Monday, October 15, 2007

I got a letter from Mom the other day


It was strange, for no other reason than she died almost seven years ago. My Dad was gathering things to bring down for my son's birthday party and came across an envelope with my name on it. Now, to be sure, it was not the first posthumous communication I had gotten from her, but it was the first in a very long time. She left genealogical files; letters to disallow certain people from attending her services; diaries for grandchildren not yet born. They trickled in over several years, but had mostly dried up until this weekend.

Mom was a heavy smoker, and it wasn't really a shock when the cancer diagnosis came in. I mean, it was, of course; these things just don't happen to your own family, until they do. But after the initial reactions, it wasn't something where anyone could sit and rail against the injustice of it all. We had a year. It was mostly a good year, especially after her doctor beat the idea of chemo into her head. That left her functional, if not healthy, until the cancer just spread too far. In a rather cruel twist of fate, she died while my wife and I were out of town attending the funeral of my wife's grandmother. I had said goodbyes on the chance that such an event could happen, but two important figures passing a week before the holidays made for a somber season. That year, I took one of the few drinks I've ever had as part of a toast to family.

So, the letter itself was a few handwritten pages, and a printed poem. The most potent parts of the letter were admonishments to enjoy the small things in life; to take care of my family and stay close to my father and brother; expressions of pride about who I had become. I was young then. I hadn't really accomplished much, other than managing to never need bailing out from lockup. She was always proud, just the same.

The other parts of the letter were religious in nature. A lot was about her expectations of heaven, and to keep the faith myself so that we could meet there, and so on. I don't know that I was as much an atheist then. I've always been fairly agnostic, leaning toward no higher power, but I'll admit to waffling for most of my life. Mom and Dad pretty much dropped out of church life when the pastor at the church where they met refused to marry them in the church itself -- they'd both been divorced, you see. That was bad. He'd marry them anywhere else, even the parking lot or the lawn out front, but not the church itself. They declined and never looked back. That's not to say my parents didn't have faith. My father was a lay minister's son from a long line of the same, and my mother was raised in the coal camps, where religion was so deeply ingrained that not having it really wasn't an option. From then on, neither really saw a need to push it. I and my brother found our own ways, which I think is what my parents intended. We found opposite directions to take, but it doesn't come up for discussion, because that's the way we were raised.

As Mom got sicker, her old-time religion came back out. Now, she was never a forgiving person; even at her most desperate, she didn't step foot in another church. She did, however, go back to what she was taught as a child, and her own personal study. She was terrified of death. I know that. I think it just got to the point where the old programming kicked in as a defense mechanism. She didn't cry or wail to god, at least not in public. She had more an attitude of, "I've led a good life, dammit, and I'm going to heaven. Just try to stop me." There wasn't any other option, and if anyone could take god in best-of-three falls about opening the gates, it'd be her.

I have to wonder what that letter would have done to me seven years ago. In my grief, would it have pushed me in the direction of being more religious? I had been getting more exposure than ever through my wife's extended family, and was in probably my most vulnerable and seeking period. I could see it happening. I note that my mother never questioned that I might not believe; it was assumed. I think she knew better than that, though. I was never really what she assumed at any point in my life.

I sat down with my son Saturday night and talked about the Grandma he never got to meet. We do that now and then, but I usually don't cry as much as I did this weekend. It was good to hear from her.