A Loss of Words & Words of Loss

It has been a brutal couple of weeks, and I’ve been radio silent on social media as I staggered through it.

On May 19th, in a parking lot in Dallas, Texas, where I was accompanying my daughter to a K-Pop concert, I got a call from my mom and dad. They needed help. I knew this was a big deal because they aren’t the type to readily ask.

“Can you come home?” they asked, and I immediately agreed.

My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in the spring, though she certainly had been fighting it for months before. She was Stage 3, and my sense was that it was borderline Stage 4. It wasn’t good, this I know for sure. She engaged in aggressive treatment, but her body was weak.

When I talked to her from the parking lot. I told her I’d be there in a couple days and told her I loved her.

“Love you too, darlin’,” she said with a fragile voice.

By the time I got to my hometown in Salem, Missouri, she had been admitted to the hospital. She was having a hard time breathing. I watched for three painful days as she instinctually fought for her life. Oxygen was hard to come by. A combination of COPD, lung cancer, and radiation treatments made her lungs brittle and incapable of functioning properly. Her heart weakened. Her back was in immense pain.

By Saturday night, May 25th, she had died.

There are gifts in any loss. Mom made her wishes plain, taking the guesswork and family squabbles out of both her death and the planning for her celebration of life. Another gift we got was the ability to see her and talk to her one last time.

On Thursday night May 23rd she woke up and was as aware and coherent as she had been all week (save for when she first arrived in the hospital and answered a Final Jeopardy question correct, despite her debilitating pain). Alone with her that evening, I got twenty or thirty minutes to talk with her. I asked her if she was scared to die. She answered no. I asked if she was tired of fighting. She said yes.

She said she was thinking of my dad, and us six kids, and her fifteen grandkids and eighteen great-grandkids. She wanted to see more graduations and weddings and make it to fifty years married. But she had lived a long, meaningful life.

My mom did live an incredible existence, one I’ve written about before. Most of her life she spent thinking of others, so it was no shocker that that night she told me she was thinking about others and not herself.

I told my mom that I loved her, that she was strong and beautiful and the best mom in the universe. I told her I’d talked to tons of people who have wedges between themselves and their mothers, and I just couldn’t relate. I didn’t understand. My mom was the absolute best. Not perfect as a person, I understand that, but quite exquisite in her role as a mother. We had a rich conversation together that night.

I thanked her for everything and left with a hug and a kiss on her tired head.

It was the last time I talked with my mom. Forty-eight hours later she passed from this life into the next.

That was a little over a week ago now.

I’ve cried at her graveside, watching my dad kiss her ashes and spread them upon the earth, mixing them with the soil with his bare hands. He kneaded at the ground tenderly like he was back at the hospital, massaging her back.

I’ve cried in a coffee shop, thinking about her peanut butter cookies and how I would never taste them again.

I’ve cried in my parent’s kitchen when my dad asked me if I wanted her Stan Musial Cardinals jersey, a gift from my wife and I a couple Christmases ago.

I’ve cried with my wife and my kids and my sister and my dad. We have mourned and celebrated and made it to the next day, which is all you can do when your matriarch is no longer there.

While the good seed of mom’s life has been planted securely in the ground and awaits a resurrection that will provide incomprehensible light and love for all eternity, her planting feels more like a plucking for those left behind.

My daughter asked how I was doing, and I told her the best I could how I felt.

“This is a different kind of pain,” I told her. “It’s not a fast pain. It’s a slow pain. And wherever the middle of me is, wherever I am at the center, that’s where this pain lives, and I think it’s going to be there a long time.”

My family has been loved and supported and cared for so well. We’re a private bunch, but our community has been superb. I know they’ll continue to be.

My mother lived well. We bid her farewell in a way that honored her — with a motorcycle procession blaring Pink Floyd, family and close friends (which is just an alternate pronunciation for family) gathered around her gravesite, a brief but sincere service, Amazing Grace on the guitar, and my dad bidding her farewell in a loving and beautiful manner.

In this, my mother also died well.

Catherine Louise Benton — beloved daughter to Edgar Nelson and Martha Bernice, beloved wife to James Benton, beloved mother to six children, grandmother to fifteen, great-grandmother to eighteen.

July 28th, 1944 — May 25th, 2019

It’s the story lived on the dash between the dates that made her beloved.

And beloved she shall forever remain.