The most compelling story I can tell about my mother is the one where she lay dying from cancer, and the miracle that we witnessed. However, I would like to start with a few stories before that day. My mother, Helen Marguerite Brooks Witt, was born July 14, 1924 to a sixteen year old mother and twenty-one year old father in a small town in Missouri. My grandmother would turn seventeen when my mother was two weeks old, but in the stories my grandmother told proudly, she was sixteen. My grandparents, Julia Marguerite Bailey Brooks, and Raymond Alexander Brooks were married August 12, 1923, so put your fingers away. My grandparents met when my grandmother was 14 but my great grandmother, Cora Virginia Celestine Marguerite LeBeau Bailey, (1871-1960) would not let them get married until Julia was sixteen (it was a different time). My mother never talked to me much about her growing up years or the past. Fortunately, my grandmother never stopped talking to me about all of that, and this is what I gleaned from her fascinating stories.
My mother was a quiet girl, dark hair and dark eyes (from my grandfather) and as my grandmother said, “Always had her nose in a book”, a trait I happily inherited. She was the oldest of three girls; her sister, Juanita just two years behind her, and their baby sister, Rose Alyce, born when my mother, Helen, was almost eleven. I knew my mother was smart because she was salutatorian of her high school graduating class and had finished two years of college before I was born when she was eighteen. My favorite stories of my mother happened before, during, and just after my birth. My grandmother had told me of a rainy night in So.Carolina (I thought it was Georgia, but my aunt said no) when my mother ran away on a bus to go to my father’s mother in Tennessee. My grandfather chased the bus down, and retrieved my mother and took her home. It was 1942, my grandfather was an ordained Methodist minister and a chaplain in the Army. This was as good as my grandmother’s radio soap opera that we listened to weekly, “Helen Trent.” I surmised in later years although never told directly that this was my mother’s way of saying she wanted to marry my father whom my grandmother said she was forbidden to see. (He was also in the army, twenty seven to her seventeen when they met and he had been married)! Of course, none of this was expressed to me at the tender age of six or so the first time I heard the story. They were allowed to marry when my mother was eighteen. (It is no wonder my father fell in love with my mother; in addition to her inner beauty, she was quite the beauty; slender with long dark wavy hair—you know, the forties girl look, and I always thought my father looked like Clark Gable. I’m sure in uniform he was very dashing to Helen).
The next installment was the day I was born; it is quite detailed and told in another story on storyofmylife.com but the funniest part of it to me was one my mother told me herself. She had checked into the military base hospital and was taken to a room. She was put in a bed, and just waited, alone; nothing like today. I think my dad was on maneuvers, training to be a paratrooper. My mother was living, or staying temporarily (not sure which), with my grandparents and they had brought her to the hospital. She heard a woman down the hall crying out, and she said she thought perhaps that’s what you were supposed to do if you were in labor, so she began to also moan and cry out when she had a pain. A nurse came running into the room, and asked what was wrong. “Nothing”, my mother replied.
“Then, we’ll have none of that, you’ve got a long way to go”, the nurse said sternly. So, as my mother told me, she shut up and that was that…..and I was born, all ten pounds and four ounces of me (enough to moan about, surely). My mother was to have five more children, and I never heard another labor or childbirth story. She just went to the hospital, birthed a baby, and came home. And three of them were ten pounds or over. The smallest baby she had was eight lbs. So I thought that’s what women were supposed to do. (I mean, not complain or talk about childbirth, and I had no idea what to expect when I went to the hospital to have my first at nineteen).
After I was born, my mother and I lived with my grandparents, and my grandmother also told me that on the first of each month, my mother would get her allotment check. Her check was $100, and that was a magnificent sum to my story teller, especially to spend as you wished, as my mother had no rent to pay, or groceries to buy. Mam-Maw(my mother’s mother) said that as soon as the check came, my mother would get me ready, get out the stroller, and off we would go to catch the bus to town. We stayed all day in town doing heaven knows what; Momma always had a list that she had been making since the last month’s trip. We returned just in time for supper, without a nickel, she having saved her last one for the bus fare, dragging the stroller, piled so high with packages that you couldn’t even see me. My grandma reported that she would hold her breath until she saw my bright eyes peeking out as if she thought my mother would lose me? I seemed to thrive on it. My grandmother always told this with a smug grin on her face, and a shake of her head. I thought perhaps she thought my mother shouldn’t have spent all her money, but maybe she was marveling at how my mother could work it out to spend down to her very last penny! Of course, I have always been able to spend down to my very last penny thanks to my mother’s imprint, or is it my grandmother’s story telling?
