I know it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish, it only magnifies the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.
Stephen Colbert on the death of his Mother
Stephen Colbert stole my line.
Well, actually he stole my Mother’s line.
Of course, he didn’t steal our lines; not really.
But with the phrase that began, I know it may sound greedy, Steve Colbert captured better than ever I could the deep sorrow of losing an elderly parent.
I know it may sound greedy…
In the years since my Mother’s death, I have wrestled with that word:
It is one of the seven deadly sins, or so I was taught.
And I have asked myself repeatedly
Was I greedy to want more time with her?
Because I did.
Because despite her infirmity; despite her confusion; despite her suffering, I was simply not ready to let her go.
I know it may sound greedy…
And as I struggle with that word, I remember that my Mother had used it first, many years ago.
We were sitting in a car outside the home of a close family friend. I was back in Los Angeles for a rare vacation from my adopted Midwestern home.
But from the moment I walked off the plane, I felt smothered. My mother enveloped me. She treated my every phone call, every friend, every dinner out as the enemy intruder. I had lived away from home for years; suddenly I had a curfew.
I was anxious; she was disappointed. Neither of us was happy.
Sitting outside our friend’s home, I leaned my head against the steering wheel.
Mama, I can’t take it.
What can’t you take?
Every time I leave the house, you make me feel guilty. When I go out with my friends, I feel like I am hurting you.
I just want to see you.
Mama! I live in Minnesota. I never see my friends. Can’t I spend some time with them?
I want to see you too.
Mama, I do see you. I am staying with you! But it is never enough!
Well, I guess I am just greedy. I can’t help it. I just want to be with you. I’m not going to change.
Her words did not bring us together.
For years I felt the weight of her longing. Though I lived thousands of miles away, her determined expression and insistent words reverberated in my memory and underscored our interactions. I called weekly. I wrote occasionally. But she was not the only one who wasn’t going to change.
I guess I am just greedy.
I can’t help it.
I want to be with you.
In fact my Mother had been instrumental in shaping my strong sense of independence. Within months of my Father’s death, I moved across the country to participate in a graduate fellowship. It was a rocky road. I didn’t like my classes; didn’t like the East; didn’t make new friends. One day I called her and announced:
I can’t take this anymore; I am dropping out.
And without hesitation, she replied,
Where will you go?
Her unequivocal words and firm tone rang clear; my childhood home was not an option.
I was on my own.
But she sprang into action. She visited my high school, conferred with my teachers, and called with her report. The nuns were unanimous: a woman with a Master’s degree is better off than a woman without one. Stick with it. You can do it.
She was right.
I was miserable. I was lonely. But I did it.
My graduate advisor found a job for me in Minnesota, where I literally twirled on a street corner and threw my hat in the air…then it was on to Chicago, and let’s win there…New York New York it’s a wonderful…
My life turned into a whirlwind; dominated by my career. But as the years unfolded, my Mom seemed perplexed by my choices. I wasn’t sure she took much satisfaction in
My Daughter, the Vice President of Marketing…
But if she felt disappointment, she didn’t express it; at least not to me. I was deeply grateful that she never pried about my boyfriends; never angled for grandchildren; always seemed to relish stories of the kitty’s latest exploits. We both pursued our hectic lives, separated by a continent of unspoken expectations; unresolved yearning; unrequited dreams.
When I (finally) met my husband, she was exuberant. Well, actually, so was I.
Friends reported her giddy delight (before she even got in the car, she was exclaiming Hallie’s engaged Hallie’s engaged!). The day she arrived in New York for our ceremony, we asked if there was anything special she wanted to see. And without hesitation, she replied,
I want to go to a wedding!
The Mother of the bride was 82 years old.
And the evening of our rehearsal, when my new Mother-in-law told my Mom that she wished we’d done things differently, my Mother responded that she’d once heard a sermon that affected her deeply. The priest instructed his congregants to
Love your children; no matter what they do; especially if you don’t agree. Their lives are their own.
And your job is to love them.
When a friend shared this overheard remark, I was astonished. We had spent more than 20 years in an awkward dance of expectation and resistance. Love guarded by boundaries. Bonds etched with misunderstanding.
I wondered if I knew my Mother at all.
(I guess I am just greedy…)
It was only two years later
when the head of the nursing home looked me in the eye,
and told me the news I did not want to hear:
Your mother has dementia. She will not get better. And she will not go home.
I never expected what happened next.
I never expected I’d find joy in the halls of that nursing home. I never expected that within those walls, I would (finally) discover my Mother.
In the decade that followed, we spent long hours, side by side.
Her illness taught me to slow down.
Her need taught me to accept responsibility.
Her unraveling taught me know her; unedited.
And as the years unfolded, her longing became mine.
I always hoped for one more visit. I wanted to see her eyes dance just one more time. I knew she didn’t want to live like that, but
I didn’t want a world without her in it.
In the years following her death, I still see the two of us sitting in that car thirty years ago; I remember our frustration and her words from that night.
But now I am the one who is perplexed. Despite my best efforts, I hear the echo of my Mother’s voice. This time it’s coming from my own heart:
Well, I guess I am just greedy.
I can’t help it.
I just want to be with you.
And I’m not going to change…
The link below (Remembering Lorna Colbert) should lead you to Stephen Colbert’s tribute to his Mother which aired June 19, 2013 (please bear with the brief advertising lead in)…As he says, If you like me, that’s because of my Mom…