Valley Voices

Remembering mom and the meaning of home

Before I left for college, Mom took me aside. She opened Fresno State’s thick catalog of classes and school information that had arrived in the mail. (No internet in the ancient 1970s!) Turning to the inside front cover, her index finger tapped a circle she had drawn on the campus map.

“That where the religious center is located.”

I nodded.

“Maybe you should go there right away and introduce yourself.”

Fresno was only a few driving hours from Sacramento’s suburbs, but it seemed far away. Mom wanted to be sure I knew where people would speak of faith, Jesus and God. Her circle represented a safe, specific refuge. Perhaps it could become my home away from home?

In my four years at Fresno State, I never crossed the threshold of the religious center’s door.

Over four decades later, I stood in the threshold of my parents’ empty home — with a “Sold” sign on the front yard — and reminded Mom she was more important than any building. Wherever she was, that would be one of my homes. By that time, I had resided in a host of zip codes, with various locations representing temporary to long-term addresses. One key address had always been the house my parents built in 1966. But that familiar structure wasn’t the reason for going “home.” My visits were to see Mom and Dad, to be welcomed with open arms by loving parents.

But that visit to a house marked with a realtor’s sign was only with Mom. Dad had died the year before. And a stranger had purchased their home. With many of her things sold in garage sales or given to charities, Mom would be moving to a retirement village.

My two sisters and I hoped it would be safe place. We may not have drawn a circle around it on a map, but we believed — well, I convinced myself to believe — this represented a good step for Mom. It would be a “home” I would visit. But Mom never truly settled in. She was a widow. Her three adult children lived in three different cities. She was, as she muttered, surrounded by a bunch of old folks. There were a hundred reasons why she never felt comfortable in a place where “everything is taken care of and all you have to do is enjoy life.”

Mostly, it wasn’t home.

Mom’s move was the singular knife-edged regret I carry about the last year of her life. She resisted any changes and no one pushed her or added any guilt. All the choices we considered were openly discussed. If there was a tipping point about her moving, it came when the physician’s assistant at her doctor’s office — a kind woman my mother trusted — said Mom should not be living alone.

One year after Mom’s move, she was diagnosed with cancer.

A month after the diagnosis, or 13 months following her move, she died.

How could anyone know she would be alive one summer and dead before the next summer ended? And yet, how could I not have regrets?

By background, I’m a pastor and have served in various church settings. I currently work in grief support for a hospice. Professionally, I understand regrets. They can be logical: the call you didn’t return because you were exhausted; the dull job you stayed with for its health insurance; the plane trip never taken because your credit card was maxed-out. However, in my experience — professionally and personally — regrets and logic don’t spend much time together. Especially during grief, regrets are like mushrooms in the lawn. They aren’t there when you head for bed, but seem everywhere by the next morning.

Grieving makes us vulnerable. Who can avoid the hindsight games of:

▪  If only I had said . . .

▪  I wish I had done . . .

▪  Why didn’t I stay (or leave)?

Grieving is one of love’s seasons. Like love, part of grief is unpredictable and illogical.

I have no brilliant advice, no snappy list of do this, don’t do that. A half-dozen years after Mom’s death, my uneasy thoughts can abruptly surface. But I have tried to be open about my grief with others who love me. Nowadays, I more often relish the precious memories. I “hear” Mom’s voice inside me, with her encouraging words. I “see” the streets where we strolled her neighborhood, talking about nothing and everything, and treasure those moments.

I have tried to give her a home in my heart. Yes, a few regrets remain — and always will — but most of the heart’s rooms are filled with gratitude.

Larry Patten is a retired pastor, currently working for a Fresno hospice. He maintains the websites and and recently published “A Companion for the Hospice Journey: Thoughts of Life’s Tough Decisions.”