Sky blue and hard as diamonds, my mother’s eyes could impale me and leave me pinned to the wall for all to see. It was no use trying to lie or whine, and having a smart mouth could get you a slap on your cheek. But it was her eyes that withered you, and cut you down to size.
Later on, when Dad got home from work there would be a real spanking. My father couldn’t suffer anyone being disrespectful to Mom. Possibly the worst part was the looks I’d get from my siblings, “Mom hit you?! What did you do?” We all knew Dad was free with the backhand, but Mom? If Mom slapped you, you had really done something awful. There was general outrage, and the shame was worse than the belt.
When she fell last Easter, she broke her pelvis in two places. My brothers and I took turns looking after her, so she could stay at home while healing. One afternoon as I was preparing her lunch, we got on the topic of how she was treated this last time in the hospital.
“Well, she opined, it really kind of ticks me off how they treat me. They always think you have to be brain dead just because you’re old.” She slaps the arm of her chair for emphasis. “It usually takes a few minutes, but pretty soon the tone of the conversation changes. They figure it out.”
My mother is 88. She puts a brave smile on it, but I’ve seen her without her teeth. I’ve seen close up her skinny legs, just bone and sinew, and skin that ripples like little waves. I’ve felt her bony arms and seen her flex the tiny muscles underneath the empty folds of skin. She makes a muscle and shows me, “Look, I’m still strong.” She’s my mother, or what’s left of her.
I remember her when she was a tall pretty redhead, with a butterfly tattoo provocatively located at the edge of her cleavage. Now its colors have faded. It lays flat against her chest, shrunken to an indistinct smudge. The breasts are all but gone. In this moment I love her so intensely, I want to hug her really tight. I’m afraid I would hurt her, but she sees the love in my eyes and smiles.
Life takes no prisoners. That’s for sure. But my mother’s smile still lights up any room she’s in. She has an unquenchable inner fire that has always inspired me to keep fighting and never give up. These days she seems more spirit than body to me, her whole being held together by the simple force of her determination to keep on living. She laughs, and I imagine I hear her bag of bones rattle and shake like dead leaves in a good wind.
And then that inner fire comes on in her eyes again, that light in those eyes. Now that bright light reassures me. My Mom’s not going anywhere, just yet.