Earlier this week, the staff posted a notice on the blog that my mother’s life was nearing its end. She breathed her last around 11 PM on September 16; since then the family has been caught up in the grief and the business of a heavy loss. We held her funeral on Friday and committed her to rest next to her mother.Now the hard part begins. My father, whose love for my mother steadily deepened through more than 62 years of marriage, must start his life again. They began to date seriously when both were in their late teens; she was the living heart of his adult life and he must now learn to live in a new world. As her illness deepened, he became a full time caregiver, until the rhythms of her treatments and the alleviation of her pain shaped almost every moment of his life, night and day.For some among my nieces and nephews, my mother’s death marks their first real encounter with life’s greatest mystery. Someone they loved has been taken away; they now begin the transformative engagement with the knowledge of death that both marks human beings off from the animal kingdom and forces us onto the spiritual journeys that will define and shape our lives.My siblings and I are immigrants in a new and forbidding land. We have been swept from the balmy seas and friendly isles that nurtured us into a windswept, harder place. Several friends who have been lived in this land much longer than I have, and have traced its contours and learned to survive here tell me that while this cold new island will support life, the world without your mother will never be the same.Myself, I am too new to this world to grasp what I see. Deep grief seems like a monsoon; the rains sweep in and flood the streets and fields, let up for a few hours, and sweep back in again. There are moments when I break into helpless weeping; there are moments when I feel the presence of her love; there are moments when the flow of ordinary life takes over until I remember what has happened with a shock. I am grateful for the details that beset us; there have been people to call, lists to make, schedules to organize and hymns to choose. There are forms to fill, bills to pay, dishes to wash and people to thank.We all wanted her to go free. She’d lost so much, and bought every day with unspeakable pain. Her eyesight was gone; she could not walk unaided across the room. To get in and out of a chair was an ordeal; to get in and out of a car took all the strength and resolution she had. Her hearing had faded; her pains were so intense that no medicine could banish them completely, and those she took dimmed her world and limited her ability to share in the life around her. For years, we watched her struggle against the rising tide of illness and disability; for years, our hearts ached as we saw the unflinching courage with which she met a cruel fate.The most amazing thing about her was her resilience. In the face of a catastrophic convergence of ailments and disabilities, she was an optimist. Rheumatoid arthritis crippled her, sapped her energy, and turned even the simplest tasks of daily life into excruciating and taxing ordeals. An uncommon and still untreatable form of macular degeneration stole her eyesight. Myasthenia gravis made it difficult to breathe; she spent the last years of her life on oxygen inhalers. The treatments for these conditions made her gain weight and further undermined her health. This elegant woman who took such pride in her appearance and that of her home was no longer able to control the appearance she presented to the world.She had her moments of anger and despair; my father was with her through the worst of these. But her children saw this seldom, her grandchildren and the great-grands, never. Somehow, she remained basically a happy and outgoing woman, interested in the world around her, insatiably curious.She had a reading machine that blew ordinary newsprint up to the two or three inch size per letter that her fading eyesight could still make out. Every day she pored over the pages of the Washington Post for news of the world; she painstakingly worked her way through much of what appeared on this blog — and she was always hungry for news about our traffic.Years ago, she and I had a conversation about the turn her life was taking as the illnesses began to sink their claws into her. “I’m happy,” she said. “I have everything: a wonderful marriage, four children who are all friends with each other. I am the happiest woman in the world.”She thought for a moment. The Prednisone was already affecting her weight. “Of course,” she said, “I wish I could lose some weight. But I’m the happiest fat woman in the world.”There was another pause. “And I hate losing my eyesight,” she said. “And I wish I were younger.” As she thought about things, she added a few more qualifications: her hair was thinning, her feet were hurting. But she laughed as she listed them, and ended the conversation by telling me that she was “the happiest old, fat, bald, blind crippled woman in the world.”And she was, right up until the last few months, when the pain had become so constant and unendurable that the bright edge of her spirit was dulled by the heavy doses of drugs that alone could keep the pain below the screaming threshold.But even then she was indomitable. She would live life on life’s terms, and as her handicaps accumulated she focused her energy on a handful of projects. She was always an educator; as a young woman she organized a neighborhood newspaper that kept dozens of kids engaged for a decade, regularly chronicling the affairs of their neighborhood, raising money for books for the children’s collection at the local library, and creating a community of young minds centered on writing, learning and the