My sixty-first birthday will always hold special memories. I celebrated it the Tuesday (November 25th) before Thanksgiving in 2014. My mother had been in the hospital in critical condition for about three weeks. She recently moved to a private room out of intensive care days before my birthday.
I walked in her room at just before noon that day. She immediately wished me a happy birthday. She was mentally and physically as sharp as I had seen her in weeks. She got out of bed and sat in the chair. She required minimal help.
She reflected on my birth sharing her remembrances of the long-ago day at Brooke Army General Hospital at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas.
She then talked about my brother and father. She shared how proud she was of both. There was a sparkle in her eyes and love in her voice as she talked about them. I could feel the love. It was a pleasant conversation.
She next caught me by surprise asking me if I still write poetry. When I stammered and spat out the words that I still do, she looked at me like she couldn’t understand why. I repeated what I said. She sighed. Then she shook her head. I could almost read her mind. I am sure she thought this son of mine has always been a little crazy.
She said, “You get paid good money for your non-fiction, short stories, and books. Well, not as good as payment back in the 1980’s or 1990’s, but no one pays much if anything for poetry.” She then went off on a tangent adding, “Well, while you never were a hippie, you have always been a Beatnik, a real live Bohemian.”
I raised an eyebrow, Star Trek’s character Mr. Spock style. She had my curiosity. I asked her what she meant by that comment.
Mother assured me she wasn’t insulting or putting me down. She said it were just who I am. She added I’ve always known that’s who you are. She further explained saying I have always created art with words. She called me a very creative man.
Continuing she pointed out I always listened to music, read the books I liked regardless of what was popular, read and meditated on poetry, played in a band and read the Holy Bible. She said I did it without caring what others thought. She remembered me hitch-hiking or driving to music festivals in other states when a teenager, going to Beatnik coffee houses and poetry readings.
She thought it was nice that I listened to folk, rock and roll, R&B, pop music, classical music, and country music and not just church music. “It kept you from getting too pious or full of yourself. It let you stay in touch with your congregation when you were in full-time ministry and still keeps you grounded today.”
She had more to say. She said she was proud my Christian faith was my choice. She said I was an amazing man who knew what he believed, why he believed it and still respected and accepted other folks who didn’t fall in line with my beliefs and values. She said that is rare.
She told me it was amazing how I could listen, read, learn and make my decisions for myself in these areas. She said my university education had taught how to think, but not what to think.
She was glad I had not been brainwashed or indoctrinated into a particular narrow worldview. She said while I filter life through the scope of a Christian worldview, I understand and don’t condemn others for their views. She laughed saying it was good I never let a professor or a skirt (her words) influence what I believed. I laughed. I agreed on all points.
She said she loved the way I expressed myself in writing poetry, books, short stories and playing guitar. My willingness to put myself out there thrilled her. She quoted part of one poem I had written her for mother’s day back in my college days. She had memorized it. Amazing.
She laughed when she mentioned I also challenged authority and the status quo, but had an almost magical way to do it with respect of the person or institution. She said I examined the value or principle, sometimes attacked it, but never made it personal by attacking the person of authority. She pointed out almost no one but the exceptional few can do that. She said I got that ability to challenge without being confrontational from her. She recalled my running for student government president in high school and some controversies surrounding the speech I made to the entire high school during assembly just before the vote. The speech had questioned the school administration on one policy,
She said many see me as a person who is not very spur-of-the-moment. She stated that they were wrong. She was pleased I knew how to live where when something goes wrong, I don’t stress and freak out. I stay calm when others have an emotional melt-down. She liked the way I could just let it flow and work the problem as military officers and engineers frequently say.
She was especially proud I never over-analyzed stuff. She stated that helped me to live life without regrets and with little worry. She said that is why my hair is still dark brown, and not gray. She said she wished she had learned to do that. She added people who over-analyzed life find themselves in long-term counseling and often driving people away from them.
She talked about my clothing and dress saying I always dressed nicely, comfortably managing self-expression and dressed appropriately for my station in life when in jobs where dress mattered. She told me how dad got upset at some of my clothes when in I was in college.
She said she always liked me wearing a big, full US Grant beard instead of a mustache and goatee. I had always heard her describe beards based on how President Grant looked on a fifty-dollar bill. She thought that was the perfect beard.
She said dad still thought I was crazy with all my Hawaiian shirts and jeans or khakis in the summer and black turtlenecks with matching black slacks in the winter. He still thought I was foolish when I gave up a career as a United States Army officer and enrolled in a Southern Baptist Seminary. He just remembered how poorly the congregation at our church treated its ministers and didn’t want me to suffer a similar fate.
She told me she thought I was always true to myself and unafraid of expressing what was inside of me. She said she guessed that was why I didn’t judge a person based on race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, income, education, or anything else; well except on work ethic. She added a sidebar type comment that I always held people to a pretty high standard of work, being prepared, doing their job and promptness.
She said I always just got to know the people believing all were created in God’s image. She was proud I always saw them as people first and just accepted them as they were.
Oh, we got back on the subject of poetry. My mother said she thought I should focus on writing the stuff that paid money, not just giving me by-lines or copies of the magazines for remuneration. She reminded me you had to have enough money to pay the bills and live. She said not everyone has a patron so keep the day job.
I went back to work after lunch returning after work that evening for another visit. Mother spent a couple of hours being very reflective on life. She told me she had understood the doctor and knew she had lymphoma. She stated it would probably kill her. She quoted a line from an old Loretta Lynn song, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” She said she was ready to go home. She explained she meant heaven.
Next day she moved to the skilled nursing facility. I saw her over a dozen times between November 26th when she was transferred and December 14th when she died. We never had another real conversation as mental faculties declined dramatically.
Because of the conversations with my mother that Tuesday, my sixty-first birthday will always hold special memories.