Originally published Oct. 6, 1989
Moreland, Ga. - We buried Mama on her birthday, Oct. 3. She would have been 77.
We were blessed with a beautiful autumn day. One of my mother's sisters remarked, "What if it had happened last week when we were having all that rain?"
We took Mama down to the little Moreland cemetery and put her next to her own mother. In the last year or so, Mama often would become confused and would ask relatives where her mother lived.
"She's dead, Christine, " somebody would answer her.
And that would make Mama sad.
She was Christine Causby Word Grizzard Atkinson, and she died from a disease called scleroderma. I don't know much about the disease except that doctors told us they had no way to cure it, and it killed my mother slowly. It tortured her.
The family was trying to remember when Mama first got sick.
"It's been at least 20 years, " was one thought.
But I knew to the day, almost. She was hospitalized for the first time on the day John Kennedy was buried. That was nearly 26 years ago. I watched the funeral on the television in my mother's hospital room.
In the last years she spent all of her time in one of two places - either in a hospital bed in a hospital or in a hospital bed in the living room of her house.
I can't recall the last time I saw my mother standing.
She was a tiny thing in the end. I doubt she weighed 100 pounds. And the painkillers never seemed to put her at ease for very long. A preacher said to the family, "She's better off." He said it twice.
The mother who raised me had been gone for a long time already. That happens so often. The parent becomes the child and the child, the parent.
And, yes, her suffering, as far as we know, is over.
But it still hurts when I think I will never see her again. Will never hear her speak. Will never get to lean over her in that bed and stroke her hair and kiss her and say, "Mama, I love you, " and hear her strained reply, "And I love you, too, Sugar."
What she had to go through in her life. I wrote a eulogy that was read at her funeral and I said, "It seemed that every time something good happened to my mother, something bad inevitably followed."
She fell in love with my father and a child was born. But she had to send her husband off to war, twice. And war destroyed him and took him away from her.
After a time she did find another man's love. They were married 35 years, but for 25 of those years, she was so ill she could not enjoy the good parts about being a wife.
Her legacy, though, is she never went quietly. After my father was gone, she was faced with finding a way to provide for herself and her child. She was already in her 40s at a time women had no easy access to financial security of their own.
But she worked by day, and went to school at night, and if there were a hall of fame for first-grade teachers, she would be in it.
And the illness. Her doctor said, "I've never seen a patient fight for her life as hard as she has."
Ten years ago the doctors were telling us to prepare for the end. Ten years ago.
My mother loved me. She protected me. She praised me. She consoled me. She gave me knowledge and values. She inspired me. And when there was no man available, she went outside and tossed a baseball with me.
I should have called her more often.
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