. She used to say that’s what taught her to fight back hard and to fight back quickly; she had to, growing up, just to hold her own. So she could really surprise you, if you didn’t know this about her.
I came to realize, though, that my mother valued the truth more than she valued being right. She would change her position, one she had defended fiercely, if she saw the truth in a new way of looking at things. She’d admit an error, and she could truly show humility. In recent years I’ve also come to realize how rare a combination that is. It is rare to show courage of conviction as well as flexibility, and it is rare to show fierce courage as well as humility. Seeing this in her is an example I value highly. She and I had our confrontations over the years. In fact, we really went toe to toe when I was growing up. Although I didn’t see it then, I know now that I benefited from this example even when it was painful. I’m only coming to realize how much I benefited from it. So I want to say now, “Thank you for that.”
The second thing I have to say is as much for my father as it is for my mother. Thank you for finding each other. And more specifically, thank you for honoring those qualities in each other that complemented your own. That was a gift to me. Honoring each other gave me permission to absorb qualities from both of you. Since so much of me comes from qualities I found in both of you, honoring each other helps bring about harmony in me. Perhaps simply honoring each other is the greatest parental gift. I Thank you both for that.
Finally, I’d like to say that I deeply value my mother’s faith and her commitment to her spiritual path. Her commitment was more than just belief. Belief is easy. But practicing spiritual discipline that leads to growth and change is very hard. She understood that, and never wavered from her commitment. I also particularly value her willingness to recognize and acknowledge my life of practice. I’ve told people over the years that as a child I was recognized as a spiritual being. This too, I’ve come to realize, is rare. Thank you for that.
My last full conversation with my mother took place a few weeks ago. Of course we spoke many times since then, but this time she had something she wanted very much to communicate, and we kept coming back to it over the course of an afternoon. I didn’t experience that with her again after that day. Much of the conversation was in a kind of code, but it was crystal clear to me what it meant. It was full of travel and sports metaphors, two subjects that were important to her. It was all about her life journey, and what really matters. Early that afternoon I told her about coming across an old photo album in a desk drawer, one I hadn’t seen in many years. I thought all the photos were in other places, so I was surprised to find this album in that desk. It documented her journey from the East coast, through several stops, eventually arriving in California. She set off from New England driving to Texas with a friend, hoping to find work during the Great Depression, after giving up her career as a physiotherapist. This was a huge step into the unknown. She had recently embraced Christian Science as her religious belief and practice, so giving up her career in medicine was a leap of faith. Setting out by car with another young woman and crossing the country during the depression took a lot of courage. When she got to Texas, she found a clerical job as a civilian working for the Army. The country got involved in WWII, and her job took her from Fort Bliss, Texas to Colorado Springs, Colorado. After a short time there, she was sent to White Horse, Yukon Territory, Canada. There she met my father who was in the Army Air Corps, part of the effort to build the Al-Can Highway. They eventually settled in Fullerton, California, and made their life together there.
The photo album had a shot of my mother waving at the camera while sitting on the “Welcome to Texas” sign, shaped like the state. There were photos of coworkers, outings, places of interest, and in the Yukon, shots of snow and ice, the camp baseball team, and gatherings in the canteen. We talked about the album and those days until she fell asleep. This was when my mother was in the hospital, just before being released into hospice care. She wasn’t always fully conscious, and sometimes she would be confused as to why she was there. After sleeping for a little while, she spoke to me. “Oh yes,” she said, “it was the best trip we ever had. It’s important to remember.” Later, after sleeping again, she continued speaking. I couldn’t quite make it out at first because her voice was so soft. I had to put my ear close to her lips. She said “One, two three, four. All contributed a little to the Alma Mater.” She said this several times until she was sure I had understood her. “It’s important to remember,” she said. “I always paid attention to the Precepts and listened to the referees. I always studied the Scriptures, and that’s what carried me through.” My mother, all 5’2” of her, played college and semi-professional basketball in her youth, and sports metaphors were always coming to mind. Then she added, “I’m glad I realized that. I’m glad we all realized that.”
Now there was a long break, and she fell asleep again. When she started speaking, it was almost in mid-sentence, as if she hadn’t paused at all. “Then realized there are lots of ways to grow up. He realized it too.” I understood very clearly what that meant. “I’m glad for that. Very glad for that. I love you.” “I love you too, Mom,” I answered. There was another long pause. “It’s been a very happy memory. I’m glad it was found by all of us.” Another pause. “I hope I can have a happy life memory.” “You will,” I said. “We know we all will,” she answered.
A little later there was a conversation with the hospital staff about discharging my mother into hospice care. She didn’t always respond to conversations in the room, but she followed this one closely. Right after it she said to me, “It always comes to this, I guess. Mrs. Eddy said life goes right on. What do you think?” “I think so too, Mom.” “It’s for the best, this way, I think.” “Yes, I guess so. You’re a good woman, Mom.” “Bless you for that. You’re a good man.” Then she fell asleep again, and didn’t speak the rest of the time I was there that day. These were the last words of that final conversation I had with her. Now I can say to her, “Yes Mom. You will have a happy life memory.”