My mother sleeping.  Photo by Callen Harty.

My mother sleeping. Photo by Callen Harty.

Yesterday my mother was both lucid and unintelligible, moving back and forth between a woman who seemed to perfectly understand the world around her and another person who looked around not even sure of where she was. She was older than I remember, even since my last visit just a week ago. Her lines seemed deeper and harsher and her already thin frame seemed thinner, just skin on brittle bones. I have been documenting her decline, not because it is some kind of important scientific exploration, but because I need to process what is happening to understand it and to understand my emotional reactions to it.

I realized yesterday that her slide toward her life’s end did not start just recently. She has been slowly coming to this place for several years after two broken hips, a broken shoulder and arm, diabetes, the natural decline of the body, and the ravages of dementia. It was really not that long ago that she was still driving, still able to move about, still mentally acute, but we have seen it worsen over a period of several years until now when we are in that place of wondering when her body will expel its final breath and her soul will be set free.

While I have visited I have not been steadily with her during this entire period. On my visits I have not had much opportunity to just sit with her until yesterday, when I took the time to do that, sometimes in silence, sometimes in brief exchanges, but throughout it connected with her in spirit and in the fullness of my being. It can be difficult to talk with someone who is nearing death because there is always so much of import that should be said and always uncertainty about what can be said or what will be understood.

She has been seeing my oldest brother, Loras, a lot lately. He was born with spina bifada and died at two and a half years old, before any of the rest of us were born. She said, “He’s come to me a lot.”

While looking at his picture on the wall yesterday she asked if he was still alive and I told her no. She said he was alive when that picture was taken and I told her yes, he was. Then she asked me, “Are they all gone?” I asked who and she answered “the immediate family.”

I have always been honest with my mother, so I said, “Yes, they are. All of your brothers and sisters, your mother, all of your friends. You’ve outlived them all.”

She interjected with, “I’m pretty tough for an old lady.”

I replied with a bit of a smile, “Yes, you are.” She is one of the strongest people I have ever known. “You’ve survived a lot over the years.”

She repeated, “They’re all gone?”

I said something along the lines of, “They’re gone from here. To a different place. They’re all alive there and waiting for you. That’s probably why you’ve been seeing Loras, because he wants you to come and be with him again. They’re all waiting. They’ve been waiting a long time.” I imagine my siblings have said things to let her know it’s okay to go, but I needed to do it, too. It was important for me to know that I was able to say that to her. I thought I sensed an understanding of what I was saying, but I could not tell with certainty.

We sat in silence for a bit after that. I think she may have been thinking more about Loras and more about the others who have preceded her. Suddenly she looked at me and said, “You are my son.”

I almost started crying because two weeks ago she thought I was one of her brothers. But she said this with certainty and I knew that she knew it to be true. I said, “Yes, I am, and proudly. You are my mother, and you are still the best mother in the world.” She looked at me as if she didn’t believe it–she has always doubted herself.

“Do you think so?” she asked. “I don’t know about that.”

I responded. “You did the best job you could and you did it with love, and that’s what counts. And we all turned out okay.”

“Yes, you did,” she said. “You kids are perfect.”

I laughed. “No, we’re not. But we’re okay. You did a good job of raising us. We’ve all succeeded in our own ways, and we’re all doing okay.” I wanted her to know that we would be okay without her, so that she wouldn’t worry about having to stay for us. I’ve been thinking that she’s holding on for some reason and I thought maybe the reason was that she was too worried about us being okay.

Then she looked at my father’s picture and said something about him that I didn’t understand. He died when he was just 41 and she was in her mid-30’s. “He was a handsome man,” I said.

“He was, and he had a good personality. He treated me well.”

I know that they had fights on occasion and I remember her telling me when I was younger that he had a bad temper and that when he got mad he would shut down and not talk with her for days at a time. Apparently she had forgiven or forgotten that and was now remembering why she had fallen in love with him in the first place.

She looked up again and started talking to Loras. “Hi, Loras. Can you smile for me?” She then turned to me. “He smiles for me sometimes. He came down to earth to see me. Talk to him. Ask him to smile.”

I turned in the direction she was looking and repeated her words. “Hi, Loras. Can you smile for me?” I didn’t hear a response, but she told me that he moved his hand. I’m sure that he did.

By this time she was looking tired. I don’t know when she last got out of bed or stayed awake as long as this conversation kept going, but I didn’t want to wear her out, so I told her I was leaving. I kissed her on the forehead and told her, “I love you,” and meant it from the deepest part of my heart. In these days of winding down and preparing to depart she has definitely received love from a lot of places. I can’t imagine anything more important in the end than knowing you are loved.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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3 Responses to Conversation

  1. marcea0k says:

    Oh, Callen, this was so beautifully written. And I know what you mean about writing to process it for yourself and to understand your emotions. I did some of that in my journal through the 16 months between Dad’s diagnosis of stage 4 liver cancer and the last weeks of his life. But in the last three weeks when my brother Dirk and myself stayed full-time to help Mom with Dad’s care I didn’t write one word, too much else to do. But four days after Dad died I sat at a computer and typed for hours writing as much as I could, whatever came. At the time I wasn’t sure why I felt compelled to to get it out of my head (as if it could be erased). I’ve only read those words once since then, the eve of the 1st year after Dad died. But as this July marks the 5th year, I think I will be reading them again. And yes, saying the words to your Mom that you and the rest of her living children will be fine does make the transition to a world without your first and greatest protector slightly easier to face. Much love to you, my friend.

  2. Lovely, loving, a very moving piece.

  3. You are always so overwhelmingly human, Callen, in such marvelous ways. Your descriptions are real and immediate. Of course I expect it, but am surprised anyway. It’s rare gift, I think…

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