By Joey Kennedy
Be patient, curious reader, I’ll get to that. First, this being the month we honor our moms, I want to talk about mothers in general and, specifically, about my and my wife’s mothers.
Mother’s Day is one of those holidays, I suspect, that was created by Hallmark: “Buy cards, folks. We sell them.” And see, here I am being unfair to Hallmark. What a cynic. Except….
According to writer Brian Handwerk in a story (“Mother’s Day Turns 100: Its Surprisingly Dark History”) for National Geographic in 2014, the origins of Mother’s Day started in the mid-19th century, when “West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis…held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination.”
Handwerk writes that it was Jarvis’s daughter, Anna, who was inspired to organize the first Mother’s Day observance in 1908 after the death of her mother, Ann, three years earlier. “Largely through Jarvis’s efforts, Mother’s Day came to be observed in a growing number of cities and states until U.S. President Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the second Sunday in May in 1914 for the holiday,” writes Handwerk. That upset Jarvis, who intended Mother’s Day to be an intimate celebration where we honored the “best mother you’ve ever known—your mother—as a son or a daughter,” said historian Katharine Antolini of West Virginia Wesleyan College in Handwerk’s story. That’s why Jarvis stressed the singular “Mother’s Day,” rather than the plural “Mothers’ Day,” Handwerk writes.
Then, to Jarvis’s horror, Mother’s Day became the moneymaker it is today. And there is the Hallmark moment. Today, millions of cards are given each year. Mothers are taken to lunch or dinner on that second Sunday in May. Flowers and presents are given. It’s capitalism at its best.
I gave my mother cards and gifts on Mother’s Day, as did my wife, Veronica, to hers. But our mothers were very different. Veronica’s relationship with my mother was golden; she loved my mom, and my mom loved her. But Inez, Veronica’s mother, was difficult. She never liked me. I’m sure, as with many moms, her daughter’s husband just wasn’t good enough (and I’m probably not.)
Mother-daughter relationships are much different than mother-son relationships. I had a rocky relationship with my mother when I lived at home, but after I left, we became close friends. I remember in late 1996, as my mother lay on her deathbed, I wanted to confess my teenage sins to her. No regrets, right? While living at home, I smoked cigarettes and pot; I lied a lot; I was the one who dented the Mustang when I hit a fence after I inadvertently let my foot off the brake of the still-running car while making out with Denise Hebert. I started my confession, but my mother interrupted before I made it to my first offense: “Stop it, Joey,” she said. “Your father and I weren’t as stupid as you think we were.”
Veronica’s mother, however, punished Veronica even for sins she did not commit. Veronica loved her mother deeply, and I guess Inez loved Veronica the only way she knew how. In 1991, Inez suffered a stroke. It was serious, and Inez, after she left the hospital, came to live with us—for a few months shy of a decade.
That was a challenging period in our marriage. The woman who couldn’t stand me was living in our home. I don’t know if our marriage could have survived that decade except for one fact: While Inez recovered physically from her stroke, the Lord had struck her mute. She could not speak. She made sounds, but formed no clear words or sentences. And in that way, for nine years and nine months, we managed an uneasy peace.
In 2000, Inez’s health began its final decline. Veronica and I were alternating time sitting with her in her hospital room. It was during this period, with both of us exhausted every day, that I had a dream:
I was alone with Inez at the hospital, and it occurred to me that I could simply smother her. It would all be over, and Veronica and I could reclaim our lives. So I calmly stood up, walked over to Inez’s hospital bed, grabbed a pillow and forced it over her face. I held it there for what seemed like 10 minutes. Inez didn’t struggle; she remained still, accepting her fate, I presumed. I removed the pillow, and Inez was staring up at me, wide-eyed but very much alive.
It was then I realized I had forgotten to remove the cannula that delivered oxygen to her lungs through her nose.
Before I could rectify the mistake, somebody came into the room. I fluffed the pillow and put it gently behind Inez’s head. She couldn’t tell on me because the Lord had struck her mute. I went back to my chair and sat down, while the nurse went about her nursing business.
I told Veronica about that dream the morning after, and she and I had a good laugh. “I can’t believe I forgot the cannula,” I said.
Don’t judge me—It was a dream. Three weeks later, Inez died peacefully, with Veronica, her loving daughter, holding her hand. (I was at work.)
I do think about that dream, and about my mother and Inez often, but especially around Mother’s Day. Get your mom a Hallmark card. Take her to lunch somewhere nice. Love her well, despite her sins and yours. She’ll be gone far too soon.