Budd Davisson, Feb, '99

The Last Goodbye

The moment that comes to us all is still a shock

She was staring straight ahead, as she has been for the last few years. This world didn’t exist as she focused on something unseen to the rest of us. She was probably re-living a pleasant memory: Remembering one of us graduating from high school. Or having children. Or falling down and skinning a knee that only she could make feel better.

I knelt down next to her wheelchair and stroked her soft, silver hair as I said, “Mom, I’ve got to go. I’m sorry, but I have to go back home. I’ll see you again, as soon as I can.” But, I knew that was probably a lie. The phone call my sister had made a few days earlier hadn’t been overstated: Our mother was failing fast. I hung up the phone, stomped out a few immediate brush fires, and caught the next flight to Nebraska. And now I was leaving again. And had probably said my last good by.

Every single one of us knows that moment is coming. We live life knowing it is finite. That it has a beginning and it has an end. However, it seems easier to imagine our own death than it is our parents’. Parents are supposed to be forever. They are supposed to be different than the rest of our species. But it isn’t so. And life goes on.

I’m far luckier than most in that my parents have both lived long, incredible lives. Mom, with luck, will turn 90 next month and dad is a faintly obnoxious 91, driving everyone nuts around him with his twisted sense of humor and generally wonderful weirdness.

Mom, however, has always been a different breed of cat. Fun loving while serious, soft but tough. As much as my father cast the die for me in ways creative, it was mother who laid down the rules that could best summed up by “...don’t let anything stand in your way. If you want it badly enough, you’ll get it.”

If it had been up to my father, for instance, I would have never learned to fly. It scared him too much to think of his first born son up there in “ of those things.” Mom, on the other hand, felt differently. In fact, when I was 15 and bugging them to let me start taking flying lessons, it was mom who signed the permission slip. Dad was in the hospital at the time and, as she said in later life, letting me take flying lessons seemed like a good way to keep me from becoming a more serious juvenile delinquent than I already was. She also said that given the chance, she’d learn to fly herself. Dad shuddered everytime she said that. But, that’s just the way mom was. She welcomed every one of life’s experiences with open arms.

Everyone thinks their mother is exceptional. And in their own way, most are. Mine, however, was very exceptional and I don’t care how you define the term. Born and raised a farm girl in southeast, turn-of-the-century Nebraska, while in her mid-teens, her intellect and brilliance resulted in a full-scholarship offer from the Julliard School of Music in NYC. Pretty heady stuff for a kid from the heartland! Her father, however, a black dirt farmer in the finest and most honorable sense of the word, couldn’t handle the thought of his country flower going so far away to such a big city and put his foot down. So, she went to college at the age of sixteen and “settled” for a masters degree in English by the time she was twenty.

She was teaching when my father met her. This was in the mid-1920’s and, at the time, there weren’t a lot of Nebraska farm girls with masters degrees floating around. But she never lost her song. There was always a Steinway Grand in our living room which mom had owned when dad met her. He says he picked her out because she owned a piano and “...could do things.” There weren’t a lot of farm girls running around with Steinway Grands in those days either. A full-sized Hammond organ joined it sometime in the 1950’s.

Dad eventually forgave mom for signing my student pilot permission slip, but he has to shoulder his part of the blame for me contracting a severe case of aviationitis: When I was six years old he unwittingly gave me my first airplane ride. It was in the back seat of a BT-13 Vultee but we were moving backwards because the tail was up in the bed of a pick-up truck and we were traveling slowly down State Highway 15. The recently surplused airplane had just been flown into a local wheat field and he was dragging it down to his big, vaguely bizarre, general store. There he painted the name of the family business on the fuselage and towed the airplane around to local county fairs.

That six mile, tail-first ride down the highway was to have massive, long lasting effects on me. And then there was the wind-damaged J-2 Cub someone traded to him for a new mattress: I poked into every nook and crannie of that airplane’s innards until I was so severely hooked, I had no choice but to live my life in aeronautical ways.

In recent weeks mom has been completely ignoring those around her. As I quietly said my good-by, however, her eyes suddenly changed focus and she slowly pivoted her head and looked directly at me. And there was no doubt it was me she was seeing. Those wonderfully bright eyes shone for the briefest of moments and a tiny smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She has always had a curiously impish smile that’s more grin than smile. And there it was again. One more time for me. Tears welled up in her eyes as they locked onto mine. Then the lights went out again and she went back to staring at something long ago and far away. We had said our good by.
By the time you read this, she’ll most probably be gone. And you will have missed knowing an elegant fireball of the old school. But I knew her. And I loved her. We had a great life together and I’m not too certain but what that’s all that counts. So, good-by, mom. May your next journey be as pleasant as your last. And to the rest of you. Call home right now.