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Starting Point

I hope Mom has met her heroes in heaven


My mother, Martha Gray Kowalski, M.D., died in June, 1998, following a four-year struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.

Widowed in 1955 at the age of 39, with five children between the ages of 10 and 2, Mom found her work cut out for her. It took awhile for her sense of humor to snap back. But in later years -- when my own marriage was ending, for instance, and she tried to encourage me to rescue it with humor (“Can’t you laugh at him, Marjorie?”), she made a clear statement of lessons learned.

“There is almost nothing in this world so sad,” she said, “that there isn’t some humor in it, somewhere.” Once she dreamed that my father walked out the door like Rhett Butler, and when she said, “What about all these children?” he replied, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It seems to me that a slap-in-the-face dream of that sort is a sign of healing. Relief from the pain isn’t found in self-pity.

When I was young she worked 60 hours a week and patients called her at all hours; but every summer we left town for a month to camp, hike, canoe and soak up the wilderness. On vacation we functioned well. Each did what he or she could and received what he or she needed. In my backpack I carried clean socks and candy; my brother carried stove, tarps, frying pan, fuel bottles. He changed the flat tires, my oldest sister planned menus, scrubbed faces and hands, and read poetry at night. Mom drove the car, paid the bills and took thousands of slides.

Back home, parental serenity was a rare commodity because she wasn’t home most of the time and at night she was tired. We raised ourselves, fought, teased each other in ways that now horrify me and coped with neglect.

When the load lightened as children went off to college, Mom relaxed more, discovered a little more energy. Perhaps, too, she was recovering from her loss. She was funny, opinionated, and while ladylike and reserved, she was an independent thinker. She was a bit of an oddball. That’s the woman I miss -- an older, calmer woman, the critical mass of her work accomplished, ready at last to expose her personality to the world. Where in the name of God did she go? I long to celebrate her life and to tell the world that it’s missing.

I try to forget these four years of her increasing dependence, her fear, denial and anguish. She knew what was coming when the symptoms began, just like Christ in Gethsemane. In my grief, she doesn’t have Parkinson’s.

The last year she lived in her own home, cared for by a live-in nursing assistant. My sisters and I went to see her several times a week, in my case usually after an agony of indecision and vacillating. I wept driving there, dreading what I’d find. Driving home I felt guilty at my relief that another visit was over. Her cries of “Make it stop!” were constant.

Her bitterness and stubbornness leading up to the final year of confusion often seemed to me to be self-imposed. Having a new lease on life myself, I thought a spiritual answer could be found for every misery. I tried to reassure her. In a sense, I abandoned her even while I was holding her hand, looking in her eyes, touching her hair that was still brown at 82.

Now I take a look at her picture, taken a few years ago when she was made a lifetime member of the Alaska Medical Association. I see dark hair, strong cheekbones, big modern glasses, an expression of dignity and emphasis. She’s wearing a necklace of beads from Kenya, where she served in the Peace Corps from 1982 to 1986 -- to repay a debt, she said. Is this the woman I lost?

Not quite. If I let go of my pain and think instead of hers, if love enters in, then I understand that death came as a friend. She was blessed to leave five children and 10 grandchildren healthy and intact. To reap the rewards of being her daughter, I must try, as she did, to “love that well which I must leave ere long.”

Her death makes clear that my own days are numbered, but having allowed death to enter into my most off-limits and frightened self -- a task I was unable to accomplish with the death of my father -- I’ve begun to accept a mystery. To accept death is to accept an increased understanding of life itself.

At times I’m fully aware of her presence. I can see her mouth twitch with amusement. I can hear her all-purpose expression of scorn: “Ptssh.” I will never touch her warm bones again (she was little but bones at the end) but I sense that her spirit is free. I wonder if she is restored to my father, if she’s met her heroes -- Beethoven, Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR himself, St. Joseph, the great photographers. Was she on hand to welcome the naturalist and writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas into heaven? I think so.

Society pressed my mother for conventional behavior. The world did not ask her to become a doctor, love the wilderness, grow more radical in her politics as the years went by, practice the Golden Rule daily, or join the Peace Corps for four years. But she followed her own code, found her own balance. She trusts me to find mine, and I will.

Marjorie Kowalski Cole writes from Fairbanks, Alaska.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999