I don’t recall what illness she had or exactly how old she was, but she was in a hospital and was near death. Doctors and her family were gathered around her in that hospital room, where she was covered with an oxygen tent.
As she lay there dying, Mother experienced something that might be called a dream. It might be called an out-of-body experience. Maybe it was a near-death experience. Whatever it was, she remembered it clearly and told the story with conviction.
She was riding in a small boat across a river. Ahead of her, Jesus was waiting for her on the riverbank. He was dressed in a sailor suit. As her boat approached the bank, she reached out to take his hand. She said that even in her child mind, she knew that when she took his hand, she would be dead to this world.
Just as she was about to reach his hand, Jesus pulled back and told her it wasn’t her time to die. He told her she had to have a son first — so she couldn’t die as a child.
She immediately woke up and she recovered fully. She told people of her experience — but none took it as seriously as the wide-eyed little boy who eventually heard the story as her only son.
I found out late Saturday night that my mother finally crossed that river nearly two years ago. I imagine Jesus taking her hand and welcoming her to a better world than the one which was so frequently unkind to her here on earth.
I’ve written multiple times about trying to come to terms with the loss of my mother when I was young, so I won’t cover that same ground. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why she did the things she did and why I couldn’t have had the love and presence of the first woman who I ever loved and needed.
She was in and out of my life when I was a child. She was in and out of my life while I was an adult. I can’t say that I ever came to terms with the emotional chaos of what she was. Even as a mature adult when I was last around her — almost 20 years ago — she was more like a child.
When I was with her, I felt as though I was the adult and she was the child. She was needy, both emotionally and pragmatically. Eventually, I had to accept that I was better off without her chaos in my life.
I grieve tonight, but I realize it’s not really for her. I grieve and feel bitter sadness and disappointment about what I could never have from her — consistent love and the feeling of being nurtured by a psychologically healthy mother.
Mother was diagnosed as manic-depressive when I was young. (It’s what we call bi-polar disorder today.) She spent much of my childhood on early anti-depressants, which had side effects worse than the ones today. She had a mental breakdown when I was 5 years old and spent about six weeks in a mental hospital.
It’s sufficient to say that her issues kept her from being what I needed. For years, I tried to pretend I didn’t care, but I’ve slowly come to accept how the loss of her laid the foundation for much of the hurt and loneliness that have characterized much of my life.
Mother was born in Birmingham as Betty Jean Wade. Her parents were both school teachers and that’s the career she chose for herself. At Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala., she was popular and socially active. She was secretary of her class or the student government. (I can’t recall which.) She was considered one of the “class beauties,” according to a section of her yearbooks filled with pictures of six or eight women selected as the beauties.
She taught elementary school for most of her life, mostly in miserably poor inner-city neighborhoods of Birmingham — places where I thought it was too dangerous to go. The stories she told me about her students were sometimes heartbreaking. They mostly came from terrible homes with parents who weren’t capable of helping them educationally. The schools were frequently run by administrators who were more interested in babysitting than in education. But she stuck with it for years and years — because she loved her students and wanted to help them.
She died in Nashville on July 19, 2016. I don’t know the details. Maybe I’ll never know much. If that were the case, it would be a fitting end of a relationship that left me confused and questioning and hurt for most of my life.
Mother was a very smart woman who was well-read and read to us when we were young children. She was creative and kind. She was sensitive and perceptive. She was far more happy in her daily life than I could have been if I had faced the life she lived. But she laughed all the time and danced around her house to Christmas music no matter what time of year it might be. She didn’t care what other people thought about that. She just wanted to be happy and joyful.
I don’t know that I’ll ever fully understand what I feel for her. There are too many complicated emotions for me to say right now.
The only thing I can be certain about is that I grieve for the loss of the loving and nurturing relationship that we both wanted and needed very much.
Mother was a good woman who did the best she could in life. It makes me happy to think of her crossing that river and meeting Jesus as she moved on to a better world — a paradise without suffering or hurt.
Note: Sufjan Stevens’ album called “Carrie and Lowell” is about the bittersweet relationship he had with his mother. My understanding is that they were estranged for years — for reasons similar to mine with my mother — and he reconnected with her as she was dying. The album explores his memories of childhood and a poetic interpretation of his feelings about her death. It’s an album that gives me some comfort about what I went through, because my feelings were much like his. You can listen to the entire album on YouTube here.