My mother was born on April Fool’s Day, and I know there were times when she felt like the world was playing a joke on her.
A more selfish woman might have considered me such a joke. My mother was drawn to performance art—dancing, theater, music. As you can see from the front of your program, she was a beautiful woman. My brothers and I are proof that good looks often skip a generation.
I came along when my mother had other plans for her life, but she chose to set her plans aside so that I might have life. She became a nurse, and began a career of caring for others. She had sick people to care for at work, and soon she had three boys to care for at home.
When I frustrated her, my mother would wish a curse on me: “I hope you have three redheaded daughters and I hope they’re all just like you.”
I don’t know why she wished daughters on me; it seemed to me that three boys were curse enough. I remember that poor woman dragging us along to the grocery store. She’d threaten all kinds of damnation if we didn’t behave this time, and we’d all nod and promise to behave, and then as soon as we got inside and she turned her head we were off to the races. Running up and down the aisles, knocking things over, tackling each other. Eventually a manager would get hold of us and demand to know where our mother was. God bless her, my mother always claimed us.
It seems like right and wrong are confusing ideas to people these days, but Mama had an understanding of justice in her bones. I remember once when I was little I fell asleep in her bed, and I woke to the sound of her crying. She was watching the local news, and it showed men standing in the parking lot of our local library. Some of them wore white sheets, and others wore Nazi uniforms, and they were shouting.
She wrote a letter to the newspaper about these men, and the newspaper published it. Not long after, angry people started calling our house. One time I got to the phone before my mother, and a woman asked me: “What’s your mama’s problem with the Klan?”
Mama took the phone from me. I don’t know who that woman was, but I can tell you that she should be thankful my mother couldn’t yank her through the phone line.
Years later I wrote something that ended up making a bunch of neo-Nazis angry. They got hold of pictures of me and my children and posted them on their Nazi website. Mama fussed at me that I was going to write something that would get me shot. But she sounded proud when she said it. My mother always found things to be proud of us for.
One thing not a lot of people know is that she wrote a song. It was a country song, and some local musicians started playing it, and for a while it was popular in some local bars. I remember thinking that maybe my mother would become like Barry Manilow and we’d all get rich off the songs she’d write. I asked her if she was going to write more songs, and she said: “I don’t know if I have another song in me.”
I think my mother had a great many songs in her. I think maybe I just didn’t do a very good job of listening to them.
St. Paul wrote in his last letter, as he waited for execution: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering.” That verse always makes me think of my mother. She poured herself out for us, for her patients. She didn’t choose the easy rotations; she chose to work with the dying. She ruined her back caring for them. She endured decades of great pain because she chose to pour herself out. We have the wrong heroes these days. The real heroes are too busy to primp for television cameras.
Mama never took care of herself as well as she took care of everyone else. The most selfish thing I can remember her doing is hiding from me and my brothers in the bathroom so she could eat a candy bar. I don’t know how such an unselfish woman ended up with such a selfish son. Maybe that was one of life’s April Fool’s jokes. Or maybe God foresaw how selfish I would be, and knew I would need her example to overcome it.
She didn’t take care of herself very well, but God gave her people, especially in the last years of her life, who took care of her. Her grandson Isaac wrote a letter, years ago, saying he was praying she would quit smoking. She read that letter and put away her cigarettes for good.
And then there was Sam. Some of my friends think my mother was some kind of wild woman, moving all the way across the country to Santa Monica to live with an Englishman. It wasn’t a wild decision at all. Sam made her smile, and he promised to take care of her. That’s a simple promise to make, but a hard one to live up to.
Sam lived up to it, and I believe that despite all the pain she lived with, these past nine years were some of the happiest in her life. Thank you for giving her that gift, Sam.
She was a far better mother than I was a son, and in the past year I didn’t stay in touch well. The thing is, you always think you’ll have more time. You’d think I would have learned my lesson with my daughter’s passing, but I still haven’t learned it. You always think you have more time, and then you learn that time doesn’t belong to you, it’s something on loan to you, and it is a precious thing, and once you’ve squandered it you can never, ever get it back.
There are things I wish I could ask my mother. Things that will have to wait. I want to ask her if she ever wrote any more songs. I used to think that what they play on the radio must be the best there is, but now I suspect our best songs are the ones people write and tuck away in the back of a book, or the bottom of a drawer.
I want to ask her if she ever picked any more fights with Nazis, and if this is why she liked the Indiana Jones movies so much.
I want to ask her the words to a song she used to sing when she would give me a bath. I can remember the sound of her voice singing it, but I can’t remember the words.
I want to ask her if she knows, in spite of all my mistakes, that I love her.
But there’s one thing I don’t have to ask my mother. One thing none of us need ask, because she showed it a thousand ways, when she was happy and when she was mad and when she was quiet. The one thing we never have to ask is whether she loved us.
This world didn’t give my mother what she deserved. Sometimes it played pranks on her. Even now, I’m fighting with half the bureaucrats in the state of California about retrieving her remains. She’s probably chuckling at the fact that she’s missing her own funeral. “It figures,” she’d probably say.
This world didn’t give my mother all she deserved, but she gave it, and hundreds of people in it, far more than we deserved. She gave more than she took. Her life has been weighed in the balance, and now it is taken from us, and it is we who are found wanting. It is I who am found wanting.
This world didn’t give her all she deserved, but in the world to come, all those wrongs are set right. The book of Revelation promises:
“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
That promise was for Llana Harley Woodlief, and on September 30th of this year she laid hold of it. In the words of St. Paul, she fought the good fight, she finished the race, she kept the faith.
And now she looks on with that great cloud of witnesses, and she probably thinks I should stop blubbering. But I’m sure she’s also encouraging each of us to finish the race as well. We could do worse than to follow her example.