Her True Calling: My Mother's Last Gift

By Jennifer S. Holland
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 5, 2008

My mother stopped trying to find herself when the tumor in her brain spilled from one hemisphere into the other, pushing the midline to one side like an unexpected bend in an arrow-straight road.

"They're on the move," she told me over the phone from the hospital the night she was diagnosed. "They're marching through." I suppose that in her drug-induced haze she meant the tumor cells were like soldiers advancing, leaving rubble in their path. It was the night before Thanksgiving, and after that she forgot where she was going.

For years she'd sought something she couldn't explain. "I need to fill my cup," she'd say. She tried it all: acting, singing, politics, religion, painting, buying houses and selling them soon after -- a "hobby" that almost ended her second marriage. She was going to save the local theater, fight animal cruelty, help dying children get wishes granted. As a nurse she traipsed endless avenues -- obstetrics, children's cancer, ER, addiction, hospice -- and to each she brought a special compassion and gentle hand. And each time she switched directions she thought she'd find that thing she was supposed to do, the person she was supposed to be.

I can picture her pondering her next move, sitting in her favorite sunny room upstairs with the sink-down chair wide enough for curled knees and two cats, the dream catchers and Santa Fe talismans on the walls. Her shelves are heavy with books (on laughter, on forgetting) and trinkets -- Dorothy's ruby slipper in miniature, a dish of sand raked into soothing swirls, urns of ashes of past cats and our old Weimaraner Gretel. And she has pictures of me here and there, one from our mother-daughter trip to Mexico years back -- a shot of two giddy brown-eyed brunettes sipping sour drinks through curly straws, our mouths in tight O's -- and of me posing with her in mind while on writing assignments around the world for National Geographic. For years she'd show them off to friends, eyes proud.

"Jenny, my love, my love," she sang into the phone one afternoon. "I think I've finally figured out what I need to do."

I braced myself a little, recalling recent talk of crystal energy therapy.

She was going to be a hospital chaplain, she said, and had already talked to someone over at the clinic.

It was something I could see her doing well, but this conversation was painfully familiar and I couldn't give in so easily. I'd grown weary of the constant flip-flopping from dream to dream, a once-endearing trait that had begun to make me sad, especially as I'd seen similar torments in myself: indecision, dissatisfaction, the fear that what was out there was better than what was inside me. I snipped at her: What happened to starting a foundation? Running for mayor? Building a university, revamping the animal shelter?

She was never put off by my tone, never let the negativity in. Her new career choice made more sense, she said. Politics gets too ugly -- all that testosterone. This is more spiritual and would fill that hole in her life.

But as always came the obstacles. The application asked for essays on who she was and what she believed. That meant focusing, having a perspective. (I later saw the yellow pad with her lovely compact script -- it always looked like writing that was practiced, as when a woman is changing her name and wants to see if it's pretty on the page.) She filled less than two sheets, a lot of words crossed off, the whole thing trailing off mid-thought. She soon abandoned the paperwork.

And she'd need to go back to school. Did she really need all those classes to help people? she asked. "Honey, I'm not sure if I know how to study anymore!" Still, she signed up for the first course, bought books and pens, notebooks with red covers and clean, smooth pages. I don't know that she ever attended a session.

And then, they told her she had to declare herself something. "I have to pick a religion," she moaned.

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