Helen’s life was rich and full, raising six children and working full time outside the home, a rarity in her day, or at least in our neighborhood. She always seemed patient, sometimes scolding, but NEVER cussing, and never very angry; we weren’t spanked. I remember wishing for a spanking sometimes as her disapproval was more than I could bear. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and she always smelled so good. She groomed herself every day to go to work, “putting on her face” although she never wore eye make up or heavy make-up. She decorated herself with jewelry….she was a girl. She could make most anything in regard to crocheting and knitting. I firmly believe that knitting was her tranquilizer. She never left home without her tote bag of whatever she was working on, and knit away she did, in the car, in front of the T.V, in social gatherings. I was amazed that she could do it without looking at it! People loved her; she was kind and empathetic, and I remember specifically one time that she went with me to see one of my friends who was going through a divorce (after I was an adult) to “help her through.” I could talk to her about most anything, and for the most part, told her everything. Even though she had six children, I know everyone of us felt like she only had one---ourselves. She was close to all of us. She taught me that love is not diminished by giving it to more and more people. Helen ended her career as Assistant Branch Manager of Weyerhauser Mortgage, and she was quite proud of that as we were of her. My father was not the easiest man to live with, but she supported him in all he did, and they remained in love until (and I’m sure after) she died, forty-six years after they married. Raising six children, having a career, and going with my father to his weightlifting meets (he was a heavyweight lifting champion for years) was a very jam-packed life, and once when she had three teenagers at home; she proudly carried her knitting in a bag that said, “My life is a soap opera.”
My mother developed breast cancer when she was fifty-eight, and had a mastectomy. She endured chemotherapy and was declared in remission for four years. “They” say if you are in remission five years, you will survive. When the cancer returned, she called me rather frantically. I had wanted her to go to my doctor who was a specialist in cancer and research long before, but she felt complacent, having been told she was in remission and seeing no need for a second opinion. When her doctor gave her three months to live, she called, saying she wanted to make an appointment with Dr. Khan. He was not taking new patients at the time, but made an exception for my mother since he had been treating me for ten years for a neuromuscular disease. Dr. Khan was able to provide her with two more years; perhaps not of the highest quality as the treatment debilitated her, but she was able to see her grandchildren for that long, and being a grandmother myself today, I know how precious that time is. My mother was very brave; even at the end of her illness when the cancer had seeped into her liver and bones, was very painful, and all the treatment had damaged her eyesight; I would ask her how she felt; she would say, “Oh, I’ve felt better.” Just like not complaining about childbirth; she didn’t complain about cancer. What a legacy.
So we come to the evening I alluded to in the beginning of this story. It was September of 1988, my mother was only sixty-four (I only realize now how very young that was), and she had been in the hospital for awhile, had developed sepsis, a raging infection throughout her body, and had slipped into a coma. The doctors told us to gather anyone that wanted to tell her good-bye as they believed she had only a few days to live. My sister, Linda, in Kentucky was contacted, and we flew her in to be with us and by our mother’s side. There were only five of us now as our brother, Buddy, had died ten years before, but we were all there, my father, myself, my children, Lisa, April, and Jason, my children’s father, Jesse, my sister, Linda, my brother Raymond, and his wife, Sherri, my brother, Jack, his wife, Judy, and their daughter, Jessica, my sister, Susan, my mother’s sister, Juanita, and her daughter, Barb, fifteen strong. We stayed at the hospital for long hours, bringing in food to the waiting room, and sometimes sleeping there. One Sunday night, my brother Raymond and his family left, taking my father with them so he could get some much needed rest, and my sister, Susan had also left as she had young children at home. I was in the private room with my mother, as were a few others, and there were more in the waiting room down the hall. Suddenly, my mother’s eyes opened, and she began to struggle to sit up in the bed. “What is it, Momma?” I asked.
“I want to call a meeting,” she replied.
