Betty Germer was fearless, determined and surefooted in battle. She was stubborn, I was stubborn. We were quite the match, but how we loved each other! If my heart broke, her heart broke. If my heart soared, her heart soared. If I struggled with something, she struggled with it too.
I often wonder what she would have done if she’d had the same opportunities women have today. She was smarter than I. And shrewd! She is the only person I have ever known who actually read insurance policies. Car salesmen ran from her, trembling. The landlord to my father’s drugstore rued the day he signed the lease that she’d negotiated. The contractor on our house wished he’d caught the error in the contract giving her an unlimited budget for flooring. Nothing slipped by my mom.
She always, always, always told me that our most important lesson was to “face life.” I wondered what she knew about such a thing, considering her comfortable life. But, when she was 66, she suffered a stroke. A terrible, blow-it-out, paralyzing stroke that forced her to spend the rest of her time facing life.
She was so funny. One home care worker asked her, “Betty, have you had a bowel movement today?” Mom looked her in the eye and said, “No. Have you?”
When I moved home to Florida to be closer to Mom and Dad, I bought a house that was really lovely.
“Hey Ma, did you ever think I’d live in a home so much nicer than yours?” I teased.
“Well, my home is something that yours is not,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s paid for.”
My favorite caper was the day I borrowed my friend’s remote controlled fart machine. I hooked it to the back of Mom’s wheelchair while she was intently watching the Florida, Florida State game at my house. At just the right moment, I clicked the remote. It made a beautiful fart noise!
“Cut that out,” she told me.
“It’s not me,” I said. “She who smelt it…”
She looked at Daddy and he shook his head no.
Mom pointed at my Golden Retriever. “It’s her.”
“Really?” I put the dog out on the patio. Then I made the machine fart again.
“Stop it, Fawn.”
Another fart. She looked at my Sheepdog, Buster.
Buster was sent to the patio. Then the cat was banished. Then Daddy. Then me. Daddy and I watched from outside the sliding glass doors with all the innocent pets. I pushed the remote again. Two or three more farts. Ma’s eyes got big as she looked around. Fart! Fart!
Papa and I were dying.
Fart, fart, fart! That machine was the best invention ever!
Finally, we went back inside.
She looked me straight in the eye. “I think you put a fart machine in here.”
You never pulled one over on Betty Germer.
In 2001, she started showing signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. She suffered so long and so hard, and anyone who tries to sugar coat it is in denial. Mom endured an existence that no one wants. Yet, she faced her life with courage and joy. What a hero she was.
Her illnesses changed her physical appearance and took away her intellect and her voice. But, when those things are stripped away, what is left? It’s you. Your core. What matters is love and family and God and health and warmth and fresh air and the sound of the wind and your senses of smell, taste, sound, sight, and touch and food and shelter. Whatever transpires beyond the basics is irrelevant.
Even in the end stages of her disease, she was still my mom. She smelled like my mom, she was warm like my mom. If I hugged her or touched her, I felt so much love – even if she didn’t even open her eyes or look at me. I had a mom who surfaced only occasionally, but existed in a big way as she faced life so bravely. I would often wonder where she was, hoping to God that she didn’t have to spend endless days trapped in nothingness for hours on end. I don’t know what was going on in there. Maybe nothing, maybe everything.
All these years, I’d climb in bed with her and cuddle. When she could still communicate, we’d gossip in bed for hours. After she moved to the nursing home, I’d just hold her because I felt it was so important that she be hugged and held. She loved it so much. Me too.
What I wouldn’t give now to talk to her, just once, for even 20 minutes. I would ask her what the last seven years have been like. How much did she know? What did she feel. Was she suffering? Did we make the right decisions? Did she know that, as a family, we were having problems without her at the helm? To be honest, it’s been like we’ve been driving a car with three wheels. You know that when we are all together again, there is going to be a nice, long Betty Lecture.
I was in bed beside her when she died Friday morning. After she passed, Daddy looked at the woman he had loved so deeply and cared for with such devotion. He said, “Fifty-nine years. Fifty-nine years! Three hundred and sixty-five days a year for fifty-nine years. Wow. What an amazing woman. Wife. Mother. Daughter. University of Michigan graduate. Teacher. Wow. Fifty-nine years.”
It was so hard to walk away from her after she died. I looked at her, but she was gone.
I had to fly to Dallas that night to do a speech the next day. My voice cracked for the first two sentences, but then I found my strength. I held my power.
And that was when I realized where my mother had gone. She was inside of me.
I am Betty Germer’s Daughter.