My Mother. My Heart.
This really ought to run on Sunday, the 16th, for reasons that will be obvious. We don't publish on Sundays, so I'm giving it to you two days early. A version of this appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on September 16, 2015.
I can remember exactly where I was on September 16, 1998. I remember what I was wearing, the cup of 7-Eleven coffee that went cold on the tray table and the way the morning sun sifted through the dingy window.
Shortly after dawn, I was in a hospital bed in Hamilton, N.J., cradling the snowy head of the woman who taught me how to ride a bike, roller skate and incinerate ants with a magnifying glass.
If you had peeked into her room, you would have seen a frail, sick woman. That isn't what I saw.
I saw a skinny brunette with wild curly hair, great legs and big smile. A woman who read poetry to me at night, who played the soundtrack to "Man of La Mancha" so often that she wore out the vinyl, who danced with me and my brother whenever "American Bandstand" was on TV.
I saw the 30-something woman who taught me to jump rope, do handstands and bathe a cat.
I saw a young mother who walked to work every day and ignored the snickering in a small town full of stay-at-home moms. I saw a woman who never seemed to sleep. A woman who sewed most of my clothes and all of my Halloween costumes between loads of laundry after midnight.
I've written about my mother many times. Forgive me if you've heard some of this before.
She was a bank teller, my Brownie Troop leader and an amateur artist. She was a terrible cook, a teetotaler - until she had her first swig of Bailey's Irish Cream - and the family handyman.
She hated doctors and loved games. She did not believe in letting kids win at checkers, Monopoly or pinochle. Trust me.
She was a voracious, indiscriminate reader. One day, she'd read Jane Austen. The next, Jacqueline Susann.
She was a high school dropout and during a prolonged period of stunning ignorance, I believed I was smarter than she was.
She loved me anyway.
She minded her own business, and she picked her battles with the skill of a seasoned field marshal.
She didn't become apoplectic when I announced that I was quitting my job at a big-city newspaper and moving to Ireland to work as a freelance journalist. Surely she thought I'd lost my mind, but she never said a word.
She was not a cry-er. Yet she wept when our Irish setter died, when they towed away her ancient Chrysler convertible, when I told her she was going to be a grandmother and when my father dropped dead of a heart attack just a few months before she found herself in that no-way-out hospital room.
On Sept. 16, 1998, I learned that even a bright orange "Do Not Resuscitate" bracelet is not enough to keep well-meaning medical staff from barging in with defibrillators when alarms sound at the nurses' station.
It was left to me to wave them off, knowing that was what she wanted.
It was most certainly not what I wanted.
When they left, I slipped into bed with her. I told her she'd been a fabulous mom. I thanked her for all the laughs, the practical jokes, the tough love. I forgave her for those back-to-school home perms that made me look like I had a tumbleweed on my head in class pictures.
I told her I was sorry I'd been such an ungrateful jerk so much of the time.
I promised I'd never forget her. Readers of this space know I've kept that vow.
It's taken me 20 years to realize that being able to hold the woman who gave you life as she is leaving hers is a breathtaking gift.
Which is appropriate. Because that memorable day in September also happens to be my birthday.