Three words came to mind the first time I saw her –weird, strange, and goofy. She was older than the rest of us. She had a minimum of ten, perhaps twenty years on us, but there she stood among college students ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-one. Her hair was auburn, almost more red than brown and she had a floral bandanna wrapped around her head that was tied beneath her hair in back. Her hair was straight and neck length, falling thick over the folds of that bandanna. She was not at all what one might consider an attractive woman. She was overweight with broad hips. She had dimples on either side of her round little mouth. Her eyes were big and green, and she seemed to love rolling them into the middle toward her nose to make a fish face with her cheeks sucked in and her lips protruding. Her laugh was loud, more like an animal call than true laughter. I imagined it to be somewhat like the sound of a monkey calling from the thick vegetation canopy of a jungle.
The first time I saw her in the hallway outside the choir rehearsal room where we were all waiting for the choir director to open the door, I made a mental note to myself, “Stay away from that woman. She’s weird!” However, staying away from her was easier said than done, especially if she took an interest in you, and she took an interest in me.
The questions began, “Are you a music major?”
“Really? How did you get interested in choir?”
“I thought it would be fun.”
“Why don’t you major in music?”
“Because there is no future in music unless you become a rock star, and not many people can pull that off.”
There is no way of recalling exactly how the conversations went, but I found myself becoming more and more fascinated with her. Over time, we became friends, and I learned her story. She had lived in a converted school bus with her husband for the previous four years, working to support him while he finished his PhD in psychology. The deal was, she would support him through graduate school. Then, when he got his first job after graduate school, he would support her while she went back to finish her degree which she suspended to marry him. He had gotten a job as clinical director for the local community mental health center, and had kept his promise to support her in finishing her degree.
Before she met him, she was in a pre-med program, but decided to switch to a degree in music when she returned to school. She was brilliant and would have made an excellent doctor with the exception that the stress of being a doctor could negatively impact her fragile health. She had been born with some type of autoimmune disease and had been told that she would never live beyond the age of 35. She was almost as old as that when I met her and she seemed to be quite healthy. However, looks can be deceiving.
She had taken steps to counteract the predictions of pessimistic doctors, and had connected early on with the Edgar Cayce Association for Research & Enlightenment (A.R.E.) in Virginia Beach, Virginia where she learned alternative healing techniques such as meditation. She swore the techniques were what kept her alive. One of those techniques was gratitude and the importance of staying focused on the present moment rather than regretting the past or worrying about the future.
While her husband had studied for his PhD, she read every textbook he brought home, and by the time she went back to college, she was almost as familiar with different psychological theories and therapy techniques as he was. While she was working to put him through graduate school she had also connected to, and had been initiated into Wicca. This was a far cry from her Arkansas Baptist upbringing and something she did not confess to me for some time, as I too had grown up in fundamentalist Christianity where any such thing was automatically considered to be of the devil. As a general rule, she told everyone she had converted to Catholicism which she had, in fact, also done. She felt that being Catholic was a better cover for being a witch than some other Christian religions might be.
She found me at a time when I was confused, frustrated, and angry. She took me under her wing, began to mentor me and would lovingly tease me about my “fumes” as my anger was my most evident presentation at the time. I tended to be more sullen than raging, but rage was the alligator that lay beneath the surface of my petulant swamp. She never seemed to take my anger as seriously as I did, although she never discounted my feelings. My furious demeanor was something she could quickly convert into a smile. She found my wounds and gently began to teach me how to heal them. I wish I could say those wounds have been totally healed, but even when a deep wound heals from the inside out, there is still a tender scar, and at 60 years old, I realize that I am not as self-actualized as I would like to be. Anger has been perhaps one of the greatest challenges of my life, but she could somehow take my anger in stride, and guide me to calm me and reason.
Long walks with her on autumn days were my favorite, along with just sitting beside her on a bench or a porch swing with her hand wrapped firmly around my own. She reveled in life. She had learned to do so. Maybe that was something she learned from A.R.E. or maybe it was something she learned from Wicca, an ancient nature religion that focuses on the cycles of time and the beauty of nature. Regardless, she could milk more joy out of the color in a maple leaf than most people can draw from the birth of their firstborn child. She found ways to compensate in life, ways to work around the ticking clock that threatened at any moment to run out if her body failed to fight off some illness that the rest of us take for granted, or if some cancer took hold because of increased susceptibility.
Every day was a challenge to live her life and appreciate it, because of the threat that death might be looming in the next moment.
As she aged, she became increasingly ill. She developed Meniere’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the inner ear that can cause nausea and vertigo. If that wasn’t enough to go through, nature decided to add diabetes to the list. She made a joking comment one day, “I was so happy to find out that I have heart disease. That way if all this other crap gets to be too much, I just won’t take my heart pills, and I’ll run around the block a few times.” She never did that. In fact, if anything, she reveled in every precious moment of her life. Despite the fact that she had been told by medical professionals that she would never live past her mid-thirties, by her mid-forties, she has been widowed twice. She never married the third man in her life because that would have meant giving up her widow’s benefits from having been married to a Vietnam Veteran in her second marriage. However, the third man in her life was to spend twelve years with her and see her to the grave even though it meant that he got nothing out of the deal except to have been in her life and to have loved her.
