My mom died on December 31, 1987. That’s 30 years ago, nearly half my lifetime.
I found it quite odd when, four years ago, I became older than my mother had ever been. I’m the only one of my siblings who has had my mom around for more than half my life. They, being younger passed that particular milestone sooner, just as I out-aged Mom first. What’s this whole thing with numbers, ages, dates, anniversaries?
I don’t really know. I suspect its a way to try and make sense of a loss. I do know I’m prone to look for patterns, mathematical or otherwise. If I understand it, can I change it? Sometimes that works, and oftentimes it doesn’t do a thing. We can understand all manner of forces of nature, and while that might allow us to respond or prepare in a given way, it won’t change whether or not the earthquake, volcano, blizzard or tsunami occurs. And it appears that the same is true of death. Understanding and preparing changes not its inevitability.
Who was my mom? She was born Carol Richardson, on December 25, 1929, in Bakersfield, California. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her mother remarried when she was five. As a child, she spent most of her time in Pasadena, with summers at Lake Tahoe with her father, at his family’s resort, Camp Richardson. It’s still there, although it was long ago sold to the US Forest Service. The featured photo shows Mom holding me on the Camp Richardson beach.
Mom was what I call a lonely only. She didn’t like being an only child, and told us kids that she always wanted to have 4 children. She was an art major in college, fond of both watercolor and interior design. She worked in interior design until I arrived and she became a full-time wife and mother, a career that lasted 32 years.
We moved to Colorado in 1957 when my dad joined the physics department at the University of Colorado. The California natives adapted fairly well to life near the mountains, although I think Mom missed the beach. Mom wasn’t particularly physically adventurous. As she put it, she liked to walk, not hike. She tried skiing, but never relaxed enough to have fun. “I kept imagining myself taking care of four kids while on crutches”.
While much of her time and energy was spent on caring for home and family, Mom also was engaged with the community. She volunteered in a number of ways, following both her interests and her connections. At church she served on the board of missions and social action, with a focus on providing service to those in need. She had a similar relationship to her college sorority. Her alumni group supported the local chapter members, and they also started Santa’s House, which benefited Attention Homes for homeless youth. Santa’s House continues to this day. I remember dressing up in a Winnie the Pooh costume to greet visiting preschoolers when I was home from college.
Mom liked dressing up, whether as Pooh for Santa’s house, or putting on her finery for an evening out. She had a strong sense of style and design, not surprising given her artistic bent. I think it was a little disappointing to her that neither I nor my sister had much interest in fashion, much preferring blue jeans and comfort. She also enjoyed a good costume party. One of my treasured photos is of my parents, taken at a physics department costume party. Mom is a witch and Dad’s a rock star. Mom sent it to me as part of a homemade valentine!
Taking pleasure in costumes and not taking oneself too seriously is something Mom exemplified. During her final illness, she was scheduled for chemo on Halloween. True to form, she showed up in a costume scavenged from the church rummage sale–a grey haired old lady in suitable dress and orthopedic shoes. “Carol-is that you?” was the confused receptionist’s response when she arrived at the oncology office. Might as well enjoy the journey.
As is fairly common, my relationship with my mom was complicated. She was a wife and mother, apparently content with that role. I knew that wasn’t what I wanted, and I know that as a child and adolescent I didn’t value what she did as much as I might have. I also now recognize and appreciate many things I did learn from her example, including seeing individuals for themselves rather than as a stereotype, and I do have a strong sense of social justice, along with a decent sense of color and line. Art, social justice, a sense of humor, and not being overly impressed with either myself or the status quo. Not a bad legacy, and of course there is much more.
The hardest thing for me with losing Mom so long ago is that I didn’t really get to know her as an adult. I was living in Chicago and very busy with my medical training and only moved back to Colorado the year before she died. I feel a bit cheated that way, and at the same time, I feel incredibly grateful to have had the gift of her presence in my life for as long as I did.
I learned a few things from my Mom’s death at a relatively young age. Foremost is the importance of not postponing doing what you really want to do until “later.” She and my dad had planned to travel after he retired, only she died before that happened. I’ve noticed that we kids do a little more adventuring along the way. Life can be a lot shorter than you think. The brevity of her life also reinforced my belief in the importance of taking some risks and pursuing interests; taking a curious and experimental approach to life. If things don’t go as anticipated, fine, now you know.
I still recall the day Mom died. I was at work when Dad called. On one level, this was an expected death as she’d been in hospice care for some time. And on another level, as I discovered that day, there is no way to be ready for that loss. My adult doctor self knew it was coming and that it was time, while my child self was stunned and bereft, unable to believe that she would have to live without her “Mommy”. Thirty years later, many of those same feelings are present, albeit in less intense form.
On this anniversary, my prominent emotions are love, gratitude, sadness and appreciation. Both for all that I received in my years of life with my mother, and for what I’ve done with what she gave me over the intervening thirty years. Thanks, Mom. I’m doing my best to live up to your example.