Requiem for my mother

2 12 2010

My beloved mother, Janie Alta Dyer, passed away on Thursday evening, November 18 after living with ovarian cancer for 11 years. Our family was very fortunate to be there when, as the hospice minister predicted, “She will draw her last breath here on earth, and she will draw her next breath in heaven.” I could not have known how much that would mean to me to be there during this transition. It was all at once unforgettable and painful, but a breathtaking privilege as well.

She was diagnosed with Stage II ovarian cancer in winter of 1999. Not many women diagnosed with this disease get that much time, but my mother was blessed with incredible strength, patience, and yes, even a bit of luck at times. She was diagnosed at an earlier stage than most, so luck had some hand in the process, I think. She was also lucky to have the best doctors and nurses in the world—at Brooke Army Medical Center and Wilford Hall in San Antonio, Texas.

Above all else, she was blessed to have my most amazing father as her caregiver, with her every step of the way—through every single diagnosis, remission, recurrence, major surgery, same-day surgery, procedure, x-ray, PET scan, CAT scan, blood draw and lung tap. Because of so many years of chemotherapy, her kidneys suffered a major blow and she received dialysis twice a week for more than two years. Through it all my father was there—holding her up and cheering her on, unfailingly. He was both her rock and her soft place to fall. I hope he knows how profoundly grateful my sisters and I are that he was by her side for 58 years, and especially during the last 11 years.

Her funeral service was this past Monday, November 29. Beneath a beautiful cornflower blue Texas sky, she was interred at Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery. I know I am not alone when I express my fear of public speaking, but I decided that if my mother could live with cancer (and all that accompanies it) for 11 years, I could certainly read something in front of an audience of people who knew and loved her. I know she gave me the strength to do so. Below is my requiem for my mother.

Every single person born has a mother, but nobody has ever had one like ours. In the midst of this sadness is joy because of the wonderful memories she left us. A mother is love—first, last and always. How lucky we were to get this one.

I speak for my sisters when I say we are giving thanks for a mother who always put us first and who loved us and showed us that love in many different ways. We are celebrating the life of a woman that meant something different to every member of our family.

She had a great big heart and her hospitality reflected that. Mom and Dad have always made everyone feel welcomed into our family. When we were growing up, our home was a haven to our friends. This is obvious in the number of adopted sisters we have now, and Thelma was the very first bonus sister.

Today I am remembering my mother and what she meant to me. The world did not know how wonderful she was, but we did. She tried to teach us to be good and  kind and she did it by example. Nobody ever came to her in trouble and went away unaided. She had a sunny nature, a cheerful disposition and no matter how sad someone was, they always felt happier when she was around.

She supported our various hobbies with never-ending cheering and an ever-dwindling bank account—Debbie’s guitar lessons (although she never advanced past playing “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,”) Kelley’s twirling career (applying rhinestones on her costumes by hand, long before the Bedazzler was invented), and my many art lessons. In supporting Kelley’s twirling phase, she learned how football was played and from that point on she was a lifelong football fan. She supported the Cowboys first and then the Redskins after her move to Washington, DC. When the two rivals squared off she rooted for both, despite Dad telling her “Janie, you can’t root for both. Pick one or the other!”

I may be known for many things, but possessor of a head of great hair is most certainly not on that list. One of my funniest memories (although so not funny then) was when Mom took me to get my hair permed and styled by Bill’s sister Carol, who was a hairstylist at the time. Every single time Mom would go with me to get my hair done, she would always look on approvingly at the end of the session, saying, “Oh, Cindy, you look so much better. You ought to never let your hair get like that again.” When Carol finished, revealing my new coif to Mom, I looked over at her, waiting for her usual, “Oh, Cindy…” This time was different. She managed a small smile and I saw the slightest flicker of sympathy in her eyes. Uh-oh. We paid Carol her just due, and as we left her house, I caught a glance of Nellie Olsen from Little House on the Prairie in the mirror by the door. No, not me—Nellie Olsen, with the tightest of ringlets framing her sad, sad face. I cried all the way home.

She was a woman of infinite patience, supporting Dad’s love of yard sales, estate sales and thrift stores. She waited patiently in the car, making phone calls to her sisters while he shopped. In the last few years, Dad and I make her a thrift store convert after she learned that people cast off barely-worn clothing by Ann Taylor and Chico’s. Mom was a fashionista and dressed better than any of us, whether she paid 1/2 off Wednesday prices at Salvation Army or full retail price at department stores. And oh, how she loved shoes! I’ve no doubt that she single-handedly kept the Clarks brand in business.

