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 2

Bird plane

As Mother’s Day approaches, I cannot help but think back to this time 9 years ago. I was in Illinois, doing a musical, finally living my dream.

I was also living a nightmare.

My mother was dying.

I was flying back each week on my off days to Texas to spend precious hours with her. This was not an uncomplicated process. The city I was in was fairly small. Though it had what they called an “International” airport (Hah!), I had to fly to Atlanta to get a connecting flight that would take me to Houston.

I’d fly out on the earliest possible flight on Monday morning, get to Houston around 12:30 PM or so, grab my carry-on, race off the plane and out of the terminal, catch the shuttle to get to the rental car place, get a rental car and drive the 40 minutes across town to my parents’ house. I could usually be in front of my Mom by 3 PM. I’d leave the earliest flight possible the next morning and do the same in reverse to get back just in time to go to the theatre for our first show of the week on Tuesday night. It was a lot of travel, but God, was it worth it.

Though my spirit and body was being fueled by every possible ounce of hope my heart could drum up, I still knew on some level that I had a limited amount of time left with my Mom. After all, she had lung cancer (this after having survived colon cancer) and had been through two rounds of radiation and two rounds of chemo only to be told that there was nothing else to be done. (Such is the way with that bastard, cancer.)

So any delay or problem with either flight heading to Houston was an agonizing torment.


There were more than a few times there were issues on those crucial flights to Houston. I recall most particularly one flight where the Atlanta-Houston flight was delayed. Then, after finally boarding, we were told that there was some issue with the plane – we had to get off again and await another. Oh, the rage and the desperation I felt!

I marched off that plane, demanding answers from Customer Service, operating in my Survival Mode – a steely cold exterior that surrounds a high-level swirling hysterical interior:

I had to get to Houston ASAP. What was the issue? How could they do this? What were they going to do to solve the problem any faster? What was their f’ing problem?

I don’t remember the reason they gave. They were not especially receptive, and in retrospect I understand why. My Survival Mode comes off as bitchy hysteria. I get it now. But then, it felt as if the whole world was just simply cruel.

After walking away in a mix of shocked shame and guilt at having gone into bitch mode publicly (shame and guilt at such out loud behavior being the response genetically engineered by my “good girl” Southern and Protestant-ly tinged upbringing), I burst into silent, hot-red fury tears.

I did eventually get to Houston that day. But I still want back those two or so hours that Air Trans cheated my Mom and me out of.

If there were issues on either flight heading back to Illinois, that was a different kind of hell. When you are a recovering perfectionist such as I, and a Betty-By-The-Book type of personality, it is simply not an option to not do a show.


Once, leaving Houston, I got to the airport to find that the weather in Atlanta was totally screwed up. No flights in or out there. I ended up buying a ticket on Delta leaving out of another Houston airport. I cried in silent outrage in a taxi to the other airport, flew to Chicago, rented a car and drove at unlawful speeds the hour and half drive back to the city to get to the theatre by call. I made it, too.

Hell hath no fury like a daughter grieved.


Part 3 to come.