In the deep woods of Tennessee, where Flat Stanley's mother is spending her last days, the dead don't have to be buried. Once they're embalmed and put in a box, family members can haul it out to the woods and pile rocks on it if they want. Flat Stanley's mother wants to go out in a cheap box and old clothes. She doesn't care about what happens to the body as long as it's not cremated. She's petrified, though, of being forgotten.
She won't be. She wouldn't have been. One cannot sow the kind of sorrow she has sown and be forgotten.
Twenty six years ago, when her granddaughter was four months old, Flat Stanley's mother walked away. She'd done it before, but Flat Stanley knew that this time it would be forever.
Flat Stanley recognized her grief and allowed it to work its course. A job change took FS to a new state, where her sister lived, and eventually her mother re-connected with FS's sister. FS lived within an hour's drive of her mother for five years. The mother moved away and remained in sporadic contact with FS's sister.
One morning, says FS's sister, the mother woke up blind in one eye. Her ailment was misdiagnosed; one morning a few months later she woke up blind in the other eye. A few years later, she developed throat cancer. She got weak. Eventually, FS's mother agreed to move to FS's sister's home on the condition that none of her three siblings ever visit.
Within days, the mother was diagnosed as having only a few weeks to a few months to live. In the car on the way home from the doctor's office, FS's mother said she wanted to see the family: FS and FS's two brothers.
While FS was digesting this, one of the brothers asked if FS would like to speak with the mother on the phone.
This topic -- how to speak to an estranged family member who suddenly wants to reconnect -- and happens to have only a few weeks to a few months to live -- isn't covered in any of the self-help books FS has read. What do you say? "Nice to meet you?" "How the hell you been?" "So, how yuh feelin'?
FS handled it like a bad comedy: She spent 10 minutes talking non-stop to her mother about her father's family, the people in her life that FS's mother most hated. It was like meeting a stranger with a big nose and saying, "Nice to meet you, Ms. Nose." Or offering sunglasses to a blind person. Woops. Forgot. She's blind. Bad analogy.
FS likes to be prepared, so she prepared for this phone conversation by putting a date and time for the phone call in her planner and making sure the evening was empty of appointments. That gave her two days to figure out what to say. Which, obviously, didn't help. At the appointed time, FS pulled two cold ones from the refrigerator and bought a box of tissue. Dialed the phone. Talked about the most inappropriate topic she could find. Hung up. And wished for the 10,000th time in her life that she hadn't been cursed with an inability to process alcohol without a hangover.
Word came that FS's mother wants a professional portrait of herself to be distributed to each of her children and grandchildren. FS wished for the 10,001th time in her life that she hadn't been cursed with an inability to process alcohol without a hangover.
In November, FS paid a personal visit to her mother. Creepy as it may seem, having the ol' lady blind helped those inevitable awkward moments a lot less awkward. Blindness means that FS can stare and gaze and wonder and not get caught doing it.
At that visit, FS's mother hugged her twice and kissed her twice. Only times in FS's memory. FS is returning to spend Christmas. If the law grants permission, her paroled brother will be there as well. For the first time in 37 years, FS's mother and her four children will be in the same room. We'll observe a holiday and allow this woman and ourselves to end well.
FS's mother spent a lifetime rejecting relationships only to learn that, at the end, relationships are what mattered most. Without intending it, FS's mother has given herself and her children the gift of reconciliation. Now, we can say those most important words: It's ok. Even if it wasn't at the time, it's always been ok. Go in peace.