“A meeting?” I stammered while trying to help her up in the bed; someone else was raising the head of the bed electronically simultaneously. I truly couldn’t believe my ears as she hadn’t even spoken for days or been alert. Did she think she was at work; I’m sure she called meetings there? I plumped the pillows behind her back. Her eyes were bright and shining. She didn’t look wan and sick as she had been looking. She seemed to have a glow about her.
“Yes, a meeting,” she said, “I’ve been talking to God, and he wants me to explain things to you.” Now I have to interject here that my mother while raised by a Methodist minister, did not practice religion or at least she didn’t go to church and never talked about God, so this in itself was surprising. I never doubted that she was a Christian by her actions, but she just never talked about it.
“All right,”, I said, thinking she meant to have a meeting with those of us in the room.
“No, I mean everybody”, she said quite firmly.
“Yes, everybody here”; as she said this, it became quite clear that she knew that all the family was (or had been) in the hospital, even though she had been in a coma. I quickly went to the waiting room to gather those there, while my sister-in-law called my father, brother, and sister who had gone home to summon them back.
My son, who was 13 at the time and in the waiting room with his father and sisters, remembers me saying, “Come quick, something exciting is happening.” It was a thirty minute drive from my parent’s home to the hospital, and as we waited, my mother was making motions in the air with her hands as if she was reading something line by line on the wall across the room from her bed. “What are you doing, Momma?”, I said.
“I’m talking to God, and it’s a He (we all laughed; guess she had wondered about that). “And he’s just like any other man, you have to chase him down. (More laughter). But He’s given me the conditions,” she replied.
“What are the conditions for?” someone asked.
“To get into Heaven, but you are all invited,” and then she added that God said the most important thing for her was the ability to forget.
“To forget?” someone in the room repeated.
She firmly answered, “Yes, not forgive, but forget.” (Some of us laughed because my mother had a mind like a steel trap; she was the family’s encyclopedia of information, including addresses and phone numbers. She could rattle them off without looking them up). It would take her a long time to forget everything, and the implication was that she couldn’t get into heaven “until she forgot”. My sister thought her terminology was in terms of her career. Helen said she had conditions that had to be met before she could go (in the mortgage loan business, certain conditions have to be met before you can close the loan).
Then she was laughing, and I said, “What’s funny, Momma?” and she said, “God’s joking with me.” (We were all glad to know he had a sense of humor). But when asked what the joke was she didn’t answer; she was looking down and obviously listening.
By this time, my father, brother, sister-in-law, and sister had returned, and the room was full. There was an electricity in the air as some of us ringed her bed and took each others hand, and others stood behind. A couple had to stand in the doorway, but all eyes were focused on my mother as we waited breathlessly for the “meeting” to continue. My cousin, Barb, and my daughter Lisa were holding hands, and shaking; they were so affected. When my father entered the room, he went straight to his wife’s bedside and took her hand, beaming. He was so grateful to see her awake and talking. She looked at him, smiled, and said, “I’m talking to God.”
Now, my Dad had been what could be called agnostic all his life, although he never really talked about God at all, except to take his name in vain; so I watched with bated breath for his reaction. “You are?” he said, still radiating that bright smile, and I relaxed. He was just so glad to have his wife back under any “conditions.”
“Yes, but your condition (she meant, we think, to get into heaven) is you have to forgive someone.”
“All right, “ he said. (I think he might have done anything to get into heaven if he thought he could be with her). Then she said, still looking at him, “God said it was going to take longer (than the doctors said, we surmised by her next words), they don’t know. We are going around and picking up others. And I don’t need these anymore”, indicating her I.V.’s. Then she proceeded to go around the room, look directly at each person that she talked to, and tell some of them their conditions. She told my youngest sister “that her conditions could not be met.” At the time, my sister was struggling with a drug addiction, but my mother would be proud of her twenty years later that all that is under control, that she has celebrated twenty years of being ‘clean’ and “the conditions have been met.”
My niece, Jessica, who was fourteen was leaning over the end of the bed (she had always been Granny’s girl), eyes glued to her grandmother, and her mother, Judy, was beside her. “ You are invited, Jessica.” Then to Jessica’s mother, she said, “There is a condition that you can’t get over, Judy”, Mother stated.
“What do you mean?” Judy asked her.
“Oh, no, I can’t tell you about the accident.” as if something had slipped out.
(Jessica was murdered at age seventeen, three years and three months after that day). “But I know you love me, Judy.”