development of teamwork and business skills. When she retired she started a second career as a tutor for children with reading problems in the DC public schools. She brought them into her house, reached out to their parents and had the joy of seeing many of her charges overcome their reading problems. In her last years as the shadows closed in, she narrowed her focus to grandchildren and other close personal connections. There was nothing that moved her more than a child or a teenager who needed encouragement; in the last weeks of her life she focused on helping a high school student get into a summer program that might change her life.She came from very little; with her wit and her will she made a world. She had inspiring teachers along the way: her Aunt Mary, who recognized her talent, encouraged it, and helped her go to college; Louisa Duls, the professor who opened the world of literature to her at Winthrop College. Those teachers made such a profound difference to her that all her life she was moved by the plight of bright kids, especially girls, growing up in circumstances that cut them off from access to the great highways of knowledge, culture and achievement. She never stopped reaching out to young people at risk of missing their chance; she never forgot what those helping hands meant to her.She loved and respected the life of the mind. On moving to Florence, South Carolina in high school, she asked around to find out who was the smartest boy in town. The doctor’s son, people told her: Larry Mead.His fate was sealed. She arranged to get herself invited to a house party he would be attending, and they bid and made a small slam at the bridge table. They married when she finished college, and nine months and seventeen days later, their first child was born. Larry was called to the Episcopal ministry and she stuck with him through three years of seminary and on to his first job in the tiny South Carolina town of Pinopolis. The second child came during the seminary years, the third in Pinopolis. The fourth came when they moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina where Larry, by then known as Loren, was the rector of the Church of the Holy Family. They stayed in Chapel Hill for a decade before moving to the Washington area when Loren started the Alban Institute on little more than a shoeshine and a smile.Polly had some hard times in those years. She wanted to continue her education, but in its wisdom the faculty of the University of North Carolina informed her that married women weren’t eligible for their PhD programs. The only course they deigned to let her pursue was a master’s degree program in marriage counseling. Polly took what she could get, earned the degree, and parlayed it into a career in management that saw her become one of the first women selected for the Senior Executive Service in the federal government.Money was always an issue for them, but she never let the lack of it stop her from getting the important things done. Without glittering connections she found ways to put all four of her children through top prep schools and colleges on scholarship. She spent the night before my prep school graduation in a campground; they didn’t have enough money for a hotel. She looked great, and she had no complaints.She hated camping and only did it because she was not going to miss out and more importantly her children were not going to miss out on something important simply because we couldn’t afford to sleep indoors.During one of the years of our time in Chapel Hill, she worked with my father and some family friends to arrange for the family to live in the UK. For one year my father switched parishes with the Rector of Esher outside London. She was determined that we would see as much as we could. That summer my parents wanted to take themselves and their four children on a long family vacation touring England and Scotland; we had a minivan in which four children could sleep, and a tent for my parents.My mother, despite her frequent experience with tents, was not a Lonely Planet kind of traveler. She liked a nice chocolate mint on the pillow when the maid turned down the sheets on her comfy hotel bed. But on a young minister’s salary, it was camp out or stay home, and she was not going to miss her chance to see the Lake Country of her beloved English Romantics – or miss the chance to instruct her children in history and architecture by touring cathedral towns and museums.So we traveled from one campground to another, all the way up to Scotland where, even in August, the nights were cold and damp. One night we were camping in the highlands near Ben Nevis, and the chill was unbearable. She sent my father down to the little store at the campsite to find something, anything that could help her stay warm. The only things he could see that might conceivably be of some use were the day’s newspapers; he bought every newspaper in the store and laid them between their sleeping bags and the air mattresses and inside the sleeping bags to provide a little insulation.As Mom told the story, it was a little warmer, but not much – and now with every breath or movement, there was the irritating rustling of the newspapers, creaking and shifting. She lay on her back on the uncomfortable mattress as the air grew colder and colder. At last she was so cold and so uncomfortable that she couldn’t lie still. She sat straight up in the tent and said, “I just can’t stand this anymore!”My mother was very knowledgeable about many things, but she did not understand what can happen on cold damp nights when water condenses on the underside of a canvas tent. As she sat up, her head struck the tent and a shower of icy water drenched her. Completely defeated for one of the few