It’s a pleasure to have John Kingston guest post and share his moving tribute to his mom.
It remains one of my earliest memories of childhood: my brother’s 7th birthday party in the backyard of our house on Stevenson Street; Flint, Michigan, 1976. While my brother and his friends were splashing in a wade pool, I, the perpetual, brooding observer, was sitting on our picnic table watching them. There exist very few photographs of me as a kid smiling.
It’s easy to picture myself that day, a three-year-old in the midst of some angst-ridden tantrum, watching quietly from the sidelines as the older kids played and laughed beneath the bright sun.
Nobody else saw the man lurking behind our shed at the other end of the yard. Moving from one side of the shed to the other to avoid being seen by my brother and his friends, he was smiling at me and beckoning me to come to him.
He had a feral appearance about him: wild hair with a scraggly beard and round, wide eyes. Google “Sika from the Wild Samoans” and you’ll get the best example of how I remember him looking. To three-year-old me, he looked like a giant, although he was probably smaller in stature than I am now as an adult.
I watched, first with bewilderment and then a rising sense of danger as he became more animated with his attempts to lure me to him. Nodding, smiling, gesturing, and then hiding some more.
When my mother stepped out from the side door of our house carrying paper plates for the cake, he ducked back out of sight. I wasted no time in telling her about the man that was hiding behind the shed to her and she quickly herded us back toward the house.
With a fierceness that made her look poised on the verge of an attack, she called the man out from his hiding spot and demanded to know what he was doing. He claimed to be waiting for someone.
I’ve read about attackers and would-be kidnappers who have described a sense of losing control of a situation when confronted by someone who put up some type of formidable resistance. It’s something he must have felt as my mother stood her ground that day, shouting him down every time he opened his mouth, for he backed away from her, jumped the fence that separated our yard from the neighbor’s yard behind us, and was gone.
My imagination has filled in some of the blanks since then; giving him a Bigfoot-like shamble to his evacuation and summoning to mind a great, offensive, swampish reek about him, although I was never close enough to him to be able to tell if he stunk or not. It was the first time I had ever felt true danger in my life, but it was also the first of many times to come when I would feel the unyielding ferocity and dedication of my mother’s maternal protection.
There was no doubt that Mom was lonely during the years of our childhood. She never had it easy: a single mother who worked two and sometimes three jobs to be able to provide a roof above our heads and food on our table. Behind the smile and the flash of her camera on our birthdays and during those Polaroid-hued Christmas mornings, there was a woman who was yearning for companionship. But it always came second to her role as a protector and provider, teacher and supporter. To have her boys huddled together with her watching Christmas specials on the television at night was precisely the place she wanted to be.
Everything is not Okay
It’s been two months since her death and I still struggle with the anger of having lost her so quickly and unexpectedly. I’m angry that she won’t be able to see her grandchildren grow up. I’m angry that the life she was enjoying with her loving husband, Robert; a life she had worked so hard for and had waited so long for, was cut short. There’s a hollowness that won’t heal and a sadness that lingers constantly. With my grandfather’s passing last summer, and now the loss of my mother, the world seems emptier and lonelier.
In October of last year, just a few months after my grandfather’s death, my mom told me about a dream she had. In it, Grandpa appeared to her. He was no longer the immobile, age-ravaged shell of the man he had been at the end of his life. He was happy and youthful; his strength and vitality returned. And he had a message for her: everything is okay. She described it as the most vivid dream she could remember and we assumed at the time that it was a message from him just to let her know that he was fine, he was waiting for us, and not to worry.
Following her diagnosis of cancer, we both wondered if there was some greater meaning to it. Could he have known that in two months’ time, after seeing the doctor for a lingering cough, my mother; a woman who never smoked, stayed active, and did all the right things, would receive a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer? Could he have known that, after she began to have low oxygen levels in February, she would go to the hospital and end up having her lung punctured during a routine catheter insertion by a physician-in-training who wasn’t qualified to perform the procedure on his own, and that this mishap would cause a catastrophic sequence of events from which she would be unable to recover? Was his message intended especially for her during her final hour, after we had removed life support, and we stood at her side, holding her hand as she slipped away? Everything is okay.
