Today is the first Mother’s Day in 70 years that I will not be able to see or talk to my mother.
Her passing on Jan. 23 this year was at once remarkable, unremarkable and a bit troubling for me.
It was remarkable because she died at the age of 93 the morning of her 75th wedding anniversary in the arms of the only man she ever loved, my father.
The nurses at the assisted living facility in Florida that they reluctantly called home told us when they went to check on my parents late the night of Jan. 22 they found them in bed in each other’s arms. A few hours later, my mother slipped away.
The death of Beatrice Jean Martz, or “Bebe” as she was known to her friends and family, was unremarkable because it was not unlike the deaths of so many of our elderly in this age of extended life through better pharmaceuticals.
She had suffered for years from macular degeneration, which robbed her of much of her eyesight.
She had a heart condition that nearly killed her several times and left her doctors amazed that she was able to pull through each time.
And, in more recent years, she suffered from dementia to the point where there were times I would visit and she did not recognize me and I had to explain I was the middle of her three obstreperous children.
As her health declined over the past 15-plus years she spent more and more time sleeping, waking only long enough to eat and to spend some time with my father holding hands while they watched television.
“The Waltons” was one of their favorites because it reminded them not so much of their own childhoods, since they both were children of The Great Depression, but of a more idyllic and idyllic time in America.
As I watched my mother’s health decline I began to wonder about the quality of her life and the lives of so many of our elderly (a state I am approaching with frightening rapidity).
I could not see inside her head or know what she was thinking but I continually questioned whether the medical advances that have prolonged the physical lives of so many, even as their mental faculties leave them, are truly beneficial to them.
Are we keeping our elderly alive for their sake, for our own selfishness or because we think it is the right thing to do?
Are we doing our elderly a service or a disservice by prolonging their lives to the point where they no longer are who they used to be and are, in essence, strangers to us and to themselves?
Should we do more or should we do less to prolong their lives?
I do not by any means advocate euthanasia for the elderly, but these are questions that are troubling to me in the wake of my mother’s death.
I did not raise these concerns when the family gathered in Florida to remember and celebrate the woman we knew as wife, mother of three, grandmother of eight, great-grandmother of six and great-great-grandmother of two.
Instead, we talked and laughed about the woman who in one way or another nurtured us all and the strange little habits she had that endeared her to us and that we will share again and again whenever we talk about her.
Like her love of cookies and candy. She was a tiny woman, barely 5 feet tall and little more than 100 pounds, but she could not be without her daily fix of chocolate.
She had a habit of dipping into a box of mixed chocolates, picking one out and taking a bite. If she didn’t like it she would put it back in the box for someone else to discover.
Another time my wife discovered her gobbling down chocolates from a plate on the dining room table. My mother told her that she had to eat all the chocolates because they weren’t very good and she didn’t want anyone else to have to suffer from eating bad chocolate.
Then there was the time when my parents were still living in their own house in Florida when for no apparent reason my mother came out of her bedroom wearing a Mexican sombrero. She went about her business of fixing a meal like nothing strange was going but we all looked at her as we weren’t quite sure we knew this woman.
Her favorite saying was “What’s your problem?” whenever anyone would get in her way in “her” kitchen and she would swat them good-naturedly with whatever she happened to have in her hand, whether it was a dish towel, spatula or frying pan.
As for me, I will remember her this Mother’s Day, and every other day, as an especially loving and caring mother in those years when I was quite sickly as a child.
I suffered from an extreme sensitivity to light from an early age and could not open my eyes in the morning without my mother placing a wet washcloth over them to wash away the yellow gunk that had pasted them shut. Even then, I could not go outside without especially dark sunglasses and a hat pulled low over my eyes.
As a youngster I had to wear orthopedic shoes and braces on both legs. My mother was always there to ensure the braces were in place and the shoes were properly tied.
I was allergic to cow’s milk, eggs and chocolate. So my mother made sure I had goat’s milk to drink and white chocolate in my Easter basket until I outgrew those allergies.
Then there was the eczema. I had an extreme case of it as a child; it was all over my body. Every night my mother would cover my body with this black salve that smelled of sulphur and coal tar before wrapping me in gauze that made me look like a miniature mummy.
Then in the morning she would tenderly remove the bandages, being especially careful in those spots where the eczema had oozed and crusted over, adhering to the bandages.
Years later, after I had outgrown all those childhood maladies I asked my mother: “How did you put up with all that?”
She was silent for a moment as she looked at me, put her hands on her hips and said defiantly: “Because I’m your mother.”
She did more for me than I could ever do for her.
But that is the way it is with mothers. Often we do not realize what they have done for us until they are gone and we are left wondering: Could I or should I have done more when she was more fully cognizant of her life, and her surroundings?
Usually, the answer is “yes,” as it is for me.
Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia.