Writer / Journalist / Teacher

Sixteen years, or 16 minutes, later, the loss of your mother is a wound that never heals

3201" style="letter-spacing: normal; ">Mother's Day came sunny and warm in Louisville in 1996. I was studying for a final or something, and had arrived hours early to find that the King FIsh on River Road was on an hours-long wait for a table by the river. I opened a book and settled in to wait for my mom, grandma and dad.

Sitting in the table later that afternoon was the first time I realized something was wrong with my mother Kathy. She was so emotional, so thankful, that I had arrived early to grab the table that I wasn't sure her perspective wasn't out of whack. It's just dinner mom, no big deal, I said.

What a fool.

I was headed out of town with Dug Begley two days later, for a reporting trip to Chicago, when my dad called. "Son, you're mother went to the doctor today. He has diagnosed her with depression. She'll be off work for a week or so (an unheard of event), and I just didn't want you to be surprised if she doesn't call you to check in for the next several days."

Well, okay, I thought, hanging up. That explains Sunday. But as for the week of no calls, I wanted to tell my dad, why make a big deal of that? I'm 25 and can get by without a call from my mother for a week or two.

What a fool.

I returned from my trip at about 3:30 a.m. Friday, and went to the kitchen and saw Grant Delaney had written a new number on our cluttered quick-erase board on the fridge. Still, a hunch took hold and I dialed the number right then. It was an eery kind of feeling, but it became a cold dread when the tired, but obviously not sleeping, voice answered on the end.

It was dad, and he was at Jewish in the waiting room. They had been there since about 11, when my grandmother, living with them now that my mom's dad had died two years before, looked up from her crossword puzzle to see her daughter stretched out on the flood holding her temple. She had said she had a headache, but now couldn't get up.

It was a tumor, and it was bleeding all over her brain. A hurried surgery took most of it out, but it was a glioblastoma multiforme grade 4, and with no time for an MRI to guide the knife it had been a valiant but incomplete effort. Dr. Villanueva, the brilliant but distant surgeon, told us they'd have to go in deeper as soon as she awoke from the surgery. And, he added, she had a 5 percent chance of survival.

She made it till September 30, a brilliantly sunny fall day, like so many in Kentucky, that had dawned beautifully just over four months later. My dad must have heard the doctor say 95 percent, because he never stopped believing, or acting, like she'd make it. Once, later that summer when she was at home mostly recovered from experimental surgery in Cincinnati, she became fixated on having a Jeep Grand Cherokee like her older brother, Bob's.

My dad tried to wait her out for a day or two -- there was nothing wrong with the car she drove, by far the nicest they had ever owned -- but the fancy didn't pass. So two months after retirement and on a budget, Pops, a tire-kicker and price-checker par excellence who treats buying a new car like planning a campaign, went to Brown Brothers Cadillac downtown and traded in the brilliant white Sedan de Ville they loved for a song, and bought his wife the car she wanted so badly, but as even he knew, she would never drive. That had to be the most money he's spent in 30 minutes in his long life.

On that September day, I had felt restless. It was one of the cool autumn days in Kentucky that makes you feel, rather than think of, the coming loss of light, of dying things and of the bittersweet melancholy that feels good even when it hurts -- except in years when your 52-year-old mother is lying at home in a hospital bed in the family room with hospice nurses coming in and out.

That afternoon, I had driven over to Trinity High School, my old school, to sit alone in the stands watching what I would swear even today was a baseball game, but given the time of year must have been a soccer match. The leaves were falling, and I knew my mother was too. Around 5 p.m., a few minutes after I returned home, we were gathered around her bed and her breathing was stopping, then starting, then stopping again. My dad, unwilling to say goodbye, would gently shake her whenever her breathing seemed to stop. "Kath," he would say. And the breath would come.

Until, around 6 or so, it didn't.

She was a wonderful mother. Generous and open and loving, always loving. Quick to anger, sometimes, because she was quick to be hurt by teenage sons' poses and smart remarks. At work, she held the place together. Full of super bright attorneys, she was brighter and was their backbone, though she was never a lawyer. She was a researcher, a writer, a manager, a doer, and one of those people in every office that simply knows how to get something done. I sure could use her running my life, I tell you that.