It’s during my quietest moments, whether I’m eating lunch alone on the plaza outside of my office, or catching the golden light of a sunset from the window when I say her name. And I see it as I watch my own children play. I hear it when I scoop them up into my arms and tip them upside down and listen to them laugh and giggle. I feel it as I comfort them when they fall and scrape a knee; the recognition that I am entering the phase of wisdom that my mother, and her parents before her, had come to discover so long ago: our children only grow in one direction.
The sweetness of their small voices talking at night when they are tucked into their beds will become one day just memories left to linger in the eternal halls of our memory.
Mom knew this, and having grandchildren allowed her to relive those days. She shared every picture I sent to her and spoke often to people of her granddaughters in Seattle that she just couldn’t wait to see again. I’m angry that cancer deprived her of that.
There is too much to thank her for; too much I should have said.
I hope that perhaps one night soon she too will visit me in a dream and that she will say to me the same words that Grandpa spoke to her. And if, by some grace of the subconscious…some benefit granted me by the erratic rules of dreams, I may be allowed to speak to her in turn, then with my hand to my heart and with tear-welled eyes laid upon her in the most solemn, desperate earnestness I can summon, I will thank her for the songs she sang to me as a child. The love she gave. The way she made it all work. I will thank her for understanding me; for discerning from the tangled mess of my angst and despair the words that formed the perfect sentence, the truest meaning. I will thank her for passing on to me a love for expression; an appreciation for the beauty that lies in the simplest of things.
I will tell her how right she is about the sound of rain at night, and recite to her the lines she liked most:
…that all the faces and the triumphs and the words he could remember had been signposts pointing the way to something…Mile-markers to let him know that his struggles and anxieties and his private achy dwellings attached him by way of some large unseen umbilicus to something greater.
I will tell her that in the alpine flowers that grow in the mountainous heights there lives her sweet, windswept reminder to be thankful. That when, in my times of despair, I’m again faced with that bleak and ever-looming void and yell every incantation of hurt and anger and sadness and fear and disgust, I will remember her voice of reason.
In Lieu of Flowers
She was born Darlene Marie Manssur on July 14, 1951, in Flint, Michigan, to Norman S. and Irene M. Manssur (nee Knight). As the middle child of five children, and the only girl, she learned independence and toughness at a young age. She graduated in 1969 from St. John Vianney High School in Flint, Michigan and went on to work for Hurley Hospital. She could type 100 words per minute, knew—and continued to use—shorthand, cooked miracles in the kitchen, created beautiful quilts, researched, chased down, and mapped out the long, sprawling paths of our ancestry. She enjoyed ice-skating and Zumba and going to her Black Lake cottage with her husband. She was a lover of books and music and wielded a mastery of English grammar and its subtle and varied nuances. She loved red wine and traveling and campfires on the beach on a summer’s twilight but above all else, she loved nothing more than spending time with her children, grandchildren, and her loving husband, Robert.
After a short but very courageous battle with cancer, she passed away on March 9, 2018, with her family by her side. She was preceded in death by her father, Norman Manssur; and her step-daughter, Elaine Free. She is survived by her mother, Irene; husband of 22 years, Robert Miller; sons, Michael R. Free (Marsha), John E. Free, aka John Kingston (Junko); 4 grandchildren: Jessica Free, Nathan Free, Lauren Yasuda, and Hana Yasuda; step-granddaughter Michelle Lafnear, and step-great-grandson, Spencer Lafnear; brothers Donald Manssur (Barbara), Danny Manssur (Sherry), Dennis Manssur and Dale Manssur (Terri); and many nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.
In lieu of flowers, don’t waste a minute telling the ones you love how much they mean to you.
© John Kingston 2018
John Kingston’s novel, The Portraits of Gods, is the source of the words his mother loved so much. His essays have also appeared in in Huffington Post and Blue Heron. You can read more posts by John at TheRoadLessWritten.com.