Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Strongest Woman

The strongest woman...and the scariest!...that I ever knew was my mother, Ora Holder. If I can be half the woman she was, I would be content in my life.

Everything Mom did, she did with elegance and class, even up to and including cussing you out for something you did. I know my friends grew up fearing my mother in the same way one fears whatever god they believe in! I certainly did!

Mom was born on September 21, 1933, to parents that had immigrated to New York from the island of Trinidad. She grew up in Harlem back in its heyday, and met our dad when she went to Hunter College. I used to tease Dad about the lack of romance in his soul: he proposed to her over the phone. No getting down on one knee for him! But she accepted anyway, and they were married on February 23, 1957. They built the house we grew up in back in the sixties, in Westbury, Long Island, New York. She worked as a librarian at the Westbury Public Library until they adopted me, and then my brother a few years later. Then she stayed home with us until I was twelve, and Seth was ten. She went back to the library she loved, but made sure to work only part time right up until she retired years later. She wanted to be home when we got out of school, which was something she was always very involved in. She was class mother more times than I can either count or remember throughout elementary school, for both of us. She went to every event we ever took part in, from Little League and Girl Scouts on. I can't remember anything she ever missed, and she never forgot anyone, either. She might not remember the face of the person I mentioned to her, but she always remembered the name and where she knew them from, even years later. She could even remember the names of the kids I had gone to elementary school with, which was almost eerie. And always asked about the kids that had spent the most time in her house or on her phone. She remembered them all, no matter how long it had been since I had seen so-and-so, and we would often have conversations that began with "Guess who I heard from today?"

Mom was an awesome woman. She could...and often did...wear a caftan to entertain, and it always looked elegant rather than frumpy on her. And Mom never just entertained, she ENTERTAINED. She had different sets of dishes for different types of dinner parties, and she never catered, she always cooked everything herself, even if it meant spending the entire day in the kitchen. No one ever left her table hungry. When finally the reins of Christmas dinner passed to me, I was frantic. Everything had to be perfect, because Mom was coming to my house for dinner! I started the turkey at five in the morning...and I am NOT a morning person...and I can barely remember what else I cooked, there was so much food! And I was so proud when Mom raved about everything, especially her nearly-seven-month-old first grandchild, who she was seeing in the flesh for the first time.

That Christmas of 2005 was one of the hardest ones for me ever to get through with a smile. I knew, the second I saw her, that it was the last Christmas we would ever spend together. Mom had Type II diabetes, and had been on dialysis for years at that point, and that year confided to me that she had had triple bypass surgery when I was having my daughter. It was so hard to see how much she had aged over the previous two years, to see her permanently attached to an oxygen tank, to realize that this woman, who had always had an iron core, could barely walk up the front steps to my house even with assistance. But she never seemed to let it get to her.

I had told her she couldn't leave me. I so was not ready for it. You live your life knowing, at the back of your mind, that if life goes the way it's supposed to, you are going to outlive your parents. But no matter what your mind tells you is logical, you are never, ever ready for it.

It was my other half who finally sat me down and made me face what I had to do. He told me, "You have to tell her that it's okay for her to go. It's not fair for you to hold her here when it's time for her. Even if you're lying, you have to tell her." I didn't want to hear it. I knew he was right, but I didn't want to listen. It was several months before I was finally able to lie convincingly and tell her that I was okay with it.

Mom made it to my place one more time, for her granddaughter's first birthday in June. She was so frail that on both occasions she visited, she could never stay for more than three hours, so we were making plans to take our daughter for a visit to their house so Mom could spend more time with the grandchild she had been asking for for years. We were going to go in August. I thought, well, Mom was just here in June, and traveling with a baby is difficult at best, and we have to make arrangements for the dogs and the cat while we're gone...and Mom sounds much stronger on the phone...we'll go in August.

But in mid-July, 2006, Mom went into the hospital for the last time. We made the fastest arrangements for the animals that we could, and jumped into the car the next morning for the six hour trek to California, where Mom and Dad had moved into a Sun City in 1998. We missed visiting hours that night, so Dad enjoyed his time with the little one, and we went to the hospital the next day.

Mom was in ICU. She had left a "no intubate" order, so she was on forced air and every other piece of life support equipment I'd ever heard of. She was unresponsive, but I just thought she was asleep. Comatose never even occurred to me; I don't know why. Denial, I guess, especially since it was also in my mind that if she saw her granddaughter, she'd snap right out of it and all would be well. She lived for my daughter, after all. She adored her, kissed her picture goodnight every night, and called long distance every other day to hear what her grandchild had done that day. Why shouldn't it work? Bring in the child, and everything would instantly go back to normal.

But the doctor came in and smashed that illusion immediately. He told us that Mom would never be able to get off of the machines again, that she was essentially already gone, and that we had to make a decision. This is not a decision anyone should ever have to make; I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. But Dad looked at me and asked what I thought, and I was honest: Mom wouldn't want this. Not this. And he agreed.

Troy brought in our daughter, so he and she could say their goodbyes, not that she understood what was going on. Then Dad said his, and I said mine. I told her that she had been the best mother in the world, that I couldn't have had a better one, and that I loved her to no end, and asked her if she heard me. She made a sound then, the only sound she had made since we had been there, so I can only assume...hope...that she did. It was July 21,2006. A bright, sunny, summer day, and the world as I knew it was ending. It should have been raining. Mom was two months shy of her 73rd birthday, and seven months shy of their 50th wedding anniversary.

It has been three years since then, and I still catch myself saying "I've got to call Mom and tell her...oh. Yeah." But I know that my mother, social butterfly that she was, is having a grand old time where she is now, and I know that she visits her granddaughter often. Every now and again, my daughter will stop whatever she's doing and announce "Nana!" She has done this ever since Mom died. And I just tell her, "Tell Nana hello for me, and tell her I love her." Children see better than we do, and I hope that she never outgrows that ability. I will certainly never be the one to tell her that she doesn't see whatever she sees. Just because I can't see Mom doesn't mean she isn't there. Maybe the fact that I can't see her is meant to tell me that I don't need to, but our daughter does. I don't know. But I will miss her for the rest of my life. Rest in peace, Mommy. We love you.

Orabelle Stephanie Holder September 21, 1933 - July 21, 2006

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