Mother's Day Memories


It's only been the last month or so that I've been able to make it through a week, even a day, without crying. Getting to sleep at night is just now becoming a little easier. And I'm now able to catch myself before I pick up the handset on those occasions I get the urge to call and say hello.

It's been tough since Feb. 27, when my mother died after a two-year bout with cancer.

Coming from an "older" family, I've lost my share of close relatives since my father died of a heart attack in 1979. Death became too commonplace. But you convinced yourself that life had to go on. You grieved, and you adjusted.

This latest period of adjustment was tested a couple of weeks ago while walking through a section of a store selling Mother's Day cards.

I wanted to stop. I wanted the opportunity to read the inscriptions and to take my time finding just the right card for my mother. I thought about the warm smile she always gave when I'd present the card along with some flowers or some other gift. I thought about those days when I didn't get a chance to visit -- how the first thing I'd do this day would be to call home, tell my mother "I love you" after wishing her a happy Mother's Day and hearing her reply "I love you too, baby."

But for me, that celebration of a very special day is gone. And, today, it's a celebration that I'll greatly miss.

The diagnosis came in 1990 -- the mass on my mother's lung turned out to be melanoma, a cancer known to spread rapidly. I always wondered how she faced living each day, knowing that the discomfort in her lung would eventually kill her.

It was tough for me to deal with, because I felt my mother was indestructible. When I was born there was the warning that she could die; doctors had discovered that she had cervical cancer. In 1977 she was told she might never walk after having back surgery.

But my mother survived that earlier cancer, and she later had that will to walk. There were five kids to raise by herself in one of the the worst neighborhoods in New York City.

As the surroundings overwhelmed many, my mother had the strength to conquer them. Sometimes it meant at times going on welfare for short stretches to get by. Sometimes it meant working two or three jobs at a time. Sometimes it meant coming home exhausted after meeting teachers at five different schools during parent-teacher conferences.

"Day-to-day" was how to describe our family's existence. At times my mother would borrow a dollar from someone, and we'd get by that night on spiced ham sandwiches. Sometimes Christmas gifts were bought on Christmas afternoon, after my mother would do some last-minute scrambling so her kids could have a special day.

I'm sure there were occasions my mother, exhausted and frustrated much of the time, would go into her room at night, close the doors and fall completely apart. But that was rarely done in front of her kids -- she knew it was from her that we drew our strength.

... Much of my mother's last few months were spent in a hospital bed set up in my brother's house. Her body ravaged by the cancer that left her limbs emaciated, she had lost the will to live. She did a lot of crying.

"You can't hold on," she told me, after I tried to assure her that everything would be all right. "You've got to let go."

Toward the end, she only would awaken to take the 15 or so pills she swallowed every four hours that allowed her to sleep.

She was sleeping on one such occasion, and I stopped to kiss her before I left. She didn't even notice me the night before when I stayed up with her and gave her her medicine. But as I turned to leave she called my name in a barely audible voice.

"Hold me, baby, just hold me," she whispered, crying as I embraced her. "Hold, me, baby, hold me. I just don't know why, I just don't know why. . . ."

As her condition got worse, she was moved to a hospital for terminally ill cancer patients. I went to see her on Valentine's Day when, along with idle chatter she offered me these last words:

"The moral of the story is: Every story has an ending," she said. "It's time to end it, so there can be a new beginning."

... I made it out of the Mother's Day section of the card store with dry eyes. Still, it made me reflect on those moments about a person who was loved by so many.

I've tried to convince myself that life goes on. That I have to grieve. That I have to adjust. But the person that meant the most to me in my life is no longer here.

And because of that, this day will not be complete. How I would have loved to have had the chance to buy that Mother's Day card.

Jerry Bembry is a sportswriter for The Baltimore Sun.

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