Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007 would have been my mother’s 70th birthday. Helen Margaret Jernigan Burnett, “Mama,” died from complications of thymic carcinoma last August.
Mama is probably the source of my addiction to arguing and politics. Some people might think it comes from being the oldest daughter of a Baptist preacher, but I believe it comes from being the daughter of a certain Baptist preacher’s wife.
Mama was a teetotaler, prolife, conservative who believed in equal opportunity for anyone who would do the work, but also worked to help others. She and Daddy stopped to “early vote” on the way to see the chest surgeon – just in case her surgery was scheduled before the election a few weeks away. She was semi-famous in her hometown as the food demonstration lady at the local Wal-Mart, the one who handed out samples and root beer floats. She won awards at work for leading fund raising and selling at the store, and ran the early morning Senior Citizens Bingo. Most of all, she was the best “Grandmama” in the world.
As Daddy pushed her wheelchair into the hospital for what turned out to be her last admission, she suddenly looked up at the people around her and said, “I have the best insurance in the world: Jesus Christ!”
It turned out that she was suffering a series of strokes that would steal her ability to do even basic self-care and make her delirious most of the time. Daddy, my sister or I took turns to be with her most of the time; feeding her, helping with her baths and trying to help her control her pain. I wasn’t always patient and I’m afraid that I preached a few of the lessons I learned from her, back at her. But I was better at doing what I could for her than I would have ever thought.
In spite of what I knew of her condition and prognosis, Mama’s death was totally unexpected. Evidently, she had her final stroke while in the MRI, as I sat at the head of the machine, singing to her and trying to keep her (both of us) calm.
I’ve often heard people say that they wouldn’t want to be a burden to their children. Needing someone else to feed us and wipe our chin when we can’t hold the spoon, much less assist us in performing much more intimate acts of hygiene, seems to be the worst thing we can imagine.
I’ve never had a good answer for patients or family members when they express this fear to me. Now, I know that the worst thing that I can imagine is living the rest of my life without having fed Mama, washed her, and rubbed her back on that last day.
The faith that she and Daddy surrounded me with as a child makes me sure that Mama is in heaven. But it’s the memories of caring for her those last few days that let me live here on earth knowing that I loved her as best I could when I could. Mama’s last lesson was that we owe it to our loved ones to allow them to care for us, for their sakes.