By Charlie Johnston
I have been working on a delicate and complex piece the last week. Complex, of course, is easy; boiling it down to where it is easily communicated is hard, indeed. In his dotage, a letter from Thomas Jefferson to his old rival, John Adams, began with an apology. “I am sorry for writing you such a long letter,” Jefferson said. “I didn’t have time to write a short one.” I have always loved that quote. I am finished with the piece, but complicating it is that I expect a couple of big stories to break later today or tomorrow – and I am going to write about it and update you on the situation with David Daleiden and Planned Parenthood as soon as those stories break. I have decided I want to print that first and let it sit for a couple days before publishing the other one.
It was eight years ago today that my Mom passed on from pancreatic cancer. It was a Saturday, the day before Mother’s Day and the Eve of the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima. Her illness had developed while I was on my pilgrimage. I was in Mariposa County, California, just west of Yosemite when I got word that she was not going to make it and only had a few weeks left, at best. I was a good 200 miles from anywhere I could get any transportation. Fortunately, my family, led by my brothers Steve and Ron, made arrangements to get me back for her final days. It was a gauntlet involving several Mariposa County Deputies (God bless them), two trains, two buses, two cabs and four planes, but I got home. My brother, Steve, had driven out from San Diego and said he would take the northern route home and drop me in central Kansas to complete my pilgrimage.
At this stage, Mom was going in and out of coherence. Oh, how I thank God that she spent her final days at home in the bosom of her family! My sister was in charge of her care – it was just too fraught with emotion for Dad – though it was not a piece of cake for my sister, either. Mom was seeing angels in those last few weeks, all around her makeshift bed. My sister said that, ever since she had taken the final turn, she had been restlessly asking everyone, “Where’s my baby?” – and terribly upset that she could not find that baby. Her fearful anguish over the matter upset everyone. When I got there, as I walked into the room, Mom lifted up in her bed, pointed her arm at me and, with a great smile, said, “There’s my baby!” She did not ask the forlorn question again over that last week.
Married barely a week after her 14th birthday, Mom was just 15 and a half when I was born. She went into labor with me on Friday, Feb. 24. But she had the Mumps – a childhood disease – so the doctor gave her some injections to try to prevent my birth until the mumps had subsided. At seven a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26, I came into this world, injections or no injections. It always irritated Mom that they sent me home with her mother before they would let her out of the hospital. To a certain degree, Mom and I were babies together.
For much of my adult life, the encounter between Mom and me was an uneasy one. For whatever reasons, we did not click well and frequently offended each other, usually unintentionally, but sometimes with intent. Mom had a very sharp temper – and a sharp tongue to match when her dander was up. And yet, we had many delightful moments as well.
In the year before I left on my pilgrimage, I lived in the downstairs apartment at my parent’s home in Alabama. What a grace from God! In that year, all the offenses melted away and Mom and I became as close – perhaps even closer – than we were when I was a little fellow. Every Wednesday night we would watch the TV show, “Criminal Minds,” together. If I wasn’t upstairs ten minutes before the show began, Mom would be on the phone telling me to get a move on. Mom loved Matthew Gray Gubler, who played Dr. Spencer Reed on the show. My sister later told me that she loved him because he reminded her of me – intimidatingly smart, but lovable in his good intentions and frequent painful awkwardness. At the time, Dad was working a part-time retirement job as a security guard at the local hospital. When he would go to work, Mom and I would get together and chat and reminisce, just enjoy some alone together time as we discovered each other anew.
I got my occasional sharp temper from my Mom and her side of the family. My story-telling came from Dad’s side of the family. Poor Mom had trouble telling a story at the best of times, and could not tell a joke to save her life. It could be very frustrating for her, having spent her life surrounded by raconteurs. She had had a heart attack about ten years before she passed on – and both it and the medication she took played havoc with her short-term memory. Though she was awkward telling a story, she did it with great relish. Once, sitting in the parlor with her, she was enthusiastically telling me a story. It had taken four wild changes of direction. Suddenly, she was quiet for a moment, and then started crying. Alarmed, I asked her what the matter was. She said that as hard as she tried, she couldn’t remember where she was at in a story and now didn’t remember what her point was at all. I chuckled and told her that it didn’t matter – that I enjoyed her little stories. When she began one, I said, it was like watching a rabbit go into a thicket: I knew where it went in, but had no clue where it was going to come out – and it was kind of fun to watch. She thought for a moment, giggled, and said, “That’s exactly how it is for me.” After that, she had no self-consciousness at all about telling me her little stories – and we would chuckle together in gentle amusement on those occasions where she lost her place altogether. It was such a moment of tender grace for us.
When she died, it tore me up for a while. One of my closest friends was startled by my grief, saying that surely I knew better than almost anyone that she had just been born to the next world. I agreed with him, but pointed out that when Lazarus died, Jesus – who was Lord of life and death – wept over the loss of His friend, even knowing with complete certainty that it was only temporary.
Mom is one of three people who have not been canonized who I regularly pray to for intercession and help. No, I am not presumptuous. When I began, I told the Lord I did not assume anything – that if any of these three are not in heaven, please apply my prayers to them for their purgatory or for whatever other need is there. I usually spend every Saturday asking for Mom’s intercession – and when I am struggling with something heavy, I ask for Mom to help her little boy.
Once, confronted with a particularly thorny problem, I was praying intensely, asking Mom for help. At one point, I said, “Please Mom. You have to help me out. You’re smarter than me now.” I’m sure it was my imagination, but I could swear I heard her giggling with delight right after I said that.
I miss you Mom and would tell you to rest in peace – but I prefer you stay busy interceding for all your family and friends.