If you are here today, it is likely for one of two reasons. You are friend of either me or my sister and you have heard the many stories we have about our mother or you knew her personally and have stories of your own. Either way, we all have stories about her. She was never in the background of any situation and she was usually the cause of the situation.
She was born in Versailles, KY in 1926 to the late W.J. and Pearl Heathman, and was the last of five children and the second girl. She was also the last of the Heathman clan to pass. Her sister-in-law, Mary Lois Heathman, is the lone surviving spouse of the Heathman family. Both of my grandparents on my mother’s side died before I was born. My grandfather owned Heathman’s grocery in Versailles and my mother and her brothers grew up helping in the store.
She was a lover and collector of animals as a child. Her favorite stories revolved around her pet pigeon named Ouigi. Ouigi was a wild pigeon that stood perched on her shoulder while she rode her bike through town. He also used to peck her toes every morning to wake her. She loved that bird, but one day he flew off never to return. I don’t think she ever fully recovered from that loss. One of our many dogs growing up was also named Ougi in his honor. He remained her favorite dog long after he left us for another home.
She attended the University of Kentucky for two years where she attempted to fulfill her dream of becoming a journalist. My sister and I were told many times growing up that, if she had not married and had children, she would be living in a penthouse in New York City and working for the New York Times. Yet another loss from which she never fully recovered. She continued to tell that story to the staff of Heritage Hall in her last months.
When my grandfather became too ill to run the store, she dropped out of college and returned to Versailles to manage the family business. She met my father while he attended UK and they married in 1950. They remained married for 54 years until his death in 2004.
I do not have too many stories about her past, though not from failing to ask questions. Every time I would ask her something about her life, she accused me of writing a book and she refused to answer.
She raised two children in the 50s & 60s when women still had few choices. She was a frustrated career woman who wanted a different life, but it was never to be. As a result, she never seemed to be really happy. She tried to make do and to live her life through her children, but we were not always cooperative in those efforts. I think almost everyone who knew her tried to make her happy or suffer the consequences. I was always amazed; however, that no matter who she met, most everyone came to love her. This pattern endured even in the nursing home where she spent her final months. As difficult as she was to care for, she was loved by each and every member of the staff.
Perhaps it was her obvious strength and strong will that people found attractive. No one ever had to guess where they stood with her. She either liked you or she didn’t and she let both be known. She had a great sense of humor, loved a good joke (the dirtier the better), and she was the queen of witty comebacks. Even as she lay dying and in the throes of dementia, one of the nurses raised the head of her bed and said “Alma, a penny for your thoughts.” Mother said “my thoughts?” The nurse replied “yes, your thoughts.” She then stated “My thought was why is the head of my bed going up?”
During the last eight months, she also interacted quite a bit with the dead, a common symptom of Lewy Body Dementia. She saw my father, her friends Mary Lou and Jim, her brother Bud, and her sister Ebby. To her they were all very much alive although on some level she understood they had all passed. One day she asked if I had seen Ebby and I told her no. She then said Ebby was getting ready to fly to Nebraska. After looking wistful for a moment, she looked at me and said “You know those dead people sure know how to live.”
As I reflect on her life, I ask myself continually, what did she teach me? She taught me right from wrong. While we rarely agreed on anything from politics to religion, she taught me the basics. She taught me to be honest, no matter what, and to be willing to suffer the consequences of my actions. She taught me to be good to others as you never knew when the tables would turn. She taught me that anything is possible and if I want something – go for it. She taught me to follow my gut and not to worry if others disagreed with my course. She also taught me the power of a strong will and how to set my mind on a goal until I achieved it. She taught me to embrace change and never to fear the unknown. Her greatest gift to me though was a love of writing. She taught me almost everything I know about the art of writing.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from her, however, was not a lesson she intended or consciously taught me. I learned from her how to forgive and to love. While she provided me with many reasons to be angry with her, by the grace of God, I learned how to forgive her. A wise woman named Carla VanHoose once told me “You can keep going to the hardware store for bread, but you will never find it there.” When I stopped trying to make her someone she wasn’t and when I accepted her for the mother she really was, I found peace. When I found peace, she and I became more peaceful together.
Finally, life taught me a huge lesson in the last week of her life. As I sat by her side and heard the stories of all those who cared for her, I was reminded that life is really a matter of perspective. I knew who she was before the dementia and the broken hip. She was a strong, proud, independent woman who prided herself on her appearance. She loved to walk and be active. As the dementia took over and the hip failed to heal, she lost all the traits that previously defined her. Her greatest fears were realized and she was unable to jump off the Tyrone Bridge before it happened as she had planned.
The mother I had known for 55 years, had lost any quality of life. However, to those who cared for her in her last months who had no concept of who she used to be, she was full of life and she was the life of the party. She became one of the girls, staying up all night and eating pizza with the night shift. They gave her jobs to do and she listened to their stories and told tales of her past. As several of them told me, she was always full of advice. Some things never change.
I realized, from looking at her through their eyes, that life is constantly evolving and that we should never limit ourselves or others by the past. The past does not define us or limit us. Used properly, it is no more than a guide. Instead, each day is a new beginning and, as my mother taught me, anything is possible. I am very happy that she is finally at peace, but I miss her very much.