“Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now. I know we don’t deserve it, but we need it anyhow. We hang in the balance, dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground. Every single one of us could use some mercy now. . .” ~Mary Gauthier~
My mother died on March 26, 2008 at the hospital in Welland, Ontario. She was seventy-six years old. Her release came after many months of battling a horrific infection that had no mercy. I was four hundred miles south in Xenia, Ohio. It was Wednesday, and I was into my early morning routine of writing while listening to a mix of artists on Pandora Radio.
At 7:40 or so a song came on by an artist I was unfamiliar with, but the opening lines hooked me instantly. I stopped cold, and gave it my full attention. I clicked on the lyrics tab and read along as Mary Gauthier’s tough but fragile voice told her story. The poetry and message of her words darted through me, and emotions came alive. Less than ten minutes later, while Mercy Now was still echoing in my mind, the phone rang. It was my sister Janice; she was on her way to our mother’s bedside because a nurse had called. Mom was in crisis.
I prayed, using some of the imagery from Mercy Now because it was fresh and real, and it was what I desperately wanted for my mother and my siblings. I was angry with myself for living so far away, but then grinned inwardly and let myself off the hook because it was the dying woman who’d instilled the rambling wanderlust in me.
Shortly after eight o’clock Janice called again. She was crying. Mom had just died. Barbara June had crossed over to the other side where pain no longer exists and tears are forever banished. She’d turned the final page of her earthly story, and from my perspective and understandings, it was a happy ending.
Words & Books
It was entirely appropriate that I discovered a new rhymer of lines on the morning of my mother’s passing from time to eternity. My father gave me the “gravel in my gut and the spit in my eye”, but it was Mom who placed the poet in my soul and the explorer in my heart.
When I was a small boy, my mother read, told stories, and created little adventures for me. She nurtured a love for words, ideas, language and phrasing. Learning was something to be prized. To think things through to a satisfying conclusion was a treasure, so I was to always keep my Thinking Cap on.
Books were to be valued because they contained knowledge and were a gateway to mysteries and wonders; books were to be cared for because they were really maps to be used while traversing the landscapes of imagination. The dictionary was to be treated as a good friend. We were to visit with it whenever we couldn’t grasp a word’s meaning or its usage. Asking Mom about a word before searching it out would result in being pointed to or handed a dictionary. She’d give a sly smile, her eyes twinkling a challenge, and say, “You’ll only understand it if you learn it for yourself.”
Words painted vivid pictures for her. She taught me that each poem had its own rhythm to be discerned before it could be appreciated. According to Mom, the reader harbors an almost sacred responsibility to listen and hear the inflection in the poet’s voice. Her lessons make for introspection that becomes a balm of therapeutic wanderings. It is doubtful she ever anticipated that for me an instinct for phrasing would develop into a longtime fascination, sometime obsession with the lyrical poetry of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and others of their ilk. I am a writer today—still hanging out with a dictionary—because of my mother’s influence on me. She never stopped encouraging me to respect the marvel of language or the beauty of life.
Nineteen days before she died it was my privilege to sit beside her and hold her hand. It was just me and her, a gift from God for which I remain grateful. She was lucid and talked about some hard stuff our family had endured, about a horrible day thirty-seven years earlier—a jagged scar that’d never really healed.
Several times I tried to change the subject, but she insisted on reliving the events of the day when my father, and the first love of her life, had been killed at Port Colborne Quarries. She spoke with small tears forming in her eyes as she covered precise details that others had surely forgotten.
I listened and once again learned from her. She never flinched away from any of the ugliness, but rather, faced it down with a grim determination. At the most agonizing juncture, she gave a convincing nod, making clear that despite the heartache she had triumphed. The thief who comes only to kill and destroy had stolen an essential piece of her, but she hadn’t let the cold-hearted bastard win. She’d risen above the trauma and brokenness to write a series of redemptive chapters to her life.
That day at her bedside, I fully comprehended that her best legacy to me is all about perseverance and overcoming tragedy. To enjoy a story well told and well lived, one must keep pressing on through all the crud and difficulty that comes along.
Mercy Now by Mary Gauthier will forever be tightly connected to memories of my mother. Not just because I first heard it on the morning of her death, but mostly because the sentiment expressed in the song defines my mother’s character.
Barbara June had overflowing reservoirs of compassion. Regardless of the knock-downs that’d come out of nowhere to hit her, she never allowed callus to grow over her heart. Tenderness always sprouted there, though for complex reasons having to do with her upbringing and the times in which she came of age, she could keep those soft blossoms hidden.
