Valerie Sayers | October 10, 2019
In her 101st year, my mother still lived in my childhood home in South Carolina, watched over by my saintly youngest sister. For a year, the hospice folks had been saying she was hovering at death’s door, but she didn’t appear to have the least interest in ringing the bell. No matter how many times we said our final goodbyes, my mother still perked up at the first sign of a party. Though she could barely see during my last visit, she cried out my name when I entered her room. She’d shrunk to a wispy fraction of herself, but she was sharp as ever.
Impending death, however, rattled her. She asked if she looked ugly. She didn’t — there was a haunting loveliness to her hooded eyes — but her face, utterly transformed from the full beauty of her young-mother days, startled me. She asked if I was afraid of dying.
I’d come home to write a memoir. I was the first in my family born in the South, the first to call myself a Southerner, always acutely aware that we were a band of outsiders: Yankees, liberals, Catholics. I’d come home to remember the South of my youth, the last days of Jim Crow, when right and wrong were stark and clear. Now here was my mother, asking me to contemplate my own mortality.
And here I was, answering: Yes indeed, I was most certainly afraid of dying, but maybe she and I could look on death together. Here I was, handing over her rosary beads. Here I was, surrounded by my mother’s holy pictures, remembering that sometimes — often — Catholicism seemed the brightest mark of my family’s difference in the South.
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