Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happy Non-Birthday, Mom

It is bizarre, hearing today (of all days) of Elizabeth Edwards' losing her battle with cancer. Especially when it was only announced this morning that she had ceased treatment and returned home to die among family and friends. Why? Well, today (for most of you) is Pearl Harbor Day. But for me, even though her birthday was really Dec. 4th, it's my late mother's birthday. Why? It was a long running joke: I'd call on Dec. 7th to wish her a happy birthday, and tell her I always remembered her birthday because "Tora Tora Tora" was on TV, and that it was "a day that will live in infamy." (Yes, I was a horribly irreverent son. Sorry. *smirks*)

What you see above is a product of necessity: A photo of a photo, because I don't have a scanner. But it's a special photo. It is the last photo my mother and I took together, three years before I lost her in 2006. Blurry and poor quality, but I think you can see the love there.

Anyone who knows me knows how close my mother and I were, and how deeply her loss has affected me. This time of year is always especially hard, as this is the time during which the events unfolded leading to her death. The day before Thanksgiving of 2006, she had just entered the hospital with an elevated white cell count, after months of feeling awful and doctors not knowing what was wrong. (This was why I had moved back to Austin, to be closer to her, as I had initially been planning to leave Las Vegas for Los Angeles. Something told me, when she got so ill, that I needed to be closer to home.) She had insisted that she wanted to be home for her 67th birthday.

It was not to be. Two days later, she had a massive stroke which impaired her speech and her thought processes, and succumbed to pneumonia. I had returned to my hometown and quit my job in Austin with 15 cents to my name, to be there with her and deal with her doctors and my family. She would never leave the hospital. They discovered a few days after her birthday the massive tumor in her colon that had not been there six months before. Then they discovered the cancer that was now widespread through her system. They could not treat her without curing the pneumonia. Even then, the cancer was so strong, treatment would have only kept her alive for a few months.

She would never get better. Eventually, she was on a food tube and life support. December 14, 2006, I had to call a meeting of the family and her doctor, and have the doctor lay out the truth as honestly as he had been letting me have it. Ten minutes later, I signed the order to take her off life support.

She would die December 17. The family, because of the proximity of her death to the holidays, has never celebrated Christmas since. And I can't go through these days every year without remembering the anniversaries connected with her death.

I always hope I carry on the best of Mom: Her big, open heart. Her generosity. Her ability to make friends with literally everyone she met. (I know I don't do so great, on that score. But I try.) Her love of literature and language - I know I got those from her. She even passed on my extreme love of rock 'n' roll to me, whether she realized it (or approved of it) or not, when she let me watch Elvis Presley in his 1968 comeback special and gave me her teenage record collection the next day: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Little Richard, all the classics of the era.

I don't think I'm romanticizing it to say Mary Judith Mullen Stegall was truly better than most of us. She was certainly better than me. She was the true definition of a Christian, and not the judgmental, hypocritical standard of that religion today. Not a day goes by that I don't think of her. Not a minute passes that I don't miss her terribly.

I now take it really personally whenever I hear of cancer affecting anyone. I suspect this was a reason my girlfriend kept me away as she (successfully) battled cancer this past year. It breaks my heart to hear of Elizabeth Edwards' passing. I know exactly what her family is going through. It's what I'm still going through, even four years later.

I love you, Mom. Always will. You and I were all we had in this world, most of the time I was growing up. And you managed to bear it with grace and dignity and great humor. And love. An endless supply of love. You had the hardest job in the world, raising me. I hope you can see that you did well at it. Thank you.

And by the way, Mom: Happy birthday. "Tora Tora Tora" is on TV. *smirks*

Mary Judith Mullen Stegall
December 4, 1939 - December 17, 2006


  1. A beautiful bit of love written there, Tim, and a beautiful picture. My thoughts are with you today, man.

  2. Beautiful tribute Tim. My thoughts are with you.


  3. Tim,
    Very touching and heart-felt. I lost my mom to a stroke two years ago now. So I'm right there with ya. My mom suffered from dimensia toward the end and eventually came in and out of knowing who I was. But we knew before she completely lost touch that we had settled our differences. She told me I was her anchor. I was to make sure the sail boat, my twin sister, didn't crash on shore. I cherish those words from her. She lives on, as does your mom, through you and the decisions you make...who you are, how you treat others. Thanks for letting me say a few things. I'm glad you honor your mother; you honor yourself too by doing so.
    Anna Nymity

  4. This is so lovely tim. But of course your beautiful mother is still with you and when you feel her presence, make sure you speak to her and use her name aloud. On special days that you would normally be with her, make her favorite foods, play her fave songs, leave a seat for her at the dinner table. Dont be surprised if a light flickers or goes out or your record repeats for no apparent reason. The deceased have a knack for being able to manipulate electronics easier than they can speak or materialize for us simple minded, psychic resistant humans.

    You know i love you baby and i believe you chose this path in life of being surrounded by cancer patients because your heart is so big and compassionate. You knew before you made this life agreement that you would be a comfort to us sufferers and that you would learn your own "in the moment" values from watching our struggles.