A Woman of Strength and Courage
It is said that
a prophet is not without honor - except in his own country and his own home.
I think that saying applies to more than prophets. My mom was a person of
strength and courage. Her life was not an easy one, but she had an unbreakable
spirit and a quiet strength. She never gave up no matter what came her way.
As a mom she was loving and gentle. She also liked to party and had many
friends. Yet she was just mom to me as I was growing up; I
didnt recognize the amazing strength of character she had until I was
an adult. Now she is a source of inspiration for me.
One morning in
January when I was just a toddler, my moms life was changed by tragedy.
It was a tragedy that would have defeated many people, but not my mom. It
only strengthened her character and determination to live a full life. When
I was 3 years old we moved to Michigan from Clarksville, Arkansas. My dad
had worked on the railroad since he was 16 years old, but dads youngest
brother had moved to Michigan and taken a job in a steel mill. He wrote to
dad telling him how much money he could make if he did the same. My dad went
ahead of us and got a job in the mill. He found a small house and then sent
for us. My brother, sister and I came to Michigan with my mom on the train.
On the cold, snowy
January morning that changed her life, mom was in her ninth month of pregnancy
with her fourth child. She was sleeping on the living room sofa, which she
found more comfortable than her bed at that stage. Dad was up early getting
ready for work. He put the coffee on the gas stove to brew, then went to
the bathroom to shave. The coffee boiled over and extinguished the flame
on the burner. In those days there were no safety devices such as the ones
we have on our modern gas ranges. The stove blew up and the house was aflame.
The living room was directly adjacent to the kitchen, so my mom bore the
brunt of the explosions force.
I dont remember
what awakened me, whether it was the explosion of the stove or the ensuing
commotion of my parents rushing around to save their children and themselves.
I must have been very frightened because I ran and hid between the wall and
the chest in the bedroom. I have a vague memory of being there between that
wall and chest. The house was small and there was only one exit. The heat
from the fire inside the house and the cold from outdoors caused the door
to swell and stick. My dad could not get it open. We were trapped in the
flames. My dad broke a window, picked up my brother and sister and threw
them out into the snow, then helped my mom out. The fire department came
very fast, as the house was on a main street and the fire department was
just a few blocks down the road. My mom told us that a fireman bent over
her and told her everyone was out of the house and safe. My mom looked around
and began screaming for me. In all the commotion and panic my dad did not
realize I had been left inside the house. He started to go back in to get
me but the firemen stopped him and went in for me. They found me still crouched
down between the chest and the wall in the bedroom.
I was hospitalized
for a while after the fire, and I didnt learn what had happened to
my mom until later. I had minor burns on my forehead and on my left arm and
hand. I still have a couple of small, faint scars on my arm that were
second-degree burns. I can remember being in the hospital in a steel crib
with stuffed animals and crying for my mommy and daddy. I did not know where
my parents were or where my sister and brother were. I would have been alone
if it were not for a friend of the familys whom I called Uncle
Dock though he was not really my uncle. He was hospitalized at the
same time for what he later discovered was throat cancer. He came to my room
each day to feed and comfort me, since I was not eating for the nurses. That
created a strong and lasting bond between Uncle Dock and me. He was like
a second father to me. More than that, I look back and see that Uncle Dock
was the angel that God sent to me at a time in my life when I most needed
love and nurturing in the absence of my parents. When I was released from
the hospital I went to stay temporarily with Uncle Dock and his wife, Aunt
Mert. My sister and brother stayed with my dads brother and his
On the day of the
fire my mom gave birth to my baby brother, who was born dead from smoke
inhalation. My mom suffered third- and fourth-degree burns on her face and
upper arms. The doctors did not expect my mom to live until morning, but
when she did they transferred her to the University of Michigan Burn Center
in Ann Arbor. She contracted pneumonia and went into a coma that lasted nearly
two years. She described that coma as visualizing herself in a well. She
said she was trying to climb out of the well but every time she would get
to the top she would fall back down again. She kept struggling to climb out
of that well. Mom told us that she remembered thinking she had to live for
her kids because my dad drank and she was afraid we would not be taken care
of if she died.