Past college and graduate school, my life moved on. I moved to Nashville, Tennessee where I lived for fourteen years. None the less, she was always my family. She believed with all her heart that she had been my mother in a previous life. In this life, she adopted me as her own, adopted others she mentored, because her body would not allow her to have children. After seven miscarriages, she finally gave up. We were her family, those of us who were fortunate enough to have been adopted by her. Those of us who were pulled from abuse and neglect to finally find the one who could take us on down the road to our destiny. She was that, Mother Mouse, her nickname lovingly assigned because of her passion for collecting mouse memorabilia. She made us believe in ourselves. She made us believe that life is more than a body, more than the petty interactions we have, more than angst and anguish over things that don’t really matter in the first place. She was a teacher of truth to the very last moment of her life.
Over time her autoimmune illness finally got the best of her. At the age of fifty-seven she contracted hemolytic anemia, a precursor to leukemia. Her doctors, with all good intentions, prescribed steroids that caused undiagnosed diverticulitis to rupture. A trip to the emergency room and a failed diagnosis meant that she had horrible pain and over twenty-four hours before it was diagnosed, fecal matter had been leaking into her peritoneal cavity. The intervention for this was to open her up from the top to bottom of her abdomen, repair the breach in her intestine and keep the incision open under a tent so her peritoneal cavity could have regular lavage with sterile saline.
There she lay under a tent in the hospital room on about the third floor, unable to turn from left to right, only able to lay flat on her back while debris and infection were cleansed from her abdomen. Of course I had come to visit. Of course I was going to be there with her. She was my spiritual mother, my guide and my mentor. Several of us who loved her were in the room on one eventful day. We sat over to the side chatting, and in some ways ignoring her. We were pulled into our own concepts of importance when she simply said, “I just love my magnolia tree.”
In my mind, I went to her house. Mentally, I scanned round and round her house, checking my memories of the back yard and the front, even mentally checking the neighbor’s yards. I saw no magnolia tree. There were many different kinds of trees around her house and in the neighbor’s houses, but none of them were magnolia trees. Finally, I said, “Magnolia tree? What magnolia tree? You don’t have a magnolia tree.”
“Yes I do.” She replied simply, with a matter of fact tone.
“Where?” I questioned.
“Out there.” She said, as she pointed a feeble finger toward the one window in the hospital room.
I got up, went to her bed, leaned down next to her head, and looked in the direction she was pointing. There between the corridor of two buildings standing side by side was a magnolia tree in the distance, and it was in April bloom. Suddenly I realized this was her magnolia tree. In that moment when she could find nothing else to be grateful for, she found that magnolia tree. In that moment when she was facing what was likely to be, and in the end was indeed her immanent death, she found that magnolia tree, one little thing in all the fear, one little thing in all the distraction, one little thing in all the hurt to be grateful for. It was her magnolia tree, and although she could not touch it, although she could not smell the fragrant blooms, she claimed it as her own. She claimed it as one brief moment of gratitude in her experience of hell.
After that visit, I went back home. I had to. I had my own obligations, my own work, my own life requiring me to be present there. I could not stay by her side, I had other things to do.
In a few weeks, my spiritually adopted sister called and said, “If you ever want to see Mother Mouse alive again, you better get down here.”
I packed my bags, threw them in the trunk of my car and headed for Little Rock. I drove along half in a daze. It had only been about a year earlier that I lost my grandmother who was the only other person besides Mother Mouse who had such a profound influence on my life. My life was in upheaval yet again. The time had come for me to step up to the plate, to stop being the student and become the teacher. In just one more day, my life would transition as I had never dreamed it could.
Just after I passed he Missouri border into Arkansas a hawk flew down in front of my car, flew directly toward my car and swooped over the front windshield as though it had been a diagram of wind shear in a computer simulated test of aerodynamics. In my rearview mirror, I saw the hawk continuing to twirl around the road in search of prey or road kill. That moment lodged in my mind and somehow spoke to me that Mother Mouse would be gone soon.
When I walked into the hospital room in Little Rock, there sat her third partner of twelve years who she had never married, her step mother who was a former Nun, and my spiritual sister who had called me to say she was dying and that I better get there. Mother Mouse lay on her side in a dark first floor room. She had been brought back from “exploratory” surgery with the admonishment that there was nothing more they could do. She had practically every medical device for the preservation of life protruding out of her. I walked in, took one look at her, turned to Frank, her life companion and said, “Frank, does she have a living will?”
“Yes,” he replied quietly in his suppressed grief.
“What does it say, Frank?” I insisted.
“It says, no extraordinary measures.” He replied.
“Frank,” I said firmly. “It looks pretty damned extraordinary to me.”
Her step mother stood up and exclaimed, “We can’t kill her!”
To this I responded, “Killing her would be putting a bullet in her head or a knife in her heart. It is not killing her to take her off artificial life support and allow her to die the way God intended.”
Her step mother sat back down. She and Frank whispered to one another, and decided to go out into the hall to talk. In a few minutes they came back with the decision that they would grant permission for medical staff to take Mother Mouse off artificial life support.
It took about two hours for all the legalities to be addressed and for the actual life support to be removed. When at last it was removed, Mother Mouse did not live even five minutes more. She died, at that time, only two days after her fifty eighth birthday.
I have no regrets for insisting that her living will be honored. I have no regrets that she was taken off artificial machines and allowed to go the way of nature. I am eternally grateful for all that she taught me, right down to the last few weeks of her life in which she clung to the one thing she had to cling to, the one thing which might bring her even the faintest hint of joy. Somehow, knowing that the worst was bound to ensue, knowing that her brief life would soon be over, she found one little thing for which she could be grateful. Those words will forever ring in my ears. “I just love my magnolia tree.” Forever and always a symbol of true gratitude, “I just love my magnolia tree.”