Mary was in many ways the antithesis of me. She spent most of her life in a factory job, living less than 15 miles from the spot where she was born. She raised three boys. She stayed with a husband who was abusive. She had a death grip on her faith and her church world and yet when faced with death, she questioned what she was actually holding on to.
I have created an identity heavily dependent on what I do and that profession has taken me across the U.S. and numerous countries. No children. And I left a good man who simply wasn't able to give me what I wanted. (Much more complicated than that and yet that is still truth.) My faith has always been a roller coaster ride and yet when this favorite aunt asked me what was next for her -- as she lay dying in her bedroom this summer on my final visit with her -- I said with some unnatural assurance that she was in store for something better.
Mary died while I was out of the country. Cancer finally accomplished the task it had started a couple of years before. I knew the day was coming and that I wouldn't be here for the formal celebration of her life so I made sure I had few moments with her in the final days.
"I love you, Mary."
She opens her eyes and speaks directly to me . . . something she hadn't done in the half hour I'd been in the room.
"I love you too. I always have."
"You do what you need to do, Mary, ok?"
"Do you think I'll see my children? Do you think it will be ok?" fear was evident in almost every syllable.
I grinned, "I think you're going to see more of them than you want! But, yes, it will be ok."
"I don't know."
"I don't know much either. But I know it will be better. It's ok to do what you have to do."
And in that moment, I did know it would be better. Better than beeps and smells and pumps and intrusions by doctoring personnel with good intentions. Better than fretting over who had forgotten who, what had caused the riff here or there, was this or that "good enough."
Mary was a practical woman with a contagious laugh. She didn't understand all the changes in her world and rarely liked them yet she kept going, anticipating "better" even when evidence had proved otherwise for years.
One of my last encounters with her in semi-health was over a year ago. I took my best friend to Tennessee and a family reunion. She was delighted with how charming he was, offering up the ultimate compliment from a southern woman, "He's the cutest thang." And only once did she ask if we could "convert" him.
"No, Mary, he's gay. It's part of what makes him who he is."
"Just checkin'. 'Cause you know, I just want you to be happy," she replied still clutching to the idea that happiness rested in a man's hands.
"I know, Mary. And you need to know, I am."
She was my hero, not because I agreed with the choices she made, the beliefs she held to, or the life she had. She was my hero because she simply was who she was.
I shared a favorite Langston Hughes poem with my mother and Mary once. Mary loved it, calling it "hers."
Here it is with hopes and prayers that Mary is indeed in a better place.
Mother to Son
by Langston Hughes
Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards all torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor --
But all the time
I'se been a-climin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin, in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps'
Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now --
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still cimbin'
And Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.