A To-Do List

Let me begin by saying…I’m one of the most blessed people on earth. I was born to wonderful parents; surrounded by strong, caring family members and friends; married to a great guy…the 2nd one not the first. My health is good, my attitude, for the most part, positive and upbeat, a decent brain and a strong work ethic. The attitude, brain and work ethic, an entrepreneurial triage as I call them, enabled me to establish and build a successful training and consulting business in 1986.

One strong influencer for starting the business was my mom. After losing a high-paying, globe-trotting job, it was her words of confidence and encouragement that supported my decision to go out on my own. When I told her I was thinking of starting a business she said, “Don’t look back on your life when you’re 65 and wonder if it might have worked. The worst that can happen is that you’ll have to go back and work for someone.”

I believe I was a good daughter – loving, caring, and respectful, seldom giving my parents reasons to worry, punish or, heaven forbid, ground me. But then again, in the 1950’s unthinkable acts included sneaking a cigarette, hiking your school uniform ABOVE your knees or using words like heck and darn. It truly was a decade of innocence. We were a middle-class family, mom a stay-at-home mother, and dad a car salesman. My brother and I always said that we weren’t quite the Leave it to Beaver or the Ozzie and Harriet Nelson families, but we were pretty darn close. Saturdays and Sundays were spent visiting with grandparents, having neighbors in for dinner, playing cards, eating popcorn while watching the 15” black and white TV fighting over the 3 channels, and, if we were really lucky, going to a Phillies’ or Eagle’s game. Faith, food, family and friends were the staples of life.

When Dad died in 1991, Mom decided to stay in the ‘neighborhood’. It was a close-knit Italian/Polish community in South Philly consisting of good people whose hearts were always open, doors unlocked, opinions vocalized, political parties supported and refrigerators full. In this surrounding Mom more than survived living as a single person after 53 years of marriage, she blossomed. One of her proudest accomplishments was balancing the checkbook every month something she boasted, Dad could seldom do. Gradually, over time, the parent-child roles reversed and I became the ‘helicopter child’, concerned about her daily activities. Is she eating? Does she have enough groceries? Is she safe? Is she watching too much TV well, maybe not the TV. Five-foot nothing on a 90-lb frame, mom was frail but never sickly. It was during the years she lived alone that her fragility started to worsen. I kept in touch calling daily, visiting often always begging her to come live with my husband and me. Her answer was always the same, “someday, maybe someday.”

We talked every day and dined together at least once a week. Mom loved Boston Market dinners.  Frequently, I’d pick up several dinners and drive the hour just to have dinner with her. These were special times to sit, talk, catch-up and gossip. One evening in 1997, I paid her a ‘surprise’ visit. This night she was frailer than I’ve ever seen her. Her pallor was the color of slate, her walk slowed to a shuffle and she could barely speak above a whisper. As usual, I set out our dinner at the kitchen table where she hunched over her plate hardly eating. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t get her to admit to anything. “I’m just more tired than usual. With a couple hours of sleep, I’ll be fine.” In my heart I knew that wasn’t true.

I cleaned up the kitchen, refrigerated what she didn’t eat, which was almost everything, and asked what else I can do. “Would you give me a bath?” She has NEVER, NEVER asked me to do this. I bathed her, washed and dried her hair, put her nightgown on and literally, carried her to bed. She said she needed to sleep and would I please lock up before I left. I said yes, waited until she was asleep, locked up and left. On my drive home I convinced myself she was okay and I was doing the right thing. My heart said turn around, stay with her, take her to the hospital, DO SOMETHING but my mind’s eye saw the lengthy business to-do list that needed to be completed. 

When I got home. I told my husband about our evening and he asked me why I didn’t stay. My answer – I have a to-do list that needed to be done for tomorrow. His response shall remain between us. I tossed and turned all night. Funny, not a single item on my to-do list was the cause. The next morning, I called and there was no answer. I wish I could describe the feeling of panic that swept over me…something I can still feel as I’m writing this story. My panic turned into irrational behavior and I raced to get my car keys to drive back to South Philly. My husband, my source of calm, cool and collectiveness, said, “Call Aunt Kay.” Kay was my mom’s sister who lived close to Mom. Before I could pick up the phone, Kay called telling me that Mom was in the hospital with congestive heart failure. In tears, I drove to the hospital. Mom was alive but not doing well. I stayed with her all that day and that night, slept on a cot in her hospital room so I would be there to speak with her doctors on their morning rounds. Funny, not once did that to-do list enter my mind.

Mom never returned to her home. She spent 3 weeks in the hospital, and another 2 in rehab before moving in with us in October of 97.

Did I ever bring up that fateful day? Yes. I apologized, cried, and asked for her forgiveness. She said it never crossed her mind that I should have stayed that night, after all, I was a business owner with responsibilities and leaving that night didn’t mean I loved her less it just meant I had my priorities in the right order. Only a mother can be that loving and forgiving.

What I learned that night was a lesson of a lifetime – put people priorities before any other. You see, I still have a to-do list but I don’t have my Mom.

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