McGrath: Mom didn’t live for sports, but she knew what was important

Staff WriterMay 11, 2014 

Midway through our last day together, my mom was propped up on a hospital bed by nurses who’d told her she needed to swallow a pill the size of a travel-kit soap bar.

“This won’t be bad, Marjorie,” she was assured.

The patient stared at the pill. No way.

“Here, let’s try this,” said another nurse, who cut the pill into three or four pieces. “Is that better?”

Mom answered with the exaggerated frown of a child — it reminded me of an “I Love Lucy” scene in which Lucy needs only a wordless wince to convey her displeasure with Ricky — and the nurses cracked up.

After she swallowed the last piece of the pill with a sip of water, Mom spoke.

“Why are all these terrible things happening to somebody who is so adorable?” she asked.

The nurses cracked up again.

Laughter, as the great sports writer Dan Jenkins once put it, is the only thing that cuts trouble down to a size where you can talk to it.

Mom often was the smartest person in the room, and always the funniest. Even at 95, when she was finally denied the pleasures that had made widowed solitude not so lonely — reading, working the daily crossword puzzle, volunteering at the art museum, writing poems for all occasions — she was determined not to allow the terrible things happening in the hospital rob her of, well, her adorableness.

The first words I recall Mom speaking to me were: “Sit down and watch. This is important.”

She said that after a preschool van dropped me off at home Oct. 1, 1959. The Chicago White Sox were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of the World Series.

Actually, Mom wasn’t much of a sports fan. All she knew is that some contests had time frames called “innings,” and other contests had time frames called “halves,” a realization that allowed her to ask, with a mischievous smile, “Is it halftime yet?” during any baseball game my dad and I happened to be watching on TV.

But she understood the significance of games that meant nothing to her. She understood whatever it was that could draw a traveling businessman father and his teenage son together for a few hours had to be important.

Laughter was like music to Mom, but she also was prone to cry over things most people don’t cry about.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” before a ballgame, for instance. The idea of 30,000 people standing for two minutes, beholden to an American flag flapping in the summer breeze atop the scoreboard — that got her every time.

Late one summer night, during a break from college, I walked past my parents’ upstairs bedroom and noticed something on the television had reduced Mom to tears.

Had there been a tragedy? A particularly inspired rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that accompanied the local TV stations signing off for the evening?

“Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked.

She gestured toward the TV. No words, just a gesture that implored: Watch. This is important.

Gene Kelly, umbrella in hand, was singing and dancing in the rain, kicking through street puddles during a movie sequence so perfect my only response was to stand there and cry with her.

Last I saw her, seven months ago, she was frustrated and confused, and yet fully aware she would not be alive for a 96th birthday on May 12, a milestone that invariably coincided with Mother’s Day weekend. There were no tears. She had fallen into a peaceful sleep, and I chose not to wake her for a goodbye that would have broken her heart.

In a drab hospital room, where the orange, red and yellow colors of dying tree leaves could be seen just beyond the sealed window, another Gene Kelly movie, “Summer Stock,” was on the TV.

The showstopping dance in “Summer Stock” finds Judy Garland singing: “The sun is shining, come on get happy, the Lord is waiting to take your hand. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, we’re going to the promised land.”

I kept glancing at Mom to see if her eyes were open, but she was in another place, going to a land promised for those angels among us who were born so people could get happy.

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