We all have one in our life. A talker. Someone who will talk about anything, with anyone, anywhere, often times to the point of minor embarrassment or annoyance. We kid them, or comment that, “it’s like he’s running for office,” or “I’m surprised she can get a breath in!” My mom was one of these lovely folks.
As a child in an age when we all still had house phones, my friends would call, knowing they were in for at least a 5-minute chat. Mom would ask about their parents, how they were doing, and whatever other small talk came to mind. She would call my grandmother—twice a day, sometimes more—and talk for hours each time. Often, the second call was about the same things they discussed on the first!
Mom genuinely cared about the person she was talking to, no matter who it was. And because my Dad was not always the best conversationalist, this became her way to connect with family and friends to vent, commiserate, and quell her loneliness.
As a young adult, I grew impatient with this routine. Calling home from college, or after I moved out, I found myself making excuses to get off the phone, and cut short a lot of conversations. I didn’t dislike talking to my own mother, but most of what she asked about wasn’t important to me. But I was important to her, so whatever was happening in my life was important to her.
Things forever changed in March of 2011. Mom had a large stroke on the day before St. Patrick’s Day. Luckily, over amazing odds and because of her fast moving friends and her sheer inner fortitude, she survived and recovered. However, even though her brain still knew what she was saying, the stroke caused her thoughts to come out as a jumbled mess, with only occasional clear words mixed in.
My mother spent her life talking peoples’ ears off, yet now, despite trying, we often had no idea what she was trying to convey. I could see the frustration and sadness in her eyes. I sometimes placated her, claiming to understand even when I didn’t. Inside, the irony broke my heart.
Many stroke victims’ brains allow them to engage in activities from their past, for example singing although they can’t speak. My mom was also devout practicing Catholic. As a child, I’d listen to her in church as she recited both the practitioner and the priest’s parts. Sometimes, I’d accompany her to church and listen as she joined the congregation in a majority of the mass and prayers. It was remarkable! I was so overjoyed she was still able to connect to her faith, despite her limitation.
As months turned into years, she only could muster one word consistently: “good,” and an occasional, “no.” With these she could tell her nurses she was ok or that something was wrong. This was also tough to watch.
During visits, I felt guilty when we would just sit and watch TV, not really talking. I did continue to pray with her from time to time, feeling that although we couldn’t have a conversation, the mutual prayers were a beautiful way for us to communicate.
All the years of avoiding calls and cutting conversations short, weighed heavily on me. I desperately hoped for any semblance of a conversation with her.
I learned that if we are patient enough to wait, the universe does provide. After all the stroke had taken from her, she found she could still say, with clarity, the three words every child wants to hear from their parent: “I Love You.” Every time I heard her say it my eyes welled with immense gratitude.
She had moments where she was able to speak small phrases clearly. Three years ago, I visited her on Easter. I met her in the common room of her nursing home at lunchtime. The aide helping her asked, “do you want your son to serve you lunch?” Mom gave a side-eye glance and a wry smile, and with immense clarity said: “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea.” All of us burst out laughing and with a big grin I asked, “so that’s how it is, huh?” She chuckled and smiled at me.
That tiny moment is something I will hold close to my heart forever.
My mom’s health deteriorated. She had seizures and her body began to breakdown. We knew her time with us was short.
I visited her on a Tuesday. Although her eyes were closed, she could hear me. I told her to no longer worry about me or my sister. As she tried to speak her usual, “good,” I told her to save her words, and reassured her by reaffirming her belief that God was going to take care of her, and soon she’d be able to converse with everyone in heaven—my dad, her parents, and friends and family. All she had to do now was rest. I kissed her forehead, told her I loved her, and left. I guess, in this way, I did get to have the conversation I was hoping for. I know she must have heard me, because she peacefully passed on that evening, about a year ago.
Inspired by her, I decided that from now on, as I meet more “talkers” and get into conversations, I will work hard to practice patience, in this ever increasingly impatient world. I vowed not to take for granted how every word we say—and hear—is important. How words matter, especially in today’s polarized world, even when I feel the topics do not matter specifically to me.
When an elderly relative or stranger in line goes go on and on, or a child is chattering about absolutely nothing, I will intently hang on every word, and smile as I think of my mom talking away. And I’ll just listen.