Though hardly five feet tall, my mom could fill a room. Whether her whooping laughter, or her quiet presence that had gravity, she drew attention. One way or another, you knew she was there.
It was this quality that dimmed the most when the cancer spread to her brain. Further, the radiation treatments sucked dry whatever reserve of energy she had left. Thus, when she was subjected to repeated lung taps to drain the fluids from the growing tumors, she would lay in bed for days.
It was 2001 and she had not given up on the idea that she could die on her own terms–in her apartment and definitely not in a nursing home. It was then that I began the weekly trips to the Seattle area on Fridays to spend the day with her, do her dishes and take her shopping.
On one particular visit, I arrived at her apartment to find it a disaster. Having missed the prior week’s visit due to business travel, the apartment showed every bit of the fourteen days since I had been there last. Dirty dishes were piled high, the cat box was overflowing and Mom had spilled one of her funky protein drink concoctions on the carpet in the hallway. The crusty spot, crimson from the paprika in the shake had dried and was virtually impenetrable to anything I could find in the cleaning closet. Mom was asleep in her room when I arrived so I went to work cleaning the apartment, vacuuming and scrubbing until it looked somewhat presentable. Mom was still sound asleep when I finished, so I went shopping for food and more cleaning supplies. Returning to the apartment a while later hoping to find her awake, the apartment was still quiet as I entered.
“Mom?” I called out.
I unloaded the groceries and then checked in on her. She was lying quietly on her side, staring placidly out the window.
“Mom?” I whispered as I kneeled beside her bed.
“Hi, love,” she said.
“How are you?” I asked. She paused to fix her eyes on me, and gently smiled.
“Ok.” She gazed at me quietly as my throat grew hot and tight, and I blinked the tears away.
“Mom, the place was a mess. And what did you spill in the hallway?” I asked, exasperated. Not pausing for her answer, I proceeded to lecture her on asking for help from the other siblings for the cooking and cleaning. “They’re only a phone call away,” I said, doing a poor job of hiding the frustration in my voice.
I hadn’t noticed her hand reach for my forearm until I felt the grip. Her touch was cool, but firm. Strong enough to silence my reproach.
“Mijo,” she said. “Be still. You are with me now. That is all that matters.” She withdrew her arm and closed her eyes. I watched her sleep for the rest of the afternoon, her pulse slowly tapping it’s beat in her temple. She woke briefly late in the day and I helped her to the bathroom. Sipping on hot broth in bed, we shared the quiet moment together and then she went back to sleep. I kissed her forehead, the few straggling hairs she had left brushing my nose, and I left for home feeling heavy and helpless.
Seeking distraction on the radio, I happened on an interview with Ahmed Kathrada, a fellow ANC activist and prison mate of Nelson Mandela. Imprisoned at Robben Island for twenty five years, Kathrada spoke of the experience and his time with Mandela with such energy and positivism that the interviewer eventually remarked (note: I am relating this interview from memory…), “You seem to have such joy in how you speak of your imprisonment.” Kathrada laughed. “It wasn’t always so. I was miserable for many years until a priest began to visit the prison and asked to meet with me. Soon we struck up a friendship and I looked forward to his visits. We would talk and I would share with him my misery of being imprisoned, and then at some point he said to me, ‘Ahmed, there is a Chinese fable I want to share with you. There is an old man in a village. It is winter and it is very cold. The old man who has no shoes or socks and complains to everyone in how miserable he is. And then he comes upon a beggar with no feet.'” Kathrada laughed. “I understood at that moment my the true nature of my circumstances. Though I am imprisoned, I am alive. And unlike my ANC brothers and sisters dying in the countryside, I am fed and have a roof over my head. It did not mean that I felt any less strongly of the injustice of apartheid, nor of the circumstances of my imprisonment. But it allowed me to see the blessing in being alive.”
My thoughts went to Mom as I reflected on Kathrada’s story and it became quite obvious to me where the blessing was in my situation. It came in the form of a dying mom, in one of her last acts of motherhood that she could muster to teach her son a lesson. That the most important and profound thing we can do for one another is to simply, be present. To be still. To be all in with each other.
Anything else falls away like dry husks.