“Be Pretty” and Other Lessons from Mom

My mom spent roughly an hour last year on February 13 “on hospice.” Then she was gone.

The story leading up to that hour was complicated and ran through three hospital stays, two intubations, a broken wrist and about 24 hours at home. The final hospital stay started when she fell and broke her wrist, but deteriorated into the breathing issues that had characterized the first of the three stays and landed her in the ICU.

When she developed severe breathing issues on February 13, a decision was made not to intubate her and that closed any door except letting things play out until she passed away.

I didn’t know “hospice” in this case meant, essentially, leaving her in the same bed at the hospital and changing her treatment plan. I suppose it didn’t matter, because she passed away within an hour of the plan’s change.

It’s difficult to believe it has been almost a year.

I am thinking back on the year, and how I can honor her in the way I apply her lessons to my life. Here are the five things that come to mind when I think about her:

“Be Pretty”

This was my mom’s admonition every time I left the house. I hated it. It felt so … inclined toward the polite. Of course being polite is often a good thing, but it has been challenging for me to square that admonition — especially as I grew older — with the fact that having an influence on the world, especially being a part of making things better for people who have been wronged, by its nature involves getting in people’s and organizations’ faces.

Even though she and I were different about that, I also know that her biggest goal was that I have a “pretty” inner core. The deeper admonition was that I should always try to see things fairly, kindly and empathically. 

Lessons from mom

Be Patient

Anyone who ever watched my mom sew a garment has seen patience at work. Each pleat, seam and hem was perfect. One of my strongest memories was of how she sat in a recliner in our living room, holding my newborn son, in the dark, the first night we were home from the hospital. I have no idea how she kept him occupied and satisfied, but she persevered, all so I could get some sleep. She was the most patient person I have ever known. Maybe the patience accompanies the “polite.” Again, this all works counter to advocacy efforts — you have to be impatient with the rate of change to be motivated to address it.

Even though patience doesn’t impel us to change things in our world, I’ve also learned to chip away at issues one constituent email or tweet at a time, and to not give up the first (or tenth) time I am told “no,” so maybe patience does pay.

Be Positive

The “be positive” header here is a bit misleading, given what I want to address. But I’m going for all “P’s,” so “positive” it is. My mom never pursued an official diagnosis, but I lived with her and am certain she went through several length periods of clinical depression. The most surreal thing was watching her affect change to normal/upbeat as, for example, she answered the phone to talk to someone outside of the immediate family or dealt with them in person. This is pretty deep to unpack (a word I hate but that fits for this context), Here’s what I struggled with during (and between) these periods: How can a person whose primary goal in life was to be a wife and mom not be as happy as she sounds as she’s talking on the phone and putting on her “happy” affect? Why can’t we help her out of this? Is this somehow about something I am doing to make this worse? Why, why why?

Now you can undoubtedly see why “be positive” is not exactly the right header for this passage. You can possibly see why I got a graduate degree in mental health and spent time as a counselor/supervisor on a crisis counseling line. What you may not be able to see but is likely true is that I became a voracious reader to escape some of that, then a writer to somehow work through it all (and honestly my love of editing/accuracy probably correlates with her attention to detail back when she was making all those perfect pleats and tiny stitches). But the main thing is this all made me a mental health advocate and explains why I am such a dogged believer in therapy and getting help. No one should have to carry the weight of untreated depression, especially someone as wonderful as she was.

Be Perspicacious

Another misleading header — I don’t think my mom and I ever spoke about my favorite word, “perspicacious.” However, it was clear to me from the time I was a young child that she was an extremely smart lady. She downplayed her intellect publicly, but it was there.

I wish the world could have seen more of her intelligence.

Be Kind

There goes the string of “p” words! I couldn’t find an equivalent “p” word for kindness. But anyone who ever heard my mom’s voice can attest its tone was “kind.” Even during the most challenging conversations of my teenage years, there was so little animosity in her voice.

I am inspired to kindness every time I think of her voice. 

In Closing

My mom talked sentimentally about her “career” days. She was very young (17, I think) when she took off for the relatively “big” municipality of Lake City from Lake Butler to start her career.

Her eyes lit up when she talked about that time. One of the stories she told most often was about the first time she “took a letter” in shorthand. She arrived back at her desk and couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. She talked about how nervous she was telling her boss that she needed to start over.

Having just made a midlife career change, I think about that often. I have had to ask so many questions. It has been humbling, but it has helped us all turn out a better product and it has given me confidence (and, truthfully, JOY) as I got a handle on things. What if she had walked away from that job and returned to tiny Union County, resigned to a life that didn’t involve asking for do-overs?

I can’t get a do-over on whatever water was left under the bridge between my mom and me, and I can’t thank her more directly and sincerely for all she did. But I can remember that “pretty” is a more versatile word than it seems on the surface.

I can also, guided by her example, be patient with others and myself.

Thanks, Mom.

This look on her face captures who she was.

 

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.