My mother, Louanne Vorba Miller of Middletown, took her last breaths on Friday, March 11, in Room 2044 of the intensive-care unit at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. It’s unreal watching your parent, especially your mother, die in front of your eyes.
Within a 10-minute span, everything went from OK to terminal. It was impossible to register what was happening: The woman who created, nurtured and cared for me for 28 years (mothers never stop looking after your well-being) suddenly ceased to be.
No more holiday visits. No more check-in phone calls. No more walking in the door, seeing her reading in her favorite recliner. No more arguing about politics over e-mail.
Those moments are gone. They live on only in memory. As Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly said in T.S. Eliot’s play, “The Cocktail Party,” “We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them.” Mom, being an English major in college, would appreciate the literary reference.
Eliot’s truth never left my mind in the weeks following my mother’s untimely death. Her passing helped me realize just how precious our relations to others are. During our lives, we leave an indelible mark on those around us. We create ripples in life’s ocean that spread out, touch and interact with others, creating a web of connection that binds us, turning us from selfish creatures into beings capable of love and compassion.
Whether they be our friends, family, coworkers, or complete strangers, our essence is made whole by the people we bond with in our short time here.
Louanne Miller lived a simple life. But she, too, left an impression on those closest to her. Here are a few particularities I’ll remember her by:
• Louanne was born in Orange, Conn., and spent most of her childhood years in Bradford, Vt. Her father was a reverend who pastored in churches all over the East Coast. Her mother was a descendent of the Peters, a family that has been in America since 1634.
• She attended Catawba College in North Carolina and met my father when her family settled in Allentown. They were both employees at a local department store called Hess’s when they started dating. Seeing as how I met my fiancee at our last job together, meeting future spouses at work is a familial phenomenon.
• When my family moved to Middletown in the 1980s, my mother worked at Capital Blue Cross. She was an employee for nearly 30 years, a duration unheard of in our digital age. Her co-workers eulogized her work ethic and positive attitude on Facebook. People I’ve never met before called her a “great soul” and “a good employee who genuinely loved her job.”
It was a heartening reminder that my mom was cared about outside her immediate family. As a child, you don’t often think about your parents in that way. Their life outside your immediate bond may as well not exist, but it’s there. As a kid, I didn’t cause a whole lot of fuss (my brother is another story). But in high school, Mom insisted on reminding me to “make good choices.” I didn’t always follow her advice, being a young American teenager and all. When I inevitably walked in the front door past curfew, she either didn’t notice or ignored the alcohol on my breath. She trusted that I wouldn’t carouse myself into brain dead destitution – a trust that surprisingly paid off. When I graduated summa cum laude from Shippensburg University, she couldn’t be happier. When I was offered my first professional job in Washington, D.C, she also couldn’t be happier – for me to leave my childhood bedroom, mostly.
As for hobbies, Mom had more than a few. She always kept up-to-date with current events and the latest television series (which are synonymous these days). During the holiday season, her house transformed into an annex of Christmas tree shops. She was a cinephile who gave Roger Ebert a run for his money for most films watched. She spoiled her dogs rotten with toys – and didn’t hold back the bounty from her grandson.
She had an interest in genealogy and loved tracing our lineage. I remember how excited she was to discover that our ancestor, John Peters, lieutenant colonel of the pro-British Queen’s Loyal Rangers, met briefly with Benjamin Franklin during the Revolutionary War. Curiously enough, John’s brother, Absalom, differed with him on the question of American independence. This caused a schism in the family, which might explain how my mother and I rarely saw eye-to-eye on politics.
Until the end, Mom tried to keep up with her interests like the world wasn’t ending. When she was diagnosed with Stage IV cervical cancer last fall, she wasn’t overly worried. We thought the strain was treatable. A few chemo trips and everything would be all right.
But then we found out that her cancer was a rare form – less than 500 people in the U.S. have it. Her conditioned worsened. Radiation treatments ceased to have any effect. She was forced to retire, and my sister-in-law became her caretaker. She wasn’t happy about the change, but she didn’t let it stop her from doing what she wanted to do. Movies and Christmas kitsch don’t keep death away, unfortunately.
When my mom called to tell me she checked into the hospital for a mild issue, I was in Austin, Texas, for work. She told me not to worry, and that everything would be fine. The next day, my brother called and told me he was worried about her condition.
A day later, I was on a plane back to Middletown. I arrived late, and didn’t have a chance to visit her in the hospital that night. Early the next morning, things took a turn for the worse. I sped down Middletown Road toward Hershey, blowing through red lights, driving well over the speed limit. I arrived in time to say goodbye while holding her hand.
At the end, as life slipped away, she was the woman she’d always been: Genuine, earnest, beautiful. Even in her frail, departed state she was my mother. Seeing her depart this world was a sharp reminder of the inherent dignity God grants us all.
This Sunday, May 8 is Mother’s Day. Do yourself a favor and don’t forget to get the woman who lugged you around for nine months some flowers. Or, at the very least, give her a call. Tell her you’re sorry if you have to. Before you know it, it could be too late.
I love you, Mom, and I miss you.
Reprinted from the Press and Journal