times in her life, she lay back on the damp mattress in misery.As she lay there, she heard something else: a hissing sound. An air mattress was leaking. She would tell us that that was the moment when she realized that her love for my father wasn’t infinite; she was hoping that the leaky mattress was his.By trailer and camper and minivan and tent she got us around the UK, up and down the East Coast, into prep school and college and well launched in life. She gave us our first lessons in art in the tiny kitchen of our house in Chapel Hill, boning up on a series of art education books from the Metropolitan Museum and thumbtacking the prints to our bulletin board. When I told her I couldn’t stand the school lunches at Glenwood Elementary anymore, she made three hundred peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in one afternoon, laying the bread out across every surface in the kitchen. Like a worker on an assembly line she took the peanut butter jar and slapped a scoop on every other piece of bread, did the same with the jelly, and came back a third time with the spreader. She flipped the bread together to form the sandwiches, then came back and stacked the sandwiches into piles of two. She came back again with a knife and cut the sandwiches into square not diagonal slices (I hated triangular sandwich slices). She came back again with the tinfoil, wrapping each pile of two sandwiches up and putting them in the freezer. For the rest of the school year, she’d take a packet of frozen sandwiches and put them in my lunchbox along with an apple or a banana.This is what you do when you have four children only six years apart, no money, and are taking graduate courses on the side. The newspaper she helped us to write during these years, the Neighborhood Gazette, is available online through the Library of Congress system; click here to see what she managed to get a group of unpaid neighborhood kids to produce year after year after year.In the end, it was her mattress that sprung the leak. My father’s health remained strong even as a host of ailments tore at her. Beginning about the time of her fortieth wedding anniversary, rheumatoid arthritis began to slow her down. The pain would force her to retire early and progressively narrow her horizons. By the time the generous prize money awarded for the translation of Special Providence into Italian enabled me to take her to Italy, she had to see Florence, Venice and Rome in a wheel chair. That didn’t stop her from seeing as much as she could; there was high water in Venice and we pushed her for miles along the boardwalks as tourists crowded aside to give her room.Her love for my father turned out to be stronger than she thought during that long dark night in Scotland. In the closing years of her life she would occasionally break down and talk about her worries and regrets. There were times when she complained about some deprivation, some new loss. But most of her worries were about him – about how the need to care for her made it hard for him to travel and to work. She compared his life to the story about a golfer whose partner had died on the sixth hole of a round. “How was it?” his friends asked when he got back to clubhouse.“Not bad until the sixth hole,” he said. “But after that, it was just ‘hit the ball and drag Robert.'”“That’s what it’s like for your father,” she would say. “Hit the ball and drag Polly.”Dad didn’t see it that way; Loren and Polly were one of the great love matches of their generation, and that love only grew stronger and deeper with the years. (Not that things were all smooth. At their 60th wedding anniversary someone asked how they managed to stay together all those years. The answer: early on, they made a deal that whichever one left would have to take the children.)At her funeral last Friday, about fifty family members processed down the aisle past old and dear friends come to celebrate her life. One grandson came from Afghanistan. Others came from California, Texas and other far-flung locations. It wasn’t just a farewell; it was a culmination of her life’s work.The heart of what Polly did was to build a clan. Some were blood kin, some kindred spirits. For more than sixty years holidays, birthdays and family gatherings in her home brought people together. She was a relentless hostess, stopping at nothing to ensure that every meal and every occasion was just right. But shiny appearances weren’t the point; her goal was to give her family and guests a stage on which they could shine, and some of the happiest nights of her life were those when a child or a grandchild seized the limelight with a story or a joke that brought down the house.Losing her is inexpressibly hard, but she left us rich. Those of us touched and formed by Polly Mead’s love are shaped by her values of hard work and service that point towards a way of making grief the foundation of renewed growth. Those of us who she loved (and that is a long list) are part of a network of family and friends with whose help we can bear anything. And the faith and hope that marked each step of her progression through life, even through the valley of the shadow of death in which she spent so many years, can light the path each of us must now travel until our family circle is renewed and unbroken once more.As she lay on her bed in the hospital during that long sad Monday last week, we took turns sitting beside her, basking for the last time in her presence and saying those final goodbyes. The thing that struck me most was that for so many of us, the last words we wanted her to hear were the same: “Thank you, Mom. Thank you so much. I love you.”
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Published on: September 23, 2013Saying Goodbye