She told us that
just before she came out of the coma there was someone there with her, and
a hand reached down and touched her on the forehead. She said all she saw
was the hand and a white sleeve. Then she awoke from the coma. My mom had
to undergo extensive rehabilitation to learn to walk and talk again. She
also underwent plastic surgery. There was no medical insurance at that time
and we did not have the money needed to pay for the extensive plastic surgery
required. My mom had to go through the rest of her life with a scarred face.
My dad suffered
burns on his back in the shoulder area. When he was released from the hospital
he went back to work and found us a new home. My grandparents on both sides
traveled from their homes in other states to take turns taking care of us
children. We also had to have a babysitter for a time between
I can vividly remember
the night my mom came home from the hospital. She still had the bandages
covering her face to prevent infection from the surgery. All I could see
were her eyes. As a small child it looked to me like she was wearing a mask.
My sister and brother went to her right away, but I was frightened of her
and hid behind my dad. Then my mom said, Connie, dont you know
mommy? I instantly recognized my moms voice and ran and hugged
her. I remember she cried when I did that.
I have no memory
of what my mom looked like before the fire. I only know from pictures I have
seen of her. I know from those pictures that she was a beautiful woman. The
only way that I know or have an idea of the psychological adjustment my mom
had to make concerning her appearance after the fire was the realization
I had one day as a teenager while going through the family pictures that
were somehow saved from the fire. There were burns on the corners of some
of them and I recall that on a few of them there was dried splattered blood.
A testimony to the horror of that day so long ago, forever recorded on those
What was even more
noticeable was that my mom had, at one time after the fire, gone through
those pictures and torn off her head from all the pictures she was in with
us kids. I asked her why she had done that. She told me only that she wanted
to keep the pictures of us kids when we were babies but not of her. I
didnt press, because it occurred to me that it only made it worse for
her to look at the pictures of the way she was and would never be again.
My mom did adjust
well though. She went on with her life, and it did not stop her from doing
anything she put her mind to. My mom had such a beautiful soul that anyone
who was around her for five minutes did not even notice her scars. All my
friends loved my mom. People in general loved my mom. She continued to go
to parties and bars with her friends. A couple of years after my dad died,
my mom moved to California and married three times before she died in October
1995. Since she also had been married once before my dad, I teased her that
she had been married as many times as Elizabeth Taylor.
My mom died in
her sleep of congestive heart failure five months before my first grandchild
was born. At the hospital the day Emily was born I kept thinking of my mom
and was saddened that she could not be sharing the joy of the birth with
me. Five months prior to Emilys birth, while planning a memorial service
at my parish for my mom, I had some difficulty finding the words and music
to my moms favorite gospel song, The Old Rugged Cross.
Finally a woman I knew in the parish said she had the words and music, so
moms favorite song was sung for her at her memorial service.
On the day Emily
was born my husband and I went downstairs to the smokers lounge to have a
cigarette. A woman entered the lounge, pushing the wheelchair for her grown
daughter who was obviously handicapped in some way. The mother sat down at
the end of the table where we were seated. The woman in the wheel chair kept
looking at me and smiling. I smiled back at her, and then she started singing
The Old Rugged Cross.
It struck me that
it was a sign from my mom to reassure me in my sadness of missing her that
she was with me that day. I asked the womans mom if she sang that song
often, because it is not a common gospel song outside of the south. She told
me no, in fact her daughter never sang that song before. She said she mostly
just sings jingles from commercials that she hears on television or the radio.
That was definite confirmation to both myself and my husband that mom had
somehow, by the grace of God, even transcended death to let me know that
she was still with me and always would be and that she was sharing the joy
of the birth of her great-granddaughter.
To me, my mom best
exemplifies the saying, What doesnt kill us only serves to make
us stronger. She fought death with a strong will to live and be there
for her kids, and she became even stronger in her determination to overcome
the obstacles that life presented to her. Her pastor once told mom that he
wished he were as assured of heaven as she was because of all that she suffered
in life. Mom came back in her quiet, determined way the day of Emilys
birth to let me know that heaven is precisely where she is and that she is
still with my sister and me. My brother died of cancer and went to join mom
in December 2000.