My Mother’s Last Gift by Tina Wagner Mattern
It was 1993 and I was 43 years old when my birth mother and I were finally reunited; a reunion that became the foundation for our relationship, which would last for 2 decades. Once a year for the next 20 years I would fly from my home in Portland, Oregon, to Clearwater Florida to spend a week getting to know my mother. They were weeks of revelations for both of us; weeks of questions answered, confessions, forgiveness and tears. But they were also weeks of delight; of recognizing in ourselves the off-the-wall sense of humor we shared. We learned the simple joy of just being together, whether it was playing bingo at her condo’s clubhouse, putting together jigsaw puzzles over a glass or two of wine in the evenings or taking an occasional road trip.
And as those years of weekly visits passed, my mother and I bonded anew…this time not so much as parent and child, but as beloved friends.
* * *
On a hot summer day in early July of 2013, I got a call from Sharon, my half-sister in Florida that would shake me to my core; our mother was in intensive care. Within days I was on a plane.
Sharon had told me on the phone that Mom was very ill—double pneumonia, congestive heart failure and anemia due to internal bleeding somewhere—but she had battled most of these health issues before and had triumphed. Nearly 81, she was our family’s indomitable Energizer bunny. So when the pulmonologist broke the news that our mother was not going to live, Dana, my half-brother, Sharon and I were stunned and heartbroken.
Entering her room in ICU, I looked down at my funny, bossy, inexpressibly lovable mother and wondered: how can anyone so alive be terminally ill? There she was, hooked up to beeping machines and wearing a CPAP with the highest saturation rate of oxygen available, but unlike the other patients in ICU, she was her usual silly self, making faces, teasing the nurses, joking and laughing. Even after the doctor had explained the dire prognosis to her, her irrepressible attitude didn’t falter. “You know,” she told us, “I would’ve thought that hearing I was going to die would make me a basket-case, but strange as it seems, I’m really at peace about this.” We, her children, of course, were not.
“Don’t cry,” she said, wiping our tears. I know where I’m going after all. Heaven’s going to be wonderful.” We did our best, but heaven seemed so far away.
Throughout her days in the hospital, Mom had a positive spirit that became infectious; she entertained and inspired family, friends, neighbors and loved members of her church; each visitor was treated to her absurdly delightful sense of humor and uplifting faith. As long as her pain was kept under control, she was the sassy, often hilarious life of the party. Visiting hour rules in the intensive care unit limited callers to two at a time, but there were rarely less than 6 in Mom’s room. The wonderful attendant staff, captivated by this high-spirited, anything-but-ordinary patient, smiled and looked the other way.
One afternoon, Janet, Mom’s best friend and long-time comrade-in-shenanigans, came for her daily visit. This time she brought her twelve-year-old granddaughter, Kimberly, with her. Janet and Mom tossed insults and droll comments back and forth as Kimberly and I alternately laughed and rolled our eyes. After a few minutes of this though, Janet grew serious and handed Mom an envelope. “Here, I brought you something,” she said. “Open it and read the note.”
Mom smiled, drawing out the folded sheet of paper, and began to read out loud a lovely little poem about angels. “Oh, that’s sweet,” she said, when she finished.
“Now, look in the envelope,” Janet instructed. Pulling it open, Mom peeked inside and chuckled. “It’s a feather!” She held the tiny white plume up for us to see. “Must have been a small angel, huh?”
Kimberly and I laughed.
Janet, smiling through suddenly teary eyes, leaned forward and grabbed Mom’s hand. “Listen, you—this feather is important. When you get to heaven, I want you to send it to me to let me know you got there.”
Mom laughed. “You don’t want much, do you? Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
During the week to come, our family and Mom’s dearest friends stayed close by her side, treasuring every second; cherishing every wisecrack, every laugh, every tender, reassuring hug. Each of us imprinting on our hearts the moments spent with her.
Much too soon, however, the day came when I had to return to Portland. Saying goodbye was agonizing. How could I leave knowing I wouldn’t see her again? I offered to change my flight, despite the exorbitant fee, but Mom, with her unshakable faith, hugged me and whispered, “Go home, Tina. I love you. This isn’t goodbye, sweetheart, it’s ‘see you later’.” My last memory of my mother is of her grinning her irresistible grin and blowing me kisses through her oxygen mask.
Early the following Monday morning, I got the call: surrounded by her children, grandchildren and dearest sister and brother, Mom had slipped gently from their arms into God’s.
On Tuesday afternoon, my phone rang; it was Janet. We had been checking in with one another throughout the weeks leading up to Mom’s death, so I assumed she was calling to see how I was doing. Instead, her voice brimmed with excitement. “I have something to tell you,” she said. Intrigued by her unexpected tone, I asked,” What’s up?”
“My granddaughter, Kimberly, stayed with me last night,” Janet said. “We finished watching a movie and were just sitting there on the sofa, when I looked over and saw Kimberly’s arm go up in the air. ‘What on earth are you doing?’ I asked her. She turned to me, all wide-eyed and held out her hand, ‘Grandma, look!’”
Janet’s voice dropped to an awed whisper. “It was a little white feather, Tina. Right out of thin air!”
My arms broke out in goosebumps and an ecstatic smile spread across my face as I pictured my mother entering Heaven, pointing to the nearest angel and saying, “Hey, I need to borrow one of those feathers!”
“Oh Janet,” I said with a lump in my throat, “She made it! I never doubted that she would, but what a sweet miracle! Janet sniffled, “Amen.”
Mom, who had always delighted in giving her loved ones presents, had given us one last gift…a feather from heaven.