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The Final Harpoon

Survival was the important thing.

My husband’s mother had a philosophy on illness: Take two aspirins and you’ll be fine in the morning. Much of her life was spent raising eleven children and there was little time left over for coddling or self-absorption. Survival was the important thing.

Twenty-four years ago, while opening a window, she collapsed with a brain aneurism. A metal clamp was used to seal it off. She recovered. Five years later, while dancing the Lindy, she broke her hip. A pin was drilled into her joint. She walked. Eight years after that, she had chest pains — a blockage to her heart. Doctors performed bypass surgery. She rallied. Then, after finding a lump in her breast, she had a mastectomy. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments followed. She lived. It’s been four years now since the massive stroke which left her wheelchair-bound.

Before I married her son and called her Mom, I was the girl next door. We lived in Massapequa Park, a Long Island suburb. The kids on the block, including myself, affectionately nicknamed her Aunt Peggy. Her brood made up a large chunk of the 100 kids that lived in the 20 houses between Euclid and Cypress Avenues. I marveled at how, every night, she had such formal family dinners. She shopped at Norman’s Meats, the best butcher in town. The dining room table had a fresh tablecloth bedecked with china and good silverware, accented with an eclectic mix of glasses—fine stemware (survivors of breakage), old jelly containers and plastic tumblers. I couldn’t imagine preparing a meal for 13 people or dressing all those children for Sunday Mass or doing five or six loads of laundry a day. There were 32 quarts of milk delivered to the house every week. Mom thrived on her busy life, managing to volunteer for charities, juggle two careers and travel to places like Africa, Israel, Italy and Ireland. This woman packed more into a given year than most people do in a lifetime. I was captivated by her zest for living and her ability to remain calm in the midst of what seemed to me like chaos.

My fondest memories of our time together were our late-night conversations after the little ones were in bed. I’d walk next door and find her in her kitchen reading the newspaper while smoking a cigarette and sipping a cup of black coffee. Sometimes, she’d drink wine out of that same cup. We’d talk about world events, religion, politics, history, literature. We’d rehash the neighborhood stories—the bruises and scrapes, the broken bones, the day her daughter Margaret (now my sister-in-law) got a red crayon stuck up her nose, the tree houses, the summer camps, the time I picked her up at the mall when she accidentally flushed her keys down the toilet, the school events, the college tuitions, the plate of spaghetti she hurled at the wall after one of the boys used the word “balls” to refer to his brother’s genitals, the pregnancies, the births, my love-life sagas with her son. She was blunt, honest and opinionated with a keen wit and a steadfast devotion to her family and to God. She respected the meaning of confidentiality and hated gossip because: You never know when the same situation will greet you at your own door.

One of her twins was stillborn. Her nephew and her grandnephew both drowned. She lost her parents, her husband, her siblings and countless other relatives and friends to accidents, disease and old age. Mom’s resilience brings to mind a story I read in the newspaper about Inuit hunters who, after cutting open a whale, found remnants of the tip of a harpoon, dating back to the late 1800s. Before this mammal’s final demise, he traveled with that original spear lodged in his body for over 115 years.

On the night of Mom’s death, I focus on a photograph in her room, one I took the day of her eightieth birthday. She’s dancing in her wheelchair, surrounded by three generations of family. Her cerulean eyes are shimmering in the light. As I look around, I see her children, her grandchildren and others who have come to her bedside—not only to mourn her passing, but to celebrate her life. It’s then I realize everyone in that room will carry a piece of her into their eternity.


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