At home, she was a list-maker, a checker-offer, a planner and an organizer of birthday parties and sleepovers and a buyer of gifts for her grandchildren. They were too young to know this side of her, but she was her father's daughter till the day he died, and really hadn't been entirely the same in the two years since lung cancer took him in 1994. She was her mother's best friend, and she missed her brothers and sister and all my cousins, up in Ohio and flung out over in California, every day.

If my dad was the coach my buddies in school wanted to play for, she was the cook whose spaghetti and meatballs, for example, would make my friends want to play till just as close to supper time as they would be allowed, when she would, often enough, say, "We're having chili, do you want to stay." Some of them seemed to always stay.

You'd be surprised at some of the things she did. So would my dad. When Hudson Lindenberger and I were young, she'd take us on secret shopping trips to Bacon's and buy us clothes and other things that added up to far more than she had in the budget. Looking back, it seems like my older brother -- the one that use to trade me awesome LPs I wish I still had for useless junk, that same one -- was greedier on these trips. He always had ideas for what he wanted to get. I got everything I needed and a bunch more, but rarely asked for them. Coming from where I did until I was 4, when I left the foster home and all, I had a hard time articulating what I wanted. If I had an equally hard time saying thank you, I stayed for years in a perpetual trance amazed that these people would do these things for me.

I don't know if my dad every found out about those trips, or if he wondered why we were wearing all new things. Not that he'd have cared. He knew my mother stretched their money farther than he every imagined it could go. When, nine years before she died, we moved into a larger house in a somewhat statelier neighborhood, my dad confided to my oldest brother Jim, his firstborn long since moved away and married, that he had never imagined -- growing up in the government housing in the Depression, or in the long decades or union leadership and skilled labor since -- that he'd live in such a nice place.

My brother and I took it for granted of course, but sometimes I think about that when I go back and see the old place he's refused to sell, despite not needing its three floors or four bedrooms or the living room that is never touched.

Mom didn't speak much of other things, either, like the way she went to church at the Cathedral of the Assumption downtown every day at lunch and rarely mentioned it. In fact, when I called the parish priest to come perform Last Rights, this was during a false alarm while she was still in the hospital, I had never met him. He told me she had been coming for several years. Perhaps when her dad got sick.

My dad, who didn't go with her since he was at work and has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Church, still sends a check every month to the Cathedral.

She didn't speak of a lot of things, though she was not shy about her feelings. She wore them on her sleeve. And demonstrated them in her actions. When she died, we learned that she had named her children as beneficiaries of a $50,000 life insurance policy. She had two children, and three step-children from my father's first marriage. The policy's instructions were clear -- five equal shares. She knew, without having to tell us, that while we had two different mothers, we were going to all have to be there for my father, and for each other, when she left us. She was wiser than me.

She was a devoted and fiercely attached wife, a mother without equal, and though she didn't live quite long enough for Sophie Kathleen to be born of her own first-born son, she was a grandmother-in-the-making, right down to her toes.

I find that I am having a hard time writing this today. I am missing Kathleen Joyce Teresa Vitale Lindenberger. Mom you would have been 68 today. You would have made such a wonderful older lady, if you had just been given the time to become one. My rich life would be so much richer still if I had you to share my triumphs and failures with.

Sixteen years since I read her eulogy in the Cathedral -- well it seems like a long time ago, and it seems like this morning. I hardly recognize myself from then. Skinnier, less certain, essentially confused, I had no idea where I was going, and from this distance, I don't think I was much concerned with finding the answer. The sad part, the part that doesn't leave, is that just as I never got to see who she'd become -- she was still becoming, by the way, right up to the end, a lesson for all of us -- she never got to see me through my extended adolescence. I wish she had.

Since that time, lots of people have stepped in to fill chunks left missing from my life. Thank you, Phil Clore, who makes me laugh and likes to argue. Thanks, too, to the small army of women whom this adopted kid has in turn adopted as mothers -- without asking their leave. Lisa May, of course, and Susan Tharp Lococo and, though I don't see her much these days, Suzie Edelen.

Thank you all. You would've sure liked my mom. And she would have loved you very much.

Mom at her parents' dining room table, the site of some of her happiest times: Dinner with the extended family.

My mom on the left, between me and her father, Grandpa Bob. Grandma Flo has me in her hold and my father John is in the back.