Normally when this day rolls around every year, I sort of roll my eyes. I mean, shouldn’t we be thankful for what we have EVERY day? And only in the US could we have a day made JUST for being thankful for what we already have – right before we race to shove each other out of line the next day in order to buy things we DON’T already have. It’s just another day.
But this time… well, this time it’s different. And if you can spare a few minutes, I’ll tell you why.
My mother graduated from Saint Mary of the Woods College in Indiana. Her graduation ring always fascinated me. It had a black face, onyx or obsidian – I didn’t know which – and into that large rectangle was carved the letters, “SMW.” I loved that ring. I would see it on her and just identify it as a part of her. That ring WAS my mother. I told her – some day – I wanted it.
She would shake her head and say, “This is mine. You’ll have to pry it off of my dead finger.”
Fast-forward thirty years.
My parents, now in their fifties, began to get sick. They were running a dry cleaning business in New Mexico, working seventy hours a week, barely bringing in enough to pay the bills. My father’s back, which looks like a calcified map of the Grand Canyon, became so bad he was in agony twenty-four-seven. He also has a muscle disease that acts like arthritis and means chronic pain as well.
My mother, the physical rock in our family, broke her leg. She tried to work anyway; they pushed and pushed, ever honest, good people who wanted to earn a living and pay their way. It wasn’t until my mother finally began fainting from exhaustion at work and my father landed in the hospital with a heart attack that they realized (even though their kids had told them much, much earlier) that they had no choice. They had to sell the business.
Fast forward two loooong years. Every attempt at selling the business had failed. Every deal made with the bank, every concession they’d granted, every single bow and scrape they had performed had mattered not at all. They’d only managed to sell half of the dry cleaner’s, and they had a decision to make. Work until the ambulance dragged their carcasses out of the cleaner’s one night – or declare bankruptcy.
They decided on choice “b.” But they did so only under the promise by the bank that they would not lose their home.
Fast-forward several very stressful months. The bank lied. They are going to lose their home. My father became more ill, my sister began to go through horrible problems of her own, I began to help them pay bills, and my mother became depressed enough that she started giving away everything she had. She didn’t have much, mind you, but what little she possessed, she suddenly wanted her children to own. When questioned, she would just say, “Well I don’t need it anymore.” As if she were waiting to die.
This was depressing…. But I had to ask. “What about the ring?”
“Oh….” she said. “I gave it to Holly.”
Holly is my sister. I was devastated. My mother had honestly forgotten that I wanted the ring. You know – thirty years, four children, stressful job after stressful job, and a brain tumor will do that to a woman. She was so sorry that she’d forgotten, and I forgave her. But I was crushed.
Not long after that, my mother – for some unknown reason to us all – began to, of all things, substitute teach.
Now this really threw us. We figured she just wanted to feel useful. She used to be a teacher, after all, way back in the day. She was such a good teacher, she won an award for being one of the best teachers in New Mexico. NASA had her come up to their holy-secret-never-breathe-a-word offices in California and gave her top priority access to things the rest of us could only dream of – all so that she could share the wonder of science with her students. She’s that kind of woman. So, we finally shrugged and let her do the substitute teaching even though she was making an absolute pittance and she was so, so tired.
Fast forward to this week.
A few days ago, I opened the front door of the house to find a note from Fed Ex. I’d missed a package delivery that required a signature at the door. A few hours later, I got a call from my mother. She told me that I needed to be at the house in the afternoon the following day. She seemed very adamant, so I agreed despite the fact that I’m busier than f@#k. I stayed at the house all day and worked on editing A Sinister Game, which was almost due to release.
The next morning, I found out my mother was in the hospital. She’d suffered equilibrium, nausea, vomiting, and a massive headache. These were things that meant “migraine” to me, but because she’d had a brain tumor in the past, they wanted to be certain. So they did some scans…. More money, but at least we knew she was okay.
The migraine persisted. I gave her advice: caffeine, Tylenol and aspirin combined, no lights or sounds, etc.
The next day, I had a shot in my back that went awry and was bed ridden. Somewhere in that mess, the Fed Ex guy came and apparently didn’t knock loud enough – I don’t know. I missed the package again.
My mother calls me up. “You have to be there tomorrow. I’ve called them. I’ve told them to knock until their hand falls off. I told them to ring the doorbell until its battery dies. You have to have that package.” I asked her where it was coming from – but she wouldn’t tell me. She had sworn everyone to secrecy on the threat of death.
Fast-forward to today. In fact, a few hours ago.
Jarred by the sound of a man knocking as if there were no tomorrow and ringing the doorbell as if someone in China needed to hear it, I ran to the front door. The Fed Ex guy gave me this wide-eyed look, held out a tiny little package, and said, “Thank God.”
I signed his little mechanical device and took the padded envelope from him. It had what felt like a box inside. Small. I looked up in the top left-hand corner to see where it had come from: “Saint Mary of the Woods.”
My heart skipped a beat. I stared at it for half a second longer before suddenly ripping the envelope in half and allowing the box to tumble out into my hand. It was a ring box. I said, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. She couldn’t have!”
But she did. I opened the box to reveal a replica of my mother’s ring – down to every last detail. The date was the same, the design was the same, it was heavy and wonderful and instantly reminded me of her face, her smile, her rolling eyes as she would tease, “You’ll have to pry it off of my dead finger.”
I called her up, crying, laughing. I couldn’t believe it. And then she finally – finally – told me everything. She’d taken the substitute teaching job so that she could save every last penny she earned to buy me this ring. She’d felt so horrible about giving hers to my sister; she just wanted to make up for it. She just… wanted me to have this ring. Every time the Fed Ex man failed to put the package in my hands, it killed her a little more. That was where the migraine came from. She was stressed to her limits.
Then she said, “Look inside of the ring. Do you see the inscription?”
I didn’t want to take it off – it fit perfectly. But I slipped it off and turned it over and read aloud, “PGK-HKW.”
Pilar Gonzelez de Killough to Heather Killough-Walden.
Everything in my world turned around in that moment. My life, my troubles, my worries, our hardships, our fears – they all flipped over onto their heads. I saw the stars. I could have been in that NASA office myself just then and I would have known more about the heavens than any of the geeks sitting at those super high-tech consoles. I’d touched heaven personally. It was there – in the silver and black ring that rested in the palm of my hand.
Today, this year on Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my mother. I am thankful for my mother like you wouldn’t believe. And then some.
And I just wanted you to know.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.