Patrick Kuhl: The last time I saw Mom ...

May 11, 2014 

The last time I saw my mom, she didn't know who I was.

She had been suffering from dementia for years and she was tired. But she was never alone. Pop, my brothers and sisters, in-laws and grandkids all came by the hospital to spend time with her. She didn't recognize them either, but it didn't matter. She had always been there for us, so we wanted to be there for her, too.

It was 1981. I had just flown in from Texas -- "and geez, Mom, my arms are tired!"

Mom just looked at me, or past me, and said "yeah." That's how she responded to just about everything. So, I held her hand and talked to her.

I told her all about Texas because she and Pop came to visit us a couple of times and they liked it. Mom seemed more impressed by a trip to the H.E.B. grocery store than a trip to Padre Island. But she did like seagulls eating bread right out of her upstretched hands and that I had planted a lemon tree in the backyard. She didn't like Texas scorpions. I told her next time she came down, I'd make her some lemonade.

"Yeah," she said.

Mom kept a picture of her and Pop on a Texas beach in a plastic cube on the living room knickknack shelf. Only the most important pictures made it into the plastic cube. A grandchild in his cap and gown was just around the plastic corner from a picture of the big old white house in Highland where I grew up.

I told her I was afraid of that house when we first moved there from Mascoutah. It was a dump. The yard was all grown up in weeds and the house was falling apart. But we needed a place and Pop was pretty handy and there were eight kids to help whip it into shape.

I was just 5 and didn't have any friends and my new house was scary. Mom set about making the dump into a home. I got to sort the wash with her and keep all the change I found in Pop's overalls pockets --- just like I did in our Mascoutah house. We hung wash together and cooked together and Mom introduced me to Mr. Ted Beck across the street, who saw Babe Ruth play, and the people down the street who had kids about the same age as my sister and I. All of a sudden, it wasn't so scary anymore.

"Yeah."

I talked about the plays we 12th Street kids put on on the front porch. All the neighbors would come with their lawn chairs and, for a nickel, they'd be entertained by "The Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle."

And how I'd throw a rubber ball at the front steps for hours, playing baseball with Ernie Banks and Willie Mays and Nellie Fox. Sometimes, the ball would hit the corner of the step just so and bounce backward (a foul ball into the stands) and hit the screen door. Mom would get angry when I'd pop the screen out again. But not too angry.

"Yeah."

I told her how much I missed her creamed peas and roast beef with gravy. Nobody could make them like she did. But I didn't miss that awful smelling sauerkraut soup we called "g'mice."

"Yeah."

Mom didn't remember the family Thanksgiving dinners on the pool table in the basement or that we once found a turkey bone in one of the pockets a week later. Or swinging in the backyard swing that Pop made from scrap wood. Or that I liked to crawl up on the swing and wedge myself between Mom and Pop and wait for a breeze to cool us off on a hot summer evening. But I told her about it anyway.

"Remember the time, Mom, you tried to dye your white hair red and it turned green?"

"Yeah."

Then there was the time Mom's gall bladder attacked and she had to go to the hospital for a few days. The hospital didn't allow kids in those days, so all I could get was a wave from her at her window. Meanwhile, my brother had taken over the cooking duties and made rubber pancakes. At least, they tasted like pancakes. I'm pretty sure they were the inspiration for the Frisbee. Mom always liked that story because it made her feel needed. My brother hates that story. ...

"Yeah."

I told her how hard it was for me to tell her that I was dropping out of the seminary and was going to college to study journalism. I knew it was a huge disappointment that I wouldn't become a priest, which was the highest honor for a family. But she didn't show it. She just helped me figure it all out and sent me off to college with brand new underwear and my favorite chocolate chip cookies. I would have never made it without the cookies. Or the underwear.

"Yeah."

After a couple days, a million stories and a few miles walking around the hospital halls, it was time for me to go back to Texas. I told her goodbye, gave her a hug and told her I'd see her again.

"Yeah."

I didn't.

On the plane home, I thought about the first time Mom saw me --- early on the morning of April 27, 1951. I didn't know her then, either. So, she probably just held my tiny hand and talked to me.

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