June 2003 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
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Volume 2, Number 6

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.

My Mom -
A Woman of Strength and Courage

by Connie Reich
 

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 didn’t 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 mom’s 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 dad’s 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 explosion’s force.

I don’t 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 didn’t 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 family’s 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 dad’s brother and his family.

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 grandparents.

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, don’t you know mommy?” I instantly recognized my mom’s 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 pictures.

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 didn’t 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 Emily’s birth, while planning a memorial service at my parish for my mom, I had some difficulty finding the words and music to my mom’s favorite gospel song, “The Old Rugged Cross.” Finally a woman I knew in the parish said she had the words and music, so mom’s 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 woman’s 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 doesn’t 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 Emily’s 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.