Helen Clara Still Chappell (Feb. 19, 1924 – Nov. 10, 2012)
[I wrote this tribute on the occasion of my Mama’s death 7 years ago this week. I thought about rewriting it, but I’ll let it stand as is. It still speaks to the powerful and lasting influence of a Mother.]
The loss of a parent, the second parent especially, has a strong sense of finality about it. It is the passing of a generation in the family tree. Suddenly, there is no one higher up in the rank and file to whom you can point and say, “Go ask her. Mama knows all the old stories. If anyone remembers, she’ll remember.”
You turn around and realize that you and your sister and your first cousins are it, now; the beginning of the new old generation in the family.
Although, I suppose it depends on how you look at it, Mama’s memory has been gone for a long time. The immediate memory faded away about five years ago. The more recent memories that came to her clearly and with meaning were those from the 1930s. She talked mostly of her sister, Hazel. What was in actuality a memory from a time past, became again to her a reality in her mind. She and Hazel endured a pretty tough childhood under the strict hands of the Grandmother who raised them. Hazel once again became her closest companion.
Even years ago, Mama always laughed at the fact that she never learned to swim. She was afraid of water her whole life. And she always said it was because of the rule laid down to her as a little girl. Grandmother said that she could not go near the water until she learned how to swim. Mama would point out the obvious.
“How’d she expect me and Hazel to learn to swim if we couldn’t get in the water?”
A lot of things from that period of her life seemed impossible to endure.
I’ll never forget the feeling that came over me when I finally had to submit to the reality that Mama did not remember any of us any longer. I could speak to her but there was no connection. I could try to get her to remember, but got nothing in return.
What I found myself wanting to tell her in these last few months is that I have not forgotten. My memories are clear about what kind of mother she was to me.
She wasn’t perfect. I’ve seen her angry. I’ve seen her in tears. But she was always remarkable to me. She cooked breakfast every day of the week, even if I did choose to eat Captain Crunch on occasion. She labored faithfully at the chores of the household. She canned enough jelly, pickles, tomatoes, and green beans to feed an army. What I would give for a jar of her pickled peaches right now. She sewed at her machine for hours on end; making clothes, drapes, pillows and suits for countless numbers of friends and neighbors.
Mama was involved in every part of my life. She yelled at Little League ball games. She forced me to take piano lessons; which, by the way, she was right . . . I do regret giving up on piano. She sat on my bedside and listened to me talk about faith and life. She encouraged me to do whatever I chose to do. She embraced my wife as her daughter and my kids with all the love she knew how to give.
It was Abe Lincoln who said, “No man is poor who has a godly mother.” And if that’s true, then I am among the richest of men.
The awful thing about dementia is that it confuses the memory so much. It took away the ability for me to connect my memories with hers. It cut short the memory of the person living in her body. It’s hard to understand how the mind could forget the 67 years she was married to my Dad. How could she forget a son or daughter that she raised and disciplined and loved? Doctors cannot explain it. No one can see into the mind to describe it.
But in the midst of all the confusion, there came this one moment of clarity.
After endless months of nonsensical conversations with her, Mama had one more brief moment near the end. My daughters came to sit with her on the Saturday before she died. Her eyes were open but her gaze was elsewhere. Her words were lost and indiscernible.
Then, in a fleeting moment; in a God-given struggle to be heard one last time; she reached out and touched Laura’s arm. She spoke as clearly as you and I could say it:
“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to go today.”
And then the confusion swept back over her. She turned back inside herself. The moment was gone.
What a great memory for her to give to us as the curtain closed on her life. I realize that I could be romanticizing her memory a bit. But I have to believe that deep down she was still there. Behind the far way gaze in her eyes; behind all the memories she had lost; she still had one last thing she needed us to know. And it was the most important.
She was ready to go on to be with the Lord. She was done with her struggle. And we were ready to let her go. That memory is the one that counts.