Mother’s Day. Flowers. Breakfast in bed. Lunch out. Hallmark. Thanks. Honor. Appreciation. Warm memories and lots of love. And it should be. But “Mother’s Day” isn’t a happy occasion for everyone. For some, “Mother’s Day” is bittersweet. An emotional mine field. The Race is part of my Mother’s Day story.
“You don’t have to get up this early” she smiled as I stumbled out of my bedroom. “I can drive myself. You go back to sleep.”
It was four o’clock in the morning. Saturday morning. The night before Mom casually asked if anyone wanted to join her at her marathon run on San Diego’s Coronado Island. Her 6:00 a.m. run. No takers. Until I decided to surprise her with my groggy appearance and volunteer my chauffeur services. “Mom’ll get a kick out of that” I said to myself. She did.
It was still dark as we backed out of the driveway and nosed the car onto the west bound lanes of Interstate 8. Our Dodge Aspen quickly devoured the miles between our El Cajon home in East San Diego and the coastal community of Coronado.
Mom and I chatted as the sun crept over the horizon, sharing a comfortable conversation that glided easily from one topic to the next. We talked about my plans to transfer to Biola University the next fall, her work as a secondary education supervisor at San Diego State University. My younger brother’s trumpet lessons. My older brother’s track meets. My kid sister’s gymnastics. Dad’s golf game. It all seemed so natural. So permanent.
Traffic was light and we made good time, crossing the cobalt blue girders of an all-but-deserted Coronado Bay Bridge shortly after five in the morning. We had plenty of time to find a parking spot and get Mom warmed up for the competition. Mom pre-registered for the marathon weeks ahead of time to avoid the long lines at the Walk On registration table. She was like that. Organized, thorough, efficient. Able to plan far ahead.
Mom finished her final stretches and headed to the starting line, chipper and cheerful. Yawning, I gave her a hug. “Good luck, Mom. See ya at the Finish Line.”
Mom flashed one of her effervescent smiles and waved. “Here we go, honey,” she beamed, “see ya later!”
The starter’s gun barked and Peggy Naas was off, her red hair blowing in the crisp morning breeze. I ambled back to the car to snooze while she churned out 26.3 miles on foot.
I don’t know why I decided to drag myself out of bed and join Mom that day. Maybe I wanted to repay a small fraction of the unconditional support she had always given me. Maybe I wanted to be there for her, like she was for me. In my corner, cheering me on. Maybe I just wanted some time alone with Mom. If I had known how short our remaining time together would be, I would’ve wanted more.
It was Easter, a few years later. I graduated from college, married, and settled in the Los Angeles suburbs. My younger brother was in college in Florida. My older brother was working for a local aerospace firm. My kid sister was completing her senior year of high school. That April weekend was the first time my family had been together in almost a year.
Mom met us at the door when my husband and I arrived, glowing with the effervescent smile that was her trademark. Chris and I were surprised to find her leaning on a walker. “From my surgery,” she explained, “the doctor suggested I use it until I get my strength back.”
We had no idea. She wasn’t ill or ailing. The doc pronounced her “healthy as a horse, with the heart and lungs of a 30 year-old” at her last annual check-up. “All that running,” he winked, “exercise keeps you young!”
Not wanting to worry us, Mom and Dad decided not to tell us about her surgery a few weeks previously—or its cause—until it was finished and she came home from the hospital. I was startled, a little annoyed.
“We didn’t tell Kurt either” Mom said, referring to my younger brother. “He had final exams and didn’t need anything else on his mind while trying to cram.” Typically Mom, she reasoned that there was “no sense” worrying her kids with some “minor surgery” when “you couldn’t do anything about it” anyway. “Besides,” she beamed, “I feel great!”
Well. She may have felt—and looked—like a million bucks, but I had some questions. “Uh, Mom, you wanna run that part about the `minor surgery’ by me again?”
Mom patiently explained that she had awakened one morning without any feeling in her legs. Minutes later, she was paralyzed from the waist down, unable to move. Neurological and other tests revealed a tumor on or in her spinal column. A 90% blockage, the tumor obstructed the free flow of spinal fluid, hence the sudden paralysis.
