a Women Writer's' Showcase

by Amber Ferguson

It's been a year and a half since my mother died. Since then, I've been trying to write a soulful, poetic reflection on her life with no success. I'm nothing more than a part time Erma Bombeck wannabe, and I'll never presume to have flowery prose in my blood. Yet, the tribute needs to be written and I seem to be the only one at the plate.

Mother was one hundred percent a lady, but conversely, also the most efficient person I've ever known. When she learned she had only three months to live, courtesy of lung cancer, she handled it the same way she did every other situation.

She made a to do list. Then she picked an outfit--to wear at her funeral.

Whenever my mom bought a skirt or a dress, she made sure she had, not only a purse and shoes to match, but also a slip the right length. I have one purse for winter, one for summer, and a slip, which I adjust, to the needed length by tucking it into the waistband of my pantyhose. Why waste the money? Stuff like that used to make her crazy; she had three boys and me and never got over the fact she never had a girl.

My dad did not see her without makeup more than twice in their forty-year marriage until she lay, literally, dying in her hospital bed, finally too ill to raise her hand to her face. Putting it on was the first thing she did every morning of her life. Conversely, if I'm hanging around the house all day, there is no way I'm slapping that stuff on my pores, husband or not. Mother had lovely, long, manicured nails. I paint my stubs on Easter--sometimes. And my hair? Again, if hanging around the house is my goal, I figure that's why the ponytail was invented. My little mom sat in her hospital bed, little more than a week before leaving this earth, and tried to fix her hair. My dad said she finally gave up, and set aside her little box of clips and rollers for the last time. She originally included a perm on that to do list, so she would look good for her funeral, but I was the one who talked her out of it. I was afraid the ammonia would aggravate the tumors in her lungs. But that was when I still had hope.

She loved to nap. It could be just a weekday or it could be Christmas, but she wanted her long afternoon nap. She planned her vacations around them!  "Well, if we have lunch with you at noon, and supper with Mark at six, then we can still go back to the hotel room and catch our afternoon nap . . ." The operative word being "we."

Despite my dad's protests he wasn't the slightest bit sleepy, my mom would say (completely deaf to the sound of his voice), " 'We' are really tired. 'We' have had a long week." My dad would just surrender, roll his eyes, and tell us he'd see us later because, " 'We' had to take a nap now."

In fact, she used to give me napping instructions: "Always sleep when the baby does." "Put dark blinds in your bedroom, so you can shut out the light in the afternoons." She used to pester me constantly about it--not my brothers, just me. She was firmly convinced I was forever hovering on the edge of a nervous breakdown from lack of sleep. I argued myself hoarse, trying for years to convince her I enjoyed my busy life. I didn't like slowing down long enough even to sleep at night, much less when the sun was shining. But as she became too sick to worry about my mental health anymore, I would sit on the edge of my bed until two or three every night (the only time I had to myself) thinking about her until, ironically, I did come dangerously close to a breakdown from exhaustion after several months of surviving on four hours sleep.

But, trying to focus on the happier things, Mother loved chocolate. Her face broke out whenever she ate it, so she forbade its presence in the house. Naturally, we would all buy her the most tempting treats available: one-pound bars of Hershey's chocolate, chocolate covered cherries, Cadbury Eggs at Easter. She'd eat them, glaring at us the whole time, honestly furious with every bite.

Mother actually tried to clean out her closets before she became completely bedridden. This was a lady who never drove a nail into a wall for which she hadn't popped a chalk line first. I couldn't tell you where my chalk line was if you held a nail gun to my head. But getting those closets in order was on her final to do list, along with teaching my dad about the laundry and otherwise how to take care of himself.

She checked off every item on that list, the last being to say goodbye to her children. My three brothers and I all live out of town, and she scheduled our visits one by one to have time with each of us individually. I was third on the list. My hours with her were brief because she penciled us in around those naps, which became longer and more frequent in a horrifyingly short time--no longer a charming idiosyncrasy. My mom believed it would be the last time she ever saw me or my two children, and we tried to tell each other how much we loved each other. It's surreal enough for two adults--especially when one, me, is in denial--but impossible for children. Mother broke down in front of us only once, as she sat with my thirteen-year-old daughter, crying (of all things) over the fact she would never see her in a wedding dress. My nine-year-old son sat at her kitchen counter, pouring his heart into page after page of drawings. Some featured flowers and sentiments such as, "I will miss you when you're not here, Grandma," but many depicted her sitting in an enormous hand--the hand of God.

