Fortunate change in last words
In the months, years and even decades since my mother died, I’ve been marking off the time in segments of disbelief. Like, I can’t believe it’s been a month already, six months already, a year, five years, 10, 20, 30 years already. Each new demarcation has left me shocked by both the speed at which time passes and the glacial pace with which it makes things hurt less.
And now, this very day, it’s been 34 years. I can’t believe it’s been 34 years. My mother was only 36 years old when a perfect storm of drunken drivers — the one driving the car she was in, the one driving the car that hit it — left her dead before the ambulance ride to the hospital was over. Afterward there were lawsuits and child-custody disputes and fights over the tiniest bits of life-insurance money, and at least one person went to prison, but I’ve never bothered to learn much about the details of all that. I was 13, and I’d never see my mother again. That was about as detail oriented as I was able to be.
But here’s the thing — something very strange happened the last time I saw her. I’d like to share that story on this anniversary of the day that my life was dramatically and forever changed.
My parents had been divorced for a few years already, and my brother and I were living in Mississippi with our mother. She was dating again and sometimes enjoyed having weekends to herself. Often we’d go to our grandparents’ house for the weekends. Our grandparents were like second parents to us, so time with them was always enjoyable.
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But this particular weekend things would be different. I was 13, just a few months from 14, and was beginning to develop my newfound skills as a smart-ass, testing the waters occasionally with the adults. Now ours was a traditional Southern household, so any sort of backtalk was frowned upon. And by “frowned upon” I mean “whopped in the ass with a 3-foot section of orange plastic Hot Wheels track,” so such a testing of the waters was not without potential real-world consequence.
I had a motorcycle (Suzuki RM100, in case anyone asks) that I’d bought with money saved from cleaning up a bar after school. It had been broken for a while, but I’d finally managed to get the right part for it and get it working. I was excited for the weekend so I could go out in the backyard and ride it around in big ovals for hours. But my mother also had plans for the weekend, and on Friday afternoon when she told me that we were going to our grandparents’ house later that day, I was not pleased.
I reached deep into my newly dug teenage attitude well and said, “I don’t think it’s fair that you pawn us off while you go have a good time.”
Thing is, though, I never considered time with my grandparents as being “pawned off.” I just wanted my way. Not the worst thing a teenager has ever done or said. But as I said it, I could see something in my mother’s face. I could see the success in my comment mirrored back by her hurt. I had managed to lash out, and it connected. My mother was conflicted, and I was using it against her. She was young and divorced with two kids and trying to make ends meet. She was also still living in the small Delta town that she grew up in and was wondering how she was going to raise her kids and still manage to have a life. And she was vivacious and attractive and liked to go out and have fun with friends.
And that was when the thing happened. All these years later, and I still can’t explain it, but I can try to describe it. I got a very strong and instant sensation that this was not what I wanted to say to my mother at this moment. And immediately my entire mood changed as radically as if a switch had been flipped.
“I’m sorry,” I said, almost as soon as the other words had left my mouth. “I didn’t mean that.”
And all was well. We talked about some stuff. Nothing special. A bit about travel logistics and what we’d do when we all came home on Sunday afternoon. A friend was going to pick us up later to take us to our grandparents’. She backed out of the driveway, and I stood on the porch to wave goodbye to her — another unusual occurrence. Less than 12 hours later, she was dead.
Whatever that was — that overpowering, impossible-to-ignore sensation that had me uncharacteristically switch gears and not have some snotty remark be that last thing I ever got to say to my mother — well, thanks. It was hard enough to get through the subsequent years without that bit of an extra load.
And when the surreal anniversary comes, just two years from now, when she’ll have been dead for as long as she’d been alive, well — I probably won’t be able to believe that day, either.
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays.
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