“We caught it just in time” the specialist said. “A 100% blockage would’ve meant total—and irreversible—paralysis.” Scalpels removed the bulk of the tumor, but since spinal surgery is considered extremely delicate and dangerous, the surgeon wasn’t chancing total removal. Radiation treatments were ordered to eliminate what the knife had missed.
Hearing “tumor” and “radiation,” my jaw hit the floor. Still smiling pleasantly, Mom quickly assured me that the biopsied tumor was pronounced “benign.” Doctors issued a 90% chance of complete recovery, with no serious side effects. We believed them. We believed her. So we shoved the precarious past aside and enjoyed our Easter weekend as if it was our last. It was April 1984.
When the phone call came from Dad in early June, I knew I was in for a shock. He choked out the news in between sobs.
A neighbor arrived that morning to stay with Mom after everyone else left and Dad departed for work. Noticing Mom’s labored breathing, Miriam phoned Dad at work and then called the paramedics. They arrived within minutes and had Mom prepped for transport to the hospital when Dad arrived, tearing home with the speed of panic. Mom was gone before the ambulance left the driveway.
She was 54.
Oddly enough, her death wasn’t related to the tumor. It was caused by a pulmonary embolism resulting in cardiac arrest.
Her sudden, unexpected death threw our lives into emotional chaos, plunging us into the rabid smelting fires of bereavement. It was a grinding, wrenching process. A season of winter. Strained smiles, sleepless nights. Groping for answers that didn’t come.
One of my most vivid recollections during this time was how loss can be helped or hindered by the Pavlovian responses I rendered as did some family and friends. While my husband and I spent that first Mom-less week in El Cajon, I had the oddest sensation of deja vu. Buried in the newspaper or pouring myself some milk, I would look at the clock and think, “Where’s Mom? Haven’t seen her all morning.” I’d scan kitchen and living room aimlessly, mind refusing to accept the obvious.
“Oh yeah,” I rationalized, “Mom’s out for a run. She’ll be back by lunch.” I slumped into our brown leather recliner and awaited her return. My mind would sometimes take 15 or 20 minutes to catch up with reality. Sleep and song offered sole relief to the omnipresent ache of my waking hours.
After the June memorial service, my husband and I returned to Los Angeles and attempted to resume “ordinary” life. But what did “ordinary” mean, minus Mom?
More than a year later, I half-heartedly opened my Bible to the Book of Job. “I have taken away,” He whispered from Job 1:21, “now see what I will give.”
I’d almost forgotten. “One moment, please” the lab technician said while she tracked down the results from my pregnancy test. We put off starting our family until my husband finished law school, a five-year endeavor. I nervously awaited the test results.
“Congratulations,” the tech said, “you’re pregnant!” I thanked her for the news and hung up the receiver. I glanced at my wall calendar, seeing it for the first time: June 7, 1990. It all came flooding back. The positive test results arrived six years after Mom left us, to the day.
“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away,” Job echoed, “blessed be the name of the Lord.” Seven months later the obstetrician’s first words were, “It’s a boy!” followed by, “He has red hair!” Just like Mom.
We were expecting our second child a year later. My pregnancy was confirmed and we were given an October 1 due date. Then I approached the Throne of Grace with a special request. “Lord,” I began, “our times are in Your hands. It would mean so much to me if You would see to it that this baby is born on Mom’s birthday.”
I went into labor on October 11. Our second son was born the evening of October 12, which would’ve been Grandma Naas’s 62nd birthday.
I still miss Mom, especially when my boys see her photo and ask, “Who dat?” My eyes sometimes mist and my voice may catch as I explain that the slender, red-haired lady in the picture is “Mommy’s Mommy, your Grandma Peggy.”
Frozen in time, she smiles that effervescent smile from behind a photo frame. My boys would’ve loved her. And she them. But she finished her course before they were born; introductions must wait.
I sometimes see her in my mind’s eye, red hair drifting in the breeze, waiting for me on the other side. Smiling, cheering me on. Rooting for me as I run my race. “See ya later!” Mom used to say, and from our separate sides of the tape we both look toward the Finish Line.