My Sick Mom’s Pearls

My poor mother. She had a multitude of children. We were what they used to call a “good Catholic family.” I was one of the younger kids.

On the frequent occasions we refused to listen to her instructions or follow her advice, deep frustration would goad her to drop this special pearl of wisdom: “Well, then you can just DIE DUMB!”

Of course we laughed helplessly, even if we still refused to give in.

What steals my breath as I write this is the self-fulfilling prophecy. My mom had died dumb after refusing to treat her mental illness. Instead she’d chosen to indulge several addictions.

As she lay dying from nicotine damage surrounded by several of her children, I offered in a wobbly voice, “Do you want us to pray with you?” She looked uncomfortable with our focused attention but agreed.

As we said the Hail Mary, I was reminded of our family’s old custom of reciting the rosary after supper. Mom made sure we were on our knees in the darkened living room, properly respectful. I’m told I once disrupted the reverence with a cross-eyed look that triggered a domino-effect of siblings toppling over in laughter. Only my extreme youth had saved me from dire punishment.

Beside her deathbed, after we finished the prayer I dared to ask, “How do you feel?”

She gave an impatient click of her tongue and threw up her arms. “I feel dumb!”

We all laughed helplessly, and then we went on with the business of helping her die with grace.

I’m happy to say her blunt humor was passed on, sprinkled here and there among the generations. It has its uses.

During a tense restaurant dinner with relatives, I noticed the utensils matched ours at home. I tried to lighten the atmosphere by lifting one and commenting, “This looks familiar.”

A young relation looked at me as if I weren’t put together quite right. “It’s a FORK.”

We all laughed helplessly.

So thanks, Mom. You were funny even when you didn’t mean to be, and if your mental illness was carried forward, so was your blunt honesty.

Love you.