I went to see her after she turned 89 and she was more lucid than I had seen her in several visits. Often she repeats herself and often she seems in a haze and doesn’t understand who certain people are or what her relationships to them might be. She is in a place where people who have been dead for many years are still alive in her mind, though once in a while the reality strikes her that she is the last of her siblings, that her two husbands and oldest son are gone, that virtually everyone she knew and loved except for her descendants are all waiting for her in some other realm. In those moments the sense of humor disappears and one can see a resignation and emptiness about her that is haunting. I think it’s not so much an existential emptiness as a profound loneliness.
Even on her best days there are moments when her reality is not the same reality that the rest of us see. There can be moments where she sees things that others don’t see or understand. But on this visit her mind was for the most part incredibly sharp. She knew who I was and she asked, as she always does–usually three or four times–what is new, before she answers that not much new is happening with her. On this visit I was able to tell her, “I wrote a book. It’s been a life-long dream of mine. I wanted to be a writer since I was in second or third grade sitting at the feet of Aunt Leona.” Aunt Leona was my mother’s aunt and my great-aunt. She was a woman who often visited us and who stayed with us when she was sick. She was a published composer, a poet, and a stringer for the Wisconsin State Journal. I admired her and wanted to be a writer like her.
My mother looked at me and said, “I’m really proud of you,” which almost made me cry because besides being a writer I’ve wanted little else in my life than for this beautiful woman who is my mother to be proud of me. She always had her priorities right–she was generous and cared about people, believed in the goodness of others, and lived her faith in her deeds. For her to be proud of me I felt I must be doing something right.
I stepped out of the room for a moment to get a drink of water. I pushed the door open when I came back in and she was still awake and waiting for me to return. I sat back down and we both were silent for a moment when suddenly she spoke. “God’s behind the door,” she said.
I wasn’t sure I heard her right or what that might mean, so I said, “What did you just say?” My mind raced to find the meaning of such a statement. Is she telling me that her time has come, that God is watching what we are doing? What was going on in her mind?
She repeated it. “God’s behind the door. Usually Coleen leaves it part-way open so I can see him.” I looked up and behind the bedroom door which I had pushed fully open was the framed Sacred Heart of Jesus picture that had always hung in our house. I went over and closed the door halfway so that she could see it and be comforted by it and went and sat back down.
“God is behind the door,” I thought, and contemplated the many meanings of that and the symbolism of doors opening and closing and where God might be at any point in a person’s life. She looked deeply at that picture and I realized that regardless of what anyone else might believe my mother was at peace in her faith and was patiently waiting for her God to open a door to welcome her home. In the meantime, being a good Catholic woman, she would bear whatever suffering he might send her way until he was ready for that moment, and she would live out her remaining days with grace, dignity, and humor. I realized I am as proud of her as she could ever be of me.