Like Joan

My mother had a special gift.

If you Google Mrs. Joan Fitzgerald Curry, you won’t find articles about her intelligence, her wit or accomplishments. While she had those, they didn’t capture the attention of the world beyond those who knew and loved her.

Yet she had a kind of talent, an innate gift, that is more true and essentially noteworthy than much of the behavior that millions of viewers tune in to reality shows to watch.

My mother could make a person visiting her home, or even just meeting her anywhere, feel deeply welcome.

I suppose you’d call it “hospitality.” She just found a way to make a person feel seen and attended to in a way that did not draw attention to either the giver or the receiver.

It was almost magical – seemed effortless and subtle, yet profound.

I remember my husband, visiting my mother with me, meeting her for the first time, remarking later that she just had this “way” about her that put him at ease. He couldn’t put his finger on what she did, just knew how he’d felt with her.

It is a lost art, I think. 

Towards the end of her life until her death, I began to observe and reflect upon this phenomenon in her personality.

What were the key elements that colored her hospitality?

She was warm. She was welcoming. She was genuinely interested in others’ lives. She was generous. She had an easy smile, a twinkle in her eyes, a melodic voice and laugh.

When she was with you, there was no sense of urgency to get on to the next thing. She was present with you, and her presence invited you to do the same. She brought a safe space wherever she was.

She left this earth as generously as she lived in it. Ever the gracious hostess, she left me a number of parting gifts. A spiritual swag bag.

One that I value above all else is the lesson contained within her hospitality. That she left behind circles of people who, when remembering her, would remember how comfortable they felt in her presence. How seen and heard. How good she made them feel.

I’d heard that before, that after you die, that’s all that is really left behind: how you made people feel.

Now I know this to be true. 

And since her death, I am continually inspired to develop and nurture whatever tiny nugget of her gift I can craft.

I aspire to live as she did. It doesn’t just mean hosting guests. It means how I treat strangers on the street. In the daily interactions I have with the other people on this planet.

How do I leave people after I cross paths with them? Do they feel uplifted for some undefinable reason, or do they feel drained?

I falter, I fail. But sometimes, I hope, I bring a good feeling to someone’s day. Sometimes, I am like Joan.

It is her legacy, and it is priceless to me.

#mothersday #hospitality #legacy

Prompted by The Daily Post daily word: hospitality

All About Joan, Pt 5

I remember well the last Mother’s Day with my mother. I had come home to Houston to be with her, as per usual, on my day off from the show I was doing in Illinois. It being Mother’s Day, I wanted to bring her a present.

It is odd when you are trying to pick a gift for someone who has been told that they are, in essence, dying. Certain gifts seem ridiculous, and some seem insensitive: a purse or some piece of clothing or jewelry. At this point, my mom didn’t leave the house, or have outside visitors, so such things seemed unimportant and unnecessary.

“Things” in general had long since become less important, unless they could somehow bring joy or add quality to my Mom’s life.

After wracking my brain, I settled for some kind of flowers or plant. I stopped off at a florist on the way to my parents’ house and picked a blue hydrangea plant in a blue and white ceramic bowl. She loved the color blue, I loved hydrangea, and I loved her, so it seemed the best fit under the circumstances. I figured it was at least something pretty to look at.

We had a particularly intense visit.

My mother had just reached the point where she and my father had to admit that they needed a nurse to come in: she could no longer get herself up out of a chair or sit up in bed unassisted. I had been noticing her failing body strength the last few visits.

But it had been a delicate subject to broach with them. As had other such conversations that had become necessary as her disease progressed.

First had been concern that the three steps up from their bedroom sitting area to the bed area had become a danger for her. I had become secretly terrified she’d fall and break her neck. So I very carefully brought it up to my parents, trying to seem casual so as not to belie the quiet hysteria I felt deep inside.

Such conversations with your parents are so surreal: to be both the child and the adult in the situation at once is strange.

They ended up moving the bed down into the bedroom sitting area, which was a great solution until even that was too much for her.

She eventually moved into Ground Zero – the open kitchen living room area. A hospital bed replaced the couch. She was in the center of things there.

Each new shift in her physical condition had required carefully approached conversations. I’d sense a hope in my parents that was a kind of invisible protective veneer surrounding them, one that colored their perspective of what was actually happening. It seemed to make them a beat or two behind in seeing the changes that were occurring.

Intuitively, I knew I had to take care not to puncture it. I had to ever-so-gently lead them to the realizations. They could not be forced upon them, or rushed.

This most recent concession that my mother’s physical freedom had become so altered was a particularly tough one for both of them. This Mother’s Day fell in the final few days of their time on their own in their home before a full-time hospice care person entered the picture.

As was true of our other weekly visits, we mainly spent our time together talking. Being together.

