14: Better Late Than Never

14: Better Late Than Never

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

Better Late Than Never

My mother . . . she is beautiful, softened at the edges and tempered with a spine of steel. I want to grow old and be like her.

~Jodi Picoult

As a child, more often than not, I woke to the familiar burnt-aluminum smell of another kettle whistling itself to death on our electric range. It was the starting-gun odor of my mother’s daily race from behind.

Mom was chronically late, always doing “one more thing.” She’d pick up a ringing phone, or have to place dishes in the sink, or lose her car keys. And heaven help my sister or me if she sent us to wait for her in the car. Then, there’d be no one to remind her there wasn’t time to dust the coffee table.

I remember standing outside the elementary school every Tuesday, assuring my Brownie troop leader that Mom hadn’t forgotten me. Mrs. Williams would snort a response that let me know she had more important places to be.

I was late for school, doctors’ appointments, band practice, sleepovers . . . you name it. Each incident made me more uncomfortable and less forgiving. How hard was it to get out the door on time? Thank goodness, Mom’s boss was tolerant. She charmed him with her quirky sense of humor and strong work ethic once she arrived, but the shadow of disciplinary action always loomed over her employment. In her defense, I’m sure her role as a single, working parent didn’t help, but I wasn’t ready to entertain that as a valid excuse.

My wedding was the icing on the three-tiered cake. After a thirty-five-minute delay, the guests were fidgety. My side of the crowd collectively rolled their eyes when my mother rushed in and raced to her seat. I walked down the aisle, tense-lipped, a few minutes later.

In my late twenties, Mom became seriously ill. She had battled sarcoidosis since shortly after I was born. The disease builds scar tissue on major organs in the body. In her case, it had begun attacking her lungs. For years, she’d disguised its symptoms and powered through its debilitating exhaustion without complaint. None of us had known how hard it was on her.

My husband and I made the decision to move her into our home, and I began to comprehend tardiness. I juggled a new marriage, an ailing parent, and a job. I struggled to be on time for anything.

When my son was born two years later, it was even worse. Mom’s chronic “one more thing” became my life. Every time I needed to be somewhere, Mom required my attention, or my son needed a diaper change, or the new puppy threw up the diaper I just changed because I left it on the floor. Then my husband would call from work to ask if I could please make him a doctor’s appointment. Meanwhile, my own appointment scheduled for thirty minutes earlier was long lost.

I finally understood Mom’s years of failed punctuality. The phone that rang on her way out the door was a friend who needed advice, or my sister forgetting her gym clothes. And Mom’s never-ending search for lost car keys? Well, that was a daily occurrence for me now. I even understood the dust on the coffee table. Once noticed, it had to be dealt with because later she’d be too tired. Mom had been responsible for it all as a single parent while suffering a chronic disease. And she’d done it valiantly with smiles and jokes that vexed me to no end as a child.

I apologized to her once in the midst of scavenging my son’s diaper bag for my darn keys. Near tears, I looked up to find her holding them out to me.

“Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry. I used to get so mad at you when I was a kid.”

She squeezed my shoulders. “Honey, we’re all judgmental jerks when we’re young. I knew you’d outgrow it.”

What could I do but laugh?

When Mom passed, our family arrived early for her memorial service. We were greeted by a funeral director with a slight sheen of sweat on his lip, although it was a chilly October day.

“I’m afraid I have some distressing news,” he said. “There is a problem with your mother’s ashes. They will not be available until tomorrow.”

Mom had managed to be late for her own funeral! My sister and I burst into laughter. We laughed until we cried, and then we giggled some more. Mom was more with us in that moment than if her earthly remains had arrived. As mourners entered the church, the news spread that an empty urn sat next to my mother’s picture. People suppressed grins and whispered, “Of course.” Mom had made sure we smiled in the midst of our grief.

After the service, I found myself alone in the sanctuary. It hit me how much I had taken for granted that Mom would always be there . . . eventually. I desperately wanted a few more minutes to make sure she knew how much I admired, appreciated, and loved her. But I was too late. Somehow, though, I knew she understood.

And now, when my son is hurrying me out the door, or I’ve forgotten his lunch money, I remind myself it’s okay to fall short sometimes. My mother taught me that perfection has nothing to do with being an amazing mom.

~Leigh Smith

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