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Opinion Column
For the week of March 7 through 13, 2001

Roses for the Mothers

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

We all know wonderful fathers. But those mothers! Nature created them with perpetually open arms, ready to accept their children with all of their "faults," no matter what.

In his remarkable book My Own Country, which chronicles the arrival of the AIDS epidemic to the small town of Johnson, Tenn., Dr. Adam Verghese discovers the reason his patients return to the home they left for the big cities where they contracted the disease. Verghese writes of the need to come home in spite of the eventual requirement for many of these patients to reveal their homosexuality. They had to confront parents from conservative religious denominations with the news that their sons (most of these early victims were men) had strayed from the path their biblical training had instilled. Overriding that obligatory and dreaded confession, however, was the realization that family meant all, that one should die in the arms of family.

At the risk of writing about an uncomfortable topic, I need to express my thoughts this week about the meaning of family and the pains that ensue when it is riven by death or separation. Four of my close lifelong friends have seen their mothers die within the last few months. Certainly these mothers were aged; when my contemporaries experience this loss, it is almost always of progenitors who have lived to a remarkably ripe old age for their generation.

I believe the four mothers averaged 88 years of age. And, we know that life is finite, that all things end eventually. One might rightfully assume that the loss of these parents is not the same in degree as those of children or siblings, as nature is taking its inevitable course. I cannot imagine the agony that would come with the death of one's child.

Nonetheless, I think we need to honor our emotions and grief at the losses we incur, even though they might be in the correct order of life's passages. I caught myself the other day commenting on Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's disease with a rather flip comment about how, at least, he had just turned 90, so it might not be that tragic. That was most insensitive of me, and I apologize. I would wish that affliction on no one, and while one would find it harder to accept that same illness in, say, a 60-year old, it is nonetheless horrific.

My temporary callousness reflects, I fear, a prevailing attitude that dismisses the complaints of the aged. In an era promising increased longevity, I believe we need to examine this attitude.

I don't think it is ever easy to see one you love suffer, whatever age he or she may be, for one thing. And I think we deny a powerful rite of passage when we dismiss sadness over the parting of someone very old. Certainly we are reminded of our own mortality when our parents die, but more than that there is the true loss of the only people who may love us unconditionally. My mother died when I was only 29. With her passage at the age of 59, I lost my most staunch advocate and defender. When my father died eight years later I was aware that I was the eldest member of my family, that I had stepped into their places in every sense. Now I was to be the haven in my family, the responsible source of constant love.

The loss of a mother is unspeakable. Even less-than-perfect mothers are bound to us in ways science may never comprehend. A young woman I know had a mother who committed a gruesome crime, one I can't speak of without great pain. The fact that the mother was hateful to her children is an anomaly that is almost incomprehensible. The conflict for this young woman is that she still loves her certainly flawed and even monstrous mother, and has to deal every day with the conflicting emotions this reality presents.

The mothers in Vergese's book were often the only ones to accept their ill sons. To their credit, many fathers did come to a belated tolerance of their sons, even in the light of the alternate lifestyles and disappointed expectations they represented. We all know wonderful fathers. But those mothers! Nature created them with perpetually open arms, ready to accept their children with all of their "faults," no matter what.

The women who have just passed from my friends' lives, for the most part, stayed in marriages that may not have "fulfilled" them in ways my generation has sought, saw husbands off to devastating wars, groped with financial realities and bewildering changes in mores that would have stumped their mothers, and generally did all these things without complaint or public soul-searching. All these women raised daughters of remarkable strength and style.

In my extensive reading of poetry, I have encountered very few poems expressing the loss of mothers. Perhaps this is because one risks excessive sentimentality in voicing these emotions. In a rare poetic tribute, e.e. cummings wrote of the garden of black-red-roses he pictured his mother presiding over in heaven. I wish I'd written his words for my own mother, a grower of roses.

So, here's to Viola Minasian, Lou Sternberg, Betty Condit and Anne Stilwell. Way before Mothers' Day, our culture's obligatory, maudlin, and prettified glut of devotion, I want to honor you for the love you gave and the generation you represented. I give you vivid, black-red roses, too. We will miss you.



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