Sometimes grins are hard to come by

In recent weeks, my grins have been in short supply because my mother — who had a better record than trial lawyers of proving doctors wrong — could not pull off her survival miracle one last time. Four years ago, she required three liters of oxygen and was sent home under hospice care; within weeks she was free of both. This time, however, she went down fighting, clear of mind and talking, leaving life in mid-sentence.

But, even though losing her brought us the darkest days of our lives, my newly orphaned sisters and I managed a few grins even though tears were never far behind. While it may seem weird to some — if you’re one of them, you’d better stop reading — others may understand that finding humor in tragedy is the way some people cope.

For decades, Mom has slept with her eyes partly open. And, yes, a number of times when I found her sleeping that way, I was afraid she had died. On one occasion, I left her house key at my home in the country, couldn’t make her hear the doorbell or my kicking the side of her house by her bedroom, drove all the way home to get her key, drove back in a panic, let myself in and found her lying in bed with her mouth and eyes slightly open. When I finally got up nerve enough to touch her, she awakened … and I went into the bathroom and bawled like a baby for a good 15 minutes. That is why, as my niece Kym and I viewed Mom at the mortuary and Kym remarked that Mom looked like she was asleep, I said, “No, if she looked like she was asleep, her eyes would be open.”

I’m fairly certain that the Henry clan has an Egyptian lurking in our genealogical background because if future archeologists unearth the plunder that accompanied Mom on her celestial journey, they will hit a jackpot of curious treasure. There are family photos and notes, a small silver frame containing two pictures of Dad, a Jayhawk basketball pin, the red-plaid blanket that my husband Ray wrapped around her legs on a hundred drives to the country and three essentials — a packet of salt, a toothpick and Kleenex — that accompanied Mom everywhere she went. Let’s just say that Mom is prepared for any eventuality.

Although I felt a little foolish, I related the story of Mom’s little stash to my friend Erv. He, in turn, said that when his 40-year-old niece died, her children sent her on her final journey with a can of Coke, an Elvis Presley record, a backscratcher and Grandma’s quilt. If Erv’s niece and Mom meet in the afterlife, I hope they link up with someone who was sent off with french fries. I’m sure a family has done that because although the phrase “you can’t take it with you” is trite, a lot of us apparently are doing our best to send with our loved ones whatever “it” was to them.

My sense of humor, admittedly perverted at times, comes from my parents. I hope it continues to serve me as well as my Mother’s served her because she never lost the ability to see the funny side of life even though she had ample cause to look on the dark side. Beginning in her early ’50s, Mom suffered from an undiagnosed and slowly progressing weakness of the right side of her body. Not even Menninger’s neurologists could identify or cure the problem. Still, Mom stayed in her home — it boggles the mind that she and Dad managed to rear four daughters in that one-bathroom house — and met life on her terms. If Mom wanted to get up in the middle of the night and use her computer to play solitaire and e-mail friends and relatives, she did so.

In recent years, Mom has needed assistance from me that I once needed of her. I must say, however, that she handled the role of caregiver much better than I did. We didn’t slip easily into our new relationship. It was difficult for Mom — once a superb athlete — to require help, and I am an impatient person, easily frustrated when I can’t “fix” something.

In the days before her death, Mom told me she always loved me even though I could be a huge pain in the neck. In return, I told her that any frustration she saw on my part was because I couldn’t do the only things that would have made a difference; I couldn’t make her walk and I couldn’t make her well.

Mom waited three years for her World War II Ranger husband to return from combat; he waited 31 years for her to join him. It is comforting to believe she is now walking with him through Heaven’s gates. But, oh, how I will miss her!