When I was in my teens, my mother taught me how to do a chain stitch, as well as single and double crochet stitches. That was the extent of my crochet education. So every few years, tempted by the yarn aisle at a craft store, I would buy a skein (or two or three) and attempt to make something wearable. About six years ago we were all en route to see Kelley in Dallas. I decided I would make yet another unfinished scarf. With my crochet skills a little rusty, the yarn began to curl and I couldn’t keep it straight. Mom said, “Well, if it’s curling—make a hat!” I let it weave into a circle until it began to resemble a large coaster. I then asked her, “How do you make it go down to form the sides of a hat? Do you go tighter or looser?” She sweetly replied, “Yes.” This prompted me to ask her if she had ever actually crocheted anything. That’s when I learned that although she knew the stitches, she had never made a single thing. All these years I had just assumed that the afghans, ponchos and hats on the couches, backs and heads of friends and relatives across the country were all lovingly crafted by my mother. More than 30 hats later I still relive that day whenever I pick up a crochet hook.

Many of you may not know that Mom won one of the first scratch-off lotteries in Texas more than 20 years ago. She was always getting tickets whenever she filled up the car. She would win $5, then buy five more tickets on her next trip. Dad always said she was just wasting her money. That all changed the day she, Debbie, Lauren and Landen were headed to the mall. They stopped to get Mema’s baby boy some apple juice and she bought a few tickets. She scratched off the three labels on a ticket and won $20,000. They called Dad from a pay phone and he told them to stay where they were, don’t talk to anyone, and he was coming to get them! I remember she was a bit disappointed that after taxes the state only gave her $16,000! She turned Dad into a lottery convert and he began playing regularly.

One summer upon returning from our annual jaunt to see our relatives in Georgia, Dad stopped in Rosenberg, Texas, determined to fulfill his promise that he would one day replace her tiny wedding ring with a stone of substantial size. I can still see Mom in the back seat, with road weary hair and rumpled clothing, flashing her diamond in the sunlight. I think that’s the day she earned her nickname from Dad—Diamond Lil.

She was a great cook and nobody made fried chicken or banana pudding the way she did. I never actually saw her follow a recipe, though, so it all came from memory. She was a Fox News junkie and if you wanted to know what was happening, from politics to world events to Hollywood gossip, Mom was the one to go to.

When I graduated from high school, she advised me to “get a job and spend your own money—don’t get married too young.” I doubt she imagined how literally I would take that advice, not marrying until 31 years later! I married my best friend Michael after 19 years together. I will be eternally grateful that she was able to be part of our “better late than never” wedding weekend last year.

My sisters and I, along with our dear friend Fred, planned a surprise party for her 70th birthday in December 2001. Kelley and Dad told her that Fred was cooking dinner and wanted the Dyer family to join him. On the way out the door, Kelley asked Mom if she wanted to put on some lipstick (knowing that with a surprise party, there would be surprise photos), to which Mom replied, “Why? We’re just going to Fred’s house for dinner.” When she came through the door and everyone yelled “Surprise,” the first thing she did was cover her face and say, “Oooh….I didn’t put on any makeup!”

She was a woman of immense courage and strength and she faced her long illness with such patience and dignity. It didn’t change the person she was, it just added to her stature. We rarely saw her cry and never heard her complain. In the last 11 years, my sisters and I have marveled at her strength. We have often said that we didn’t think we had gotten any of that from her. In recent days, I am now certain we did.

To her friends, she is endlessly compassionate, forgiving and generous. To her brothers Buddy and Charles, and her sisters, Winnie, Evelyn and Christine, she is someone they could lean on and confide in. To her daughters, she is a confidante and our safe place to fall. To her grandchildren—Lauren, Landen, Brennan and Macie—she is ‘Mema,’ lovingly doting on them as any good grandmother would do. To her son-in-laws, Bill, Brantley and Michael—she is the mother-in-law most men could only dream about. To her husband, she is ‘Diamond Lil,’ ‘Janie Mae’ and the love of his life.

A few weeks ago, I asked my mother if she was afraid. She said, “when you have a life this great, a family this great, and someone you truly love, you don’t want to leave it.” This great life, great family and her love for us is what kept her fighting all these years—her spirit unbroken. I am immensely proud to be part of this family—her legacy.

Words cannot express the gratitude we have for the doctors, nurses and staff at Brooke Army Medical Center and Wilford Hall for their kindness, professionalism and for giving us many more years with our mother. The nurses at Odyssey Hospice were a godsend and helped our family through a very difficult time. Seeing the hospice staff at work has let me know there are Angels among us.

What a beautiful difference this one life made. We will be forever inspired by her amazing strength, immeasurable courage, endless patience, and unconditional love for her family and friends.

In the words of the poet e.e. cummings, “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart) i am never without it.