It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years today since my mother died. In some ways, it seems like just the other day; in other ways, it seems like it was a lot more than 10 years. This photo of my sisters and brother with Mama in her nursing home room was made on Dec. 25, 1997, just a few weeks before she died. Since my sister mentioned to me on Thursday that this anniversary day was coming up, I've been thinking about that day on Jan. 20, 1998.
Not long after crossing the state line from Georgia into Alabama, a handsome young man appeared before me, right outside my front windshield. I knew he wasn’t really there; he was just a figment of my imagination. Had I been driving that long? It had only been a couple of hours since I left my home in Macon, and I still had a couple of hours of driving left. I blinked a couple of times to focus, trying not to get too distracted from the highway I was negotiating at 80 mph. But sure enough, there was my daddy, David Self, his arms outstretched, grinning from ear to ear, eyes twinkling. He was thin like I remembered him when I was just a tyke. Gone were the bags under his eyes and the slightly protruding abdomen. No longer was there any gray to be found on his full head of hair.
Out of the clouds on the left side of my view, a beautiful young woman came running toward him, her long wavy dark hair flowing all around her. He wrapped his arms around her.
“Oh, Huck, you are so beautiful,” he whispered softly in her ear as they embraced. “Oh, David, you too,” she whispered back, snuggling comfortably into his strong arms. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“Come on, I have a lot to show you,” he said, excitement building in his voice. He was twirling her around as if in a dance. She hesitated. “But what about the children,” she asked.” In a reassuring yet insistent voice, he said. “Don’t worry, they’ll be fine. Janie will be there soon; they have each other. They’ll be fine.”
Then they disappeared, dancing off into the puffy clouds. I thought to myself that I needed to remember all the details of this incredible image so I could describe it to Mama and my sisters and brother when I reached Tuscaloosa. They’d get a big kick out of it.
Although I couldn’t literally take notes as I continued driving, I began mulling over all the details in my mind, trying to remember the exact words and what they looked like. Just moments before they appeared before my eyes, I had gotten disgusted with trying to find something interesting to listen to on the radio. Forget the radio; I’ll just think about something else to occupy myself on the long drive. As I was sorting through my brain, figuring out what I wanted to think about, Daddy appeared. Remembering as much about that as I could, going over and over the image, the ringing car phone jarred me.
“Janie, pull over a minute. I want to talk to you about your mama.” Why was John, a friend of my sister’s, calling me? How did he get my number and how did he know I was in the car? That was the only time I ever used this old-fashioned bag phone. I had yet to join the modern world of the smaller, hand-held cell phones. Waiting for me to stop the car, he asked where I was and how the trip was going. I wondered why he cared. By the time I pulled off Interstate 20 onto the shoulder a few miles west of the Oxford/Anniston exit, it hit me. Oh my god, my mama was gone.
Shortly before I left Macon a couple of hours earlier, I told my sister Frances, who was in the hospital room with Mama, to call me if anything changed. I was on my way to help her hold a bedside vigil until Mama returned to consciousness. She had been unresponsive for nearly 30 hours. But she wasn’t supposed to die. Since her heart attack exactly six months earlier and stroke a few days later, we had almost lost her several times. Despite the scares, her strong will to live always kicked in (with a lot of help from activated prayer chains) and she would come back from those near-death experiences stronger and more determined than ever to get her life back.
Not this time. Her stubbornness was depleted.
I listened to John describe the last few minutes that he and Frances held Mama’s hands from each side of the bed, reciting the 23rd Psalm – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil..." - and whispered comforting words to her. I thought my own heart would stop. He told how her brother Hubert watched the heart monitor over her bed show the ever-increasing space between her heartbeats, until there was nothing but silence. I could hardly breathe. “She quietly slipped away at 3:48,” John said. I glanced at the clock on the dash. That was the exact time I was watching my parents embrace. I smiled through my tears, and said a quiet “thank you” to my parents for that gift.
With no idea how I was going to do it, I quickly got back on the road as soon as John hung up. I still had more than 100 miles to go and wanted to see Mama before the hospital staff removed her body. Frances promised to do what she could to keep Mama there, but was concerned about me driving. She didn’t have to worry.
As if Mama were painting a brilliant canvas for all the world to see, I drove into the most magnificent sunset I’ve ever seen. And it stayed with me the entire trip, getting more dazzling every time I crested a hill. There were even a few times I thought I saw Mama freely dancing through the clouds, splashing ever more gorgeous colors onto the canvas.
I later discovered that a few days earlier, just hours before Mama was transported for her last time from the nursing home where she was recovering to the same hospital where I was born nearly 52 years earlier, she told my sister Carol that she wanted to dance. At that time, we still had hopes that she was getting better. She getting a little bit of movement in her left hand, which had been paralyzed since her stroke, and it was just a matter of time before she was going to come home. That Saturday morning, Hubert and Carol were in her room teasing her, joking and playing music. She had a lot of different kind of music in her room, and Carol had put on some soft soothing music. Mama said she didn’t want to hear that. She wanted to hear Rosemary Clooney’s “You Make Me Feel So Young.” As the song played, Carol danced around the room being silly. Our brother Jim, who really is a dancer by profession, had spent many hours entertaining Mama in that room with his dances. And she often said she wanted to do that – dance. She surprised Carol that morning suddenly bursting out “I want to do that!”
Carol picked up her limp arm and Mama started moving her good hand to the music. Of course, she was too weak to actually get of the bed and make any movements. But she was dancing with her hand. Her spirits were high – she seemed so free and carefree and wanting to just dance and play. When Carol came back a few hours later, Mama had taken a turn for the worse and announced that she was dying – first time she had said that in the months she had been bed-bound and despite the many crises and close calls she had survived.
She slipped into a deep coma from the morphine that was given to her to relieve the pains she was having in her chest and never woke up. Jim had called me that Tuesday morning and said she had not come out from under the morphine, yet, although it was well past time for her to come around. I was driving over from Macon to help keep her bedside vigil until she woke up, which we were sure she would be doing any minute.
But instead of waking up, she slipped away from us that afternoon and went off dancing with Daddy in the clouds, leaving her broken body behind for good. She finally got her wish to dance one more time. It was just like the first time she ever laid eyes on the man who would become her husband of 42 years and the father of their four children. I could just imagine her delight to once again be free to do as she pleased.
Still to this day, I often imagine them running through the clouds, dancing and laughing together. Just being free. It's a great image and helps me get past the sad times when I miss both my parents.