Although we all understood without question the foundation of our Christian faith, that she was going "home" to be with her savior, Jesus, my youngest brother and I begged her--down on our knees, crying, pleading with her--to fight the cancer: chemotherapy, vitamins, alternative treatments, anything! But she was rock solid, with a pure, raw faith that still stuns me. She prayed for a miracle, then, accepted the will of Almighty God. And made her list.

Mother was broad sided in a car accident about two years earlier. We could have lost her then, and it truly is a miracle she wasn't killed. Although it would have been abrupt, without the horror of watching her waste away, we would not have had the blessing of saying goodbye. As I stooped to embrace her, when my scheduled visit had ended, she held me in her arms and blessed me--literally, blessed me (I heard her utter the prayer) then she told me, simply, "Be strong." Words that planted themselves deep within my heart. I have tried, Mother! You would not recognize me now, the flighty, emotionally irresponsible woman you
left behind. I want a patio, and I'm going to put it in myself: digging up the grass, hauling in the sand and the stone. It's the kind of thing you used to do! I can move furniture without waiting for my husband, by scooting around on my rear end and pushing it with my feet, like you used to. But Mother, I'm still home schooling the kids, though it's been at a tremendous price, emotionally, physically, and mentally. I know you thought home schooling was a bad idea--you lay in that hospital and we had the last argument we ever would have over my decision--but if you had lived I know you would have realized I couldn't just throw your beloved grandchildren to the wolves. You loved your grandchildren so much, Mother. You were just too sick to understand the reason I refused your last request was because your thirteen-year-old granddaughter was in mortal danger: drugs, sex, hard-core pornography, Mother! I know you were too sick because you were always my cheering section. When we lost you, Mark, Brian, Jason, and I lost our biggest fan. You would have been proud of my sacrifice because home schooling is one of the hardest things I have ever done. You could have been anything you wanted, but all that ever mattered to you in  this world was God and your children and your children's children. The fact that you died with this between us is a weight I cannot putdown. If only you had lived, you would have eventually approved.

When my little mom checked off the last item, to tell her family goodbye, she simply went to bed. It was her wish that her children not nurse her or help in any way, as she had done with her own mother; Sensitive soul that she was, she never overcame that trauma. She wanted to shield us from the sight of her dying, and planned that when she blessed us it would be our last memory of her. But Daddy had to put her in the hospital less than a week later, and I saw her there again.  Whatever resentment I had or might have had for her vanished when I walked in that night and she turned and exclaimed, "Abber?" Her voice was always musical, but when she tried to say my name for the last time it was like a toddler might say, "Mommy?" when the mother arrives early to pick him up from daycare; kind of surprised and joyous all at once. But the cancer was in her brain and, after that brief, blessed, moment, she only babbled. She died four days later, six weeks after receiving a prognosis of three months.

We didn't bury Mother in the outfit she had picked. She was too thin. So my aunt, her sister, bought something she thought she would like. And her hair--my sweet mother's Un-permed hair--was "as straight as a board," just as she had been afraid it would be. I fixed mine, though. Mother would not have wanted me to appear at her funeral with a limp do.

No one, not me, my brothers, or even my dad, ever truly knew her. Funny and sad, reserved and passionate--like some weird cosmic combination of Lucille Ball and Jackie O. She was the most intelligent, creative, funniest woman I've ever known and, as a product of the Donna Reed generation, she never knew it. I miss her so much sometimes. Like now. I feel like I'm drowning in my own tears. To never hear her voice again; never to have another conversation; never to hug her again . . .

She was not old, only sixty-four! And I, not even forty yet. I still need my mother. I ache for her! I have dreams where she is there, and I see her and I run to hug her, then stop, turning away from the figure because I am aware I am sleeping and it is not really she. I dreamt it again only yesterday. And she, this copy in my dreams, does not just cry, she sobs, and hugs me and hangs on to me so tightly, but I feel nothing but disappointment, because I am just so blasted conscious that I'm sleeping and that it's not really she. I hate those dreams!

I wish I could say she looked beautiful in that casket, as she hoped. I don't remember what she was wearing, or what color her lipstick was (and she had given her sister specific instructions about it). But the body barely resembled her. The light was gone.

The light is gone.

Amber Ferguson now home schools her children while managing a small construction office. Winner of three contests for humorous writing, she freelances as both a writer and a graphic artist––defiantly snickering whenever her doctor advises eight hours of sleep. From her desk chair, Amber enjoys an inspiring view of Lake Livingston, Texas, where she lives a blessed life with her husband and two children.  Contact Amber.