My Mother rode the bus from her home near Tupelo, Miss., to visit relatives in Memphis a few years ago. When my 5-foot-3-inch, gray-haired little tornado arrived, no one was there to pick her up. The neighborhood near the bus station had fallen on hard times, and a few unsavory characters lurked nearby. Mothers eyes fell upon a young girl of about 12 or 13 sitting across the station alone. Her eyes darted to and fro. She looked scared, and she had runaway written in the strain of her young face.
A stereotypical pimp suddenly appeared and began to circle the girl like a vulture. They trolled such places for runaways who were desperate and vulnerable, fresh recruits for the mean streets of the inner city. The 6-foot-4 predator began to talk to the girl. Are you hungry baby? Ill feed you. Do you need a place to stay tonight? Ill put you up at my place. And, of course, the rest of the story is all too familiar. The girl would be out on the streets, and likely dead by her 20s from street violence, drug overdose or AIDS.
My petite Mom looked around and everyones eyes were averted, looking at the floor. No one wanted to get involved, the curse of our times. Mother stood up, marched defiantly to the girl, forced herself between the towering pimp and the scared little rabbit, and said, Cmon honey, you are going to sit with me! Then she gave the pimp The Look. It was the look my brother and I avoided like the plague growing up. It was like looking down Dirty Harrys .44 magnum and hearing him say, Go ahead, make my day! He withered under her glare, and Mother robbed him of his prey. She took the young girl with her, and they talked. Mother bought her a bus ticket home to Louisiana.
That little girl will never know who that angel was who came into her life and saved her. There were no crowds applauding, no plaques to be given out. Mother was alone with her conscience and her God, and displayed what real character is all about: doing the right thing when no one is watching.
On Mothers Day as I came home, I thought of that day in Memphis and many others like it where Mother modeled the code she lived by. Mother had fallen on Christmas Eve while going to work at age 84. She remained a personal care giver for the elderly and the terminally ill, and would still today had her own strong body not finally betrayed her unbreakable spirit and will. She suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and we spent Christmas and New Years in the hospital trying to relieve the damage to her precious hard head we credited with her survival.
She began to recover from her fall and was determined to show her mettle, the stuff that strong women of her generation seemed to have in abundance. She called just before Mothers Day and said something was wrong, and we were soon to find out why she really fell, and what they missed at Christmas.
Mother and I went to the doctors prepared. We arrived with a detailed list of symptoms and pertinent data to enable him to see this patient, not as an old lady to be dismissed with the usual prescription for painkillers, but a person suffering from a serious ailment.
The young doctor was not jaded and was very aggressive, and after some x-rays, he told us that he thought Mothers cancer had returned. It had been 16 years since her mastectomy, but he felt that was it was cancer based on the pictures. Something about that word, cancer, that implies something evil and invasive, not like a failing heart or liver, but something dark and sinister.
The tests confirmed the worst: stage 4, inoperable. We made the rounds of the specialists, drawing fluid from her chest, listening to the pros and cons, and finally enough was enough and we opted for the hospice program. I agreed to stay with Mother as her primary care-giver, and it was the most difficult, trying thing I have ever done. The time with her was also a gift from God.
I would like to say that Mother imparted great wisdom and insights to me, but she had already done that through her many examples of courage and character like the time in Memphis. The 11 weeks I spent with her did yield precious memories of days gone by, people gone but not forgotten, a sense of who the people I came from really were and priceless moments saying nothing more than that peach tasted delicious, or that back rub was wonderful, and I love you, son.
Just before the end, it seemed the animals of the forests began to gather round her house on the edge of her ancient forest. The birds she fed came in an abundance of colors, songbirds sang at our windows and peered in at the woman who cared for them. Rabbits munched at her daylilies at our front door and refused to run away when approached. Even a pair of elusive fox came up at dusk as the Whippoorwills call echoed through the hollows of Temple Grove.
Mother looked at me, and said, Son, did you hear the birds singing? Yes, I do, I answered. No, she said, as she clutched her Bible, I mean the one who answered me during my prayers? Not long after that, Mother was gone, her pain relieved, and with a look on her face that suggested she knew something that we did not, but one day would.
(Merle Temple is an Evans resident.)
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