Her Character Is Clear

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Pop died in 2002, at the (now considered young) age of 76. He defied all the odds for reaching that age.... a heavy smoker for 40+ years.... an excessive drinker (but 20 years sober when he passed)....a Type-A, high stress, low tolerance personality... blocked arteries... He had it all.

No surprise - Pop had a massive heart attack. He was on the jet way in Hong Kong, running from one flight to the next because he’d left his jacket on plane #1 and refused to let it go. (This particular piece of the story is important because the jacket was the upper half of a “leisure suit” I’d given him for Christmas in 1980. He loved that thing, despite having never worn the bottom piece once.)

When I think of Pop, I picture a late middle aged man, alternating somewhere between 55 and 72. He was never (and never will be) an “old man” in my mind. I still see him fishing, mowing, clipping, driving, barbequing.... a pretty active guy. I can picture him doing something in virtually every room, of virtually every house we ever lived in. Overall, a tip-top memory of my father.

But 76 was almost 15 years ago, and his widow (yes, my mother...) is now 91. A lot changes in a person from 76 to 91 - physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. A huge difference. And, Mom lives Right.Next.Door. So I see her daily... I help her daily... She lives right next door because I see and help her daily.

Part of Mom’s daily routine involves “clearing out papers,” many of which are actually photos. Although the two of us are both present in many of these pictures, I rarely remember the captured experience, or the particular moment it was taken. After I examine my younger self (closely...), I scan to Mom, and sometimes, I barely recognize her, physically or personably. 

Today, Mom is about 125 lbs and maybe 5’3”. Back in the day, she was considerably... larger, and decidedly taller (5’7” in bare feet). Her hair was dark, and most pictures show her with a cigarette in hand (like everyone else at the time). Mom is one of those women who’s gotten more beautiful with age... Folks tell her so all the time. But not in a youthful way... no plastic surgery or Botox for her. She’s earned every line she has, and they look particularly good on her.

There are multiple milestones and markers that keep me cognizant of Mom’s aging. Last year, we threw her a huge 90th birthday bash, hosting all her friends and family. Last month, we went to a funeral home to plan her final gala (an event to be remembered). On a more daily basis, I’m reminded of Mom’s age at the doctors’ offices, where once or twice a week, the front desk queries “Date of birth?” (“6/25/26”, I respond). At Target, perfect strangers will see Mom in her electric cart, smiling, and nodding at them, and will be compelled, “if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?” And Mom responds with pride – “I’m in my 92nd year” (she likes to pick up that extra ½ year there...). In short, I am acutely aware of Mom’s physical age.

But, how will I remember my mother? What vision will come to mind after she’s gone?

Ultimately, I don’t believe my post-Mom memory will be the young 55-72 version. And if she lives to be 100+ (entirely possible), she’ll certainly look old when she dies, but her face is not what I’ll remember most.

More likely, I’ll recall the person she became in the last 15 (25?) years of her life... the post-Pop version...The woman who lived her life on her own terms, enviably stress free... who was sunny to a fault... who saw the good in everyone (even when they deserved to be seen for their very worst)...who gave the “benefit of the doubt” to all people and institutions, (including Publishers Clearing House)... who asked every night “are you sure you have enough?” when I brought dinner... who smiled at each and every stranger she ever encountered - and took a genuine interest in anything they had to say... who gave charitably to every seeker in the world... who clipped articles on behalf of others who “might have missed them”... who saved magazines and free calendars to pass on to less fortunate friends... who cried when the evening news recounted hurricane casualties (or Trump’s gaffes)... who offered to sleep on the couch when out of town guests visited (“I’ll be very comfortable”)...

I’ll remember the things that spoke to Mom’s character, more than her appearance or her daily activities... the things that exemplify “aging gracefully.” The last 15+ years of my mother’s life will have had a greater impact and influence on me, than did the 44 years before that. At 91, Mom continues to be a role model on how to live a life well-lived. In the end, it won’t have mattered what she looked like at all... My vision of Mom will be a complete picture.

 

Emily Gaffney