One morning during Mom’s last week, we gathered together around her watching the nurse, Nancy, take her vitals. After she was done, Nancy pulled the stethoscope out of her ears and turned to my two and half year old niece Lily and asked if she wanted to listen to her Nena’s heart. Lily was thrilled and jumped at the chance. Nancy helped her put the stethoscope in her ears and then placed the other end on Mom’s chest.
After a moment, Nancy looked at Lily and said, “What do you hear?” Lily’s eyes were big, her mouth wide. “A lion!” she exclaimed. And she was right. She heard the heart of a lion.
That strong heart kept her with us much longer than we had expected during those last few weeks. I lost count of the predictions the hospice nurse had given us based on Mom’s health and vitals; she possessed a deep desire to be with her family. Instead, we surrounded her and held her hand and whispered our love into her ear and snatched another kiss. We did for her what she most certainly would have done for any of us.
What can a son say in a matter of minutes to sum up the life of a mother who meant so much? How can I attempt to distill the life of Betty LaBelle into a brief eulogy? And yet—and yet. “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us,” author Norman Maclean writes at the end of one of his stories. It is those we love, the ones we share the most moments with, the ones we think we know, who somehow turn out to be the ones who become shadowy to us. But we still try to understand them, we still reach out to them.
Mom lost her own mother very early in life, while she was just a teenager. Not long after that, she was asked to be a live-in nanny for another family. Those two events merged together in her mind; that early death and her departure from her family home while still in high school became fused because of the difficulty both presented to her. Losing a parent at a young age raises enough questions of uncertainty, let alone an early departure from your childhood home. Yet she jumped into her new role with a gentleness and caring that would become her trademark. She would often tell stories about Walter and Theo and their children with fondness. In spite of the tragedy of her mother’s death, she found something positive to hold onto.
She and Dad met at a St. Patrick’s Day party in 1958. He was completely enamored with her right from the start, and claims it was her great legs that caught his eye. The way she told the story, he asked her to marry him on their third date, and she told him to wait six months. He proposed again in six weeks. They were married eight months after they first met, and spent forty-seven years sharing their lives and love with one another.
My own early memories of Mom are fuzzy, uncertain, tentative, and that’s exactly what you’d expect from the sixth child of any woman. I can’t imagine the hours of work she had, the diapers and potty training and meals and homework and running this one here and that one there, and the laundry, good Lord, the laundry. I do remember sitting in my spot at the kitchen table for dinner, something we did together every night as a family. I sat in the curve on the bench at the corner, which I must assume was the least desirable spot since I got it. And I do remember kneeling beside her each night with my sister Rhonda before we went to bed so she could hear our bedtime prayers.
Her faith in Christ gave a deep foundation to her life. That faith took on various expressions throughout her years, yet she never took it lightly. And I suspect that it was her faith that instilled in her a desire to help others, even sometimes at the expense of her own wellbeing. She had what can almost be described as an urgency to help others who were in need, just not in the ways you’d expect. She didn’t visit a nursing home, or give her time at local charities, rather she opened herself up to people both young and old who were hurting. She found ways to help those who somehow fell through the cracks. Our home became a haven for folks all throughout her life: from relatives who were in between places, to someone wanting a listening ear, to a friend needing a home for a few months. Ultimately she and Dad expressed this deep sense of compassion in opening their hearts and home to my sisters Laura and Berniece when Mom and Dad were just two years away from an empty nest. Instead of thinking of themselves and the gift of being finished with raising children, they began again with girls in kindergarten. They wanted to give these daughters a life of hope and promise that would otherwise escape them.
Mom desired for all of us as her children to fully experience and cherish a sense of togetherness. Sometimes she could be downright forceful about this. I remember a time when the entire family went to Cedar Point: children, grandchildren, Mom and Dad. Mom had made it a rule that we gather together and check in every couple of hours. So just as you were making it through the line of the Gemini or the log flume, it was time to check in again, and you had to skip your ride altogether. I ended up missing more attractions than I rode that day, but I can say that I saw my family with great frequency. I learned how to take one for the team that day.
This sense of connectedness that Mom desired for us spilled over one day as a group of neighborhood kids played kickball in our yard. A brother and sister from down the street got into a shouting match—they were on opposing teams. Mom heard them fighting through an open window. She came out, stopped the game and made them apologize to one another. Then in the coup de grâce, she made them end their apologies by giving each other a hug. That was the last time we played kick ball at our house.
Mom wanted us to have the joy in our lives that elusively evaded hers after her mother died. She would attend my brothers’ baseball and basketball games religiously. With most of us in musical ensembles, she and Dad sat through endless performances on uncomfortable chairs in the school gymnasium, all the while feeling pride. She always had high hopes for the gifts she gave, and was let down if there wasn’t an immediate response of gratitude—which meant that you had to be good at faking it if she gave you something you already had or saw that it was the wrong size. When trouble arose from time to time in our family—as it does in every family I know—she became disheartened. Although she had an ideal about how life should be, she also had a strong pessimistic streak, and that made some of the inevitable disappointments in life larger in her mind. In spite of this pessimism, she always held on to the belief that life in general, and our lives in particular, could be so much more.
Mom’s sense of humor around the table was infectious. I have fond memories of sitting in the kitchen playing cards all throughout my life. Mom could hold in tension both a seriousness for the game—she was a fierce competitor—and also the wisdom to have a good laugh when something tickled her fancy. She held on to that sense of humor until the very end. On one of my last visits with her earlier this year, Dad and I stopped at Wendy’s to grab some lunch for all of us. As I handed her her burger, I said, “We got it just the way you like it, with extra pickles,” knowing full well she hated pickles. She looked at me with that infamous look of hers and without missing a beat said, “So what you’re telling me is that you want to get to your grave quicker than I’m getting to mine?”
The thing that brought her the most joy, however, was her grandchildren. When Angela, the first grandchild, began talking, she couldn’t get out “Grandma” and instead said “Nena.” Mom latched onto that name—it made her sound less old, more fun-loving—and it became the name all of her grandchildren used for her. Those kids loved their Nena and she doted on them as every grandparent should. She went to all sorts of events, competitions, baseball games, and concerts for them. She traveled to see the ones who were out of town. She spent weeks finding the perfect Christmas gifts—she made Christmas into an unbelievable extravaganza of presents and joy. She babysat and gave hugs and always had a multitude of snacks in her pantry. Nena worked her magic and made each of her grandchildren feel special. When Dad retired, they decided to relocate to Charlotte to be closer to my sisters and their younger children, so they could see them frequently and shower them with love.
Since I’ve only become a parent recently, I didn’t have long to experience this firsthand, but I was amazed at the love and generosity she bestowed on my son Noah. Even when her health was beginning to fail, she still wanted to see him playing on the playground near her house. So one bright afternoon, Melissa and I drove Mom down to the park, and she watched from the bench with a huge smile on her face as Noah squealed with delight from the infant swing.
In the end, I know Mom took a great deal of pride in her children and grandchildren. She told me a number of times during those last two weeks of how proud she was of me, how proud she was of all us. She and Dad taught us well: to be generous toward others, to approach life in gentleness and gratitude, to be faithful to our Christian beliefs. That’s what she was proud of. That’s what she embraced in her life.
There are many things about Mom’s life that I will never understand, and there were conversations we never had for various reasons. Even though we all lived together for such a long time and loved each other and should have known each other, she still eluded us. She still eluded me. But I will continue to reach out to her. And I will always know the brilliant legacy she left: she had a deep and abiding faith, an unfathomable love and generosity for others, and, above all, she had the heart of a lion. More than anything else, I want that heart.