To present confidence was a goal to be continually pursued. That brave façade could so easily be misunderstood or misrepresented as hardness. It was part of the price she paid for her inability to admit weakness. Fact is she approached life with her heart thrust forward, which can often be risky business. Her heart could become entwined in the travails of friends or strangers in the space of time it took an ounce of blood to circulate through her body. She’d become emotionally involved in the suffering of others with an intensity that effected her in ways she likely never realized.
Life threw some mean, well-placed punches, but my mother never went into a clinch, but rather, always led with her heart. It was the way she was created, and no matter the dangers, what’s bred in the bone doesn’t get changed.
One unique story explains well my mother’s empathy and sense of mercy. It has to do with the animal kingdom, but for me, it reveals much about how she related to the world around her. It happened in the mid-sixties. I divulge it here with apologies to my siblings if I miss specifics or don’t get it exactly right. What follows is as I remember it.
We lived on Woodlawn Drive in Reebs Bay, a notch along the north shore of Lake Erie. Battalions of trees were stationed like sentries all around the neighborhood. There were a smattering of evergreens but mostly maple, oak, poplar—and before disease killed them off—elm.
All those trees provided natural habitat for a thriving population of Gray Squirrels. Some neighbors would get into wars with the frolicking critters, chasing them away from bird-feeders or setting traps to scare them.
One peculiar neighbor—Old Jim—who lived right beside us, would use bits of food to entice them in close enough so he could shoot them with a pellet pistol. Each dead squirrel would be tossed on his compost pile to rot and become fertilizer. Or get dragged away by a fox or raccoon. This infuriated my mother. After all, these were God’s creatures, and Old Jim wasn’t killing them for the soup pot.
Mom started feeding the squirrels peanut butter on crackers. And made sure Old Jim knew what she was doing by making a big production out of it. I didn’t eyewitness this exchange, but knowing my mother, can say with certainty that she made a point of telling him directly to leave her squirrels alone.
A squirrel she’d nicknamed Frosty became extremely friendly. Mom would leave a trail of peanut butter crackers from the bottom of the tree behind the garage to the front step of the house. At first Frosty would sit on her haunches and hold the tasty meals in her front paws, nibbling away and twitching at any movement in her direction. This process was repeated on a daily basis and the routine never varied.
As time passed, Frosty warmed to the family and wouldn’t flinch no matter how close any of us got to her while she fed. She kept growing bolder, even coming to the door to let us know it was feeding time.
One spring day we discovered Frosty was a mother. She came down the tree with three kits following, and sat there sharing with them. It was funny to watch the infant squirrels try to munch on the peanut butter.
Shortly after that, a remarkable thing occurred. One of the kits was hurt. Frosty carried him by the scruff of his neck to our front step. She sat, looking up at the door until Mom noticed her. Then Barbara June had a mother to mother conversation with Frosty. It was wordless, but as Mom said afterwards, it was as though Frosty was asking her for help. The squirrel trusted the woman.
Mom scooped up the injured kit in a towel, and mobilized her children to action. Paper was shredded and wood chips gathered. A dynamite box—a heavy wooden crate retrieved from Dad’s workplace and originally used to ship dynamite—was transformed into a bed for the tiny squirrel. Staples were used to attach a screen to cover the box.
While it lay there looking up at us and squeaking, we named him Frisky. No one seems to remember what was wrong with him, but Mom nursed him back to health. She fed him milk with an eyedropper; she thinned peanut butter with water and crumbled crackers up into the mixture. She cooed to him and spoke encouraging words that were laced with affection.
As I recall, Frisky lived in our house for six months or so. Long enough for me to take him to school for show and tell; also long enough for him to escape the box a time or two to prove beyond doubt that we had given him the proper name. Frisky was indeed a frisky fellow. Even considering all this looking down the long tunnel of memory, I marvel at my mother’s willingness to put herself out to care for a helpless animal. When compassion swelled in her, being able to actually do something tangible was always important.
A Long Shadow
“If you wish to enrich days, plant flowers; if you wish to enrich years, plant trees; if you wish to enrich eternity, plant ideas in the lives of others.” ~S. Truett Cathy~
Barbara June’s courageous spirit and indomitable attitude remained in force until she drew her last labored breath. Her time on planet earth is now a shadow that continues to spread itself across the generations. I suspect she never recognized the weight of her imprint on her children.
The special something that she drilled into each of us has taken root in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Like all of us, Mom came up short in the perfection department. She had her share of flaws and idiosyncrasies. There are some who would sugarcoat those foibles, but that’d go against the straightforward way in which she lived her life.
For example, though she possessed a bottomless well of emotion, there were times over the years when Mom couldn’t find ways to express her feelings to those closest to her. As someone with that exact failing, I can relate. It can freeze me up inside to think that I never really thanked her for making language be a living entity inside me clamoring to be free. Perhaps I can take hope in the idea that mothers intuitively know such things. Or comfort with the realization that she’d grant me some mercy now.