She told my brother Raymond that “he didn’t have to pay her back”, and she told my brother, Jack, that she didn’t have to worry about him anymore. We’re not sure of the significance of those remarks but my sister, Susan, and I have talked about it and think that she spoke of things on her mind or people she was worried about, as some of us weren’t even mentioned. My son who was a year younger than his cousin, Jessica, his good friend, said he remembers that he was a little envious of the people who got “assignments” as he thought that’s what the conditions were. And he thought that Jessica got a “condition” but doesn’t remember what it was. My son, evidently, was one that my mother (or God) was not worried about. She looked directly at my daughter, April, and said, “God said to tell you that you can’t hide from him.” (My daughter was to lose her husband in a car accident two years later; I have always felt that my mother somehow knew this).
Then, “I’m seeing Heaven,” she stated calmly. We were all astounded. “Who are all these people?” she asked (evidently of her guide).
“Do you see Mother and Daddy?” her sister, Juanita asked.
“I just got here,” was the reply. She went on when asked to say that she did not see Buddy, her son and our brother who had passed in 1978. Judy asked if she saw Jeremy, Jack and Judy’s son who died a few days after being born in 1975. She answered, “Yes, he is still a baby.”
Then she did say that her mother and father were there. And that in heaven, she would be able to see. At that, I broke down in tears. My mother had been more or less blind for the last few months. She had always worn glasses, first thing she put on from her bedside table in the morning, and the last thing she took off at night as she couldn’t see without them. But the last few months because of her treatments, even though cataract surgery had repaired her vision for awhile, she was only able to see shapes and whether it was dark or light. Now, she said obviously seeing well without her glasses (she had previously said she didn’t need them when offered them) she had been promised the gift of vision forever. The reason I cried was that she so enjoyed reading, knitting, and her “shows” and hadn’t been able to receive pleasure from any of that for months.
After that, there were no more descriptions of Heaven, but we in the room were stunned. We had just witnessed what other people say after a near death experience, but our mother hadn’t “passed” first and been brought back. We were enthralled, felt so special to have been given this gift; there was no doubt in our minds but that we had been in the presence of something very powerful, something great, and had received a blessing. We just looked at each other in silence. Soon, the “meeting” with our precious angel was over, but we were all reluctant to leave in the event more details were forthcoming. The power of that meeting has remained with us to this day. We knew we had witnessed a miracle.
The next morning, my mother was still sitting up (the doctors were scratching their heads, they could not explain it) and when I walked into her hospital room, she was saying something, “What, Momma?” I said. She’s reading the paper, I was told. She was reading the headlines of a newspaper propped up on the windowsill ACROSS THE ROOM, a true miracle for someone who had not been able to see inches in front of her without her glasses all her life. The next day, our mother slipped back into a coma from which she never awoke. She did however, as predicted, live not just a few days as the doctors had said, but six more weeks. It took her that long to forget, to leave behind what she knew. The doctors withdrew her I.V.’s because they thought she was dying, but as she said, she didn’t need them. After a few weeks, the doctors suggested that we take her home, that there was nothing more they could do for her, and so she died at home on October 10, 1988. She will be forever missed. We love you, Momma.
Epilogue: The night my father died, April 2, 1993, almost five years after my mother’s death, we were all again gathered at my parent’s home. My daughter, April, was in the living room with some of the family; I was in my father’s bedroom with my sister and other family members and a hospice nurse. After he passed, the hospice nurse went out to tell everyone in the living room that he had peacefully died. When I came into the living room a little while later, my daughter called to me, “Mom, Mom, I want to tell you what I saw. Mom, I SAW this.” Then she said that just before the nurse came out, she saw her grandfather, dressed in everyday clothing, not pajamas, walking up an incline. At the top of the incline was his wife, and her grandmother, our mother, and Jessica, her cousin and their granddaughter, waiting to greet him (Jessica had died the year before). He was grinning from ear to ear, as evidenced by the smile on his face after he died. I have always believed that April saw this because she had lost her husband three years before, her grandfather died shortly after her birthday ended at midnight, and they were close. Could there be any doubt that all the conditions were met?
(Thanks to Susan, Judy, Barb, Juanita, Lisa, April, and Jason for helping me to remember the details and dialogue of the night in my mother’s hospital room; it makes this tribute to our mother, aunt, sister, and grandmother even more meaningful).