My mother talked of her life on those visits, and asked me about mine. There were times the conversation went to very serious subjects. Intimate information was exchanged. Old wounds were healed. Our relationship returned to what I can only describe as what I imagine to be the pure essential love between an infant and its mother.

And we laughed. A lot. And talked of lighter things. But throughout all of our talks, there was a subtle rhythm to them that I now realize she was orchestrating. Bits and pieces of those talks, that seemed so casual at times, come back to me as my life progresses. It turns out, she had been implanting motherly wisdoms all along. Mothering me until the very end.

And while I felt our beautiful closeness at this particular visit, I also felt a distance, too. She was moving through an internal process that was singular and private: it was something that neither my father nor I could be a part of.

When I left, I said what I had taken to saying every time: I love you. You know that, right? You hang in there and I’ll see you next week, OK? She hugged me and gave my cheek a little pat. I hated leaving her. It was always hard.

This particular time, for some reason I have never since been able to fathom, I wasn’t particularly afraid I wouldn’t see her again. I let my guard down for a moment. It wasn’t in the forefront of my mind that it might be my last time to see her.

I don’t know why I dropped that awareness. I’ve replayed that last goodbye over in my mind a hundred times. Berating myself for not having said more profound things. The truth was, we’d already said the truly crucial things we needed to say to each other, and for that I am truly grateful. I don’t know what it is I think I could have said at that last goodbye. I just know it still comes back to circle my mind at times. I guess it is all a part of the way the mind deals with grief, those senseless replays and circles.

The next time I visited my parents’ house, the hydrangea was still there. But my Mom was gone forever.

All About Joan, Pt 1

lone bird

Mothers Day is coming. I have so many lovely friends in my life right now who are new mothers, so it is on my radar.

I always feel funky this time of year, despite the gorgeousness of the Spring weather and flowers and budding trees.

At this time exactly 9 years ago, I was doing a musical in Illinois — my first out of town theatre booking, a very exciting time for me. (I came back to acting later in life after almost two decades of drifting. Started singing again in 1995, and then performing in cabaret, which eventually led me to acting again in 2004. I started to pursue it professionally in 2006. In 2007, I booked a fun role in a musical and was thrilled to drive across country to live in Illinois for three months to do it.

And I was decimated. I had auditioned for the show in early January, just after returning home from the Christmas holiday in Texas, where I am from. The holiday where my parents told my two brothers and I that my mother’s oncologist had told them weeks before that there was no longer anything they could do for her in the way of treatment.

I returned to NYC in a kind of shock and almost didn’t even go to that audition. But being a consummate people-pleaser and a professional, I went, despite feeling way off. So I was surprised when I was offered the role. Surprise turned into elation, which then turned into a kind of dread.

How could I possibly take the job under the circumstances? We had been told that no one could know how long my mother had to live. We, of course, were filled with a kind of hope that only those who have been in such situations can know. A kind of hope that your loved one was going to be the one to beat the odds. It could happen. No one can tell you it can’t. So you believe. You believe because that is what the human heart does. It hopes and believes.

But I wanted to be able to see as much of her as possible. My father was her primary caretaker. She was living at home, with hospice care available as needed to help manage her pain and as things progressed. Still, a part of me wanted to leave my Life, move down to Texas and move in with my parents.

My therapist advised me that I couldn’t just go down and “watch her die.” That I had to keep “doing my life.” I knew in my gut that she was right, but I was not going to just wait from afar, either.

I felt incredibly torn: to be living in this co-actualizing of my heart’s greatest dream and my heart’s greatest fear both at once.

With the help of my aforesaid therapist, Bev, I worked out a plan of action, and presented it to the production team to see if they would agree to make it a part of my contract’s terms. I explained the situation, and said that I’d need an understudy in case of an emergency. I also said that I would need to be sure that the days off of each week of the contract were to remain days off — that I would not be required to do additional shows or PR on those days — as I would be flying down to Texas each week and would not be available. Miraculously, they agreed to all of my terms.

I remember vividly the day I took off in my then-boyfriend’s Pathfinder to make the drive that would take me across many states. I was equal parts scared, lonely, excited and wondering. Was I doing the right thing? Was I making a horrible mistake?

By the time I got just outside of the city where I would be living and acting for the next three and a half months, I was filled with that same dread in my gut. As I was calling Bev to get help, a call came in from my Dad that my Mom had taken a turn for the worse. I think I even called the hospice nurse to try to get a handle on what was going on. It was a horrible evening. She gave me the impression that it would be days. I was ready to give my notice and get on the next flight, but Bev suggested I check in, get some sleep and revisit the decision in the morning.

The next day, I had a call from Mom saying that she was much better. The crisis had passed. She assured me that she was fine and that I should stay on. I would be seeing her in 5 days…So I uncertainly decided to stay…and take it a day at a time.

So began what was to be a life-changing experience…some incredible gifts and some deep sorrows came out of that time…as often happens with the losses of life…

Part 2 to follow.