The view from the pulpit at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Flour Bluff, Texas, has gotten a little too familiar of late. For the second time in the space of 17 months, I found myself there to bid farewell to one of my parents. This time it was my mom, Gerry Kisling, who left this world without much notice, a few hours after suffering a massive stroke in early February. I was in LAX, waiting for a flight to San Francisco, when I got the call.
How to sum up the life of your mother in a few paragraphs and minutes? The short answer is, it can’t be done. This was my feeble but heartfelt attempt.
So, Mom had this really annoying habit in recent years. You would go out to eat with her, and when she was done with what she had come there to do, she would put on her scarf and jacket to LEAVE, whether you were ready or not—and usually you weren’t close to ready when she decided it was time to go.
Well, guess what. She just did it again.
The English major in me has been searching for some kind of overarching, organizing theme to use in talking about Mom. At first, I thought about an Army motif. We were a military family after all, and although Dad was “The Colonel,” Mom often pulled rank. And the Army metaphor works for a lot of things.
For instance, she was a master logistician, who could figure out how to get between any two points in the Coastal Bend without every getting on a freeway, crossing a bridge, or driving over 35 miles per hour.
She was a veritable drill sergeant when it came to restaurant wait staff. She knew exactly what she wanted, and it usually wasn’t “This.” We fantasized that there was a poster with her picture on it in every restaurant in the county, and an alarm would go off in the back when she walked in: “CODE GERRY. WE ARE AT DEFCON 1. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
On the other hand, when she did find something she liked, she was fiercely loyal, like a good soldier. She stuck with it. Like, with a lot of it. I still remember Dad’s face when—while we were driving across country—the grocery clerk came from the back with (no kidding) a hand truck full of her favorite Snapple flavor du jour—just in case we weren’t able to find it again at one of the hundreds of supermarkets along the route.
Continuing the Army theme, she would go to daily mass most mornings to confer with her Commanding General, and then hold a situation report and planning meeting with the regimental quartermaster, Robert at El Mesquite on Airline. From there she would survey the field and plot her next maneuvers.
She was brave and self-reliant like a good soldier. She continued to live on her own after Dad passed—87 years old in that big house. She was actually driving herself to the hospital when she was overcome at the end. (Really, Mom? Don’t you think that was a little irresponsible?)
But the soldier metaphor only goes so far. Because her real vocation was as a healer. Once she was trying to explain to me the highest level on the Maslow scale of self-actualization. As an example, she told me about the time when we were stationed in Alaska and she had read a biology text. Afterwards, she couldn’t sleep. She wandered around the house late that night, in total fascination, thinking of all the micro-organic processes going on around her. It was a turning point. Shortly after that, she went back to college and became a nurse, working in several hospitals over the years.
(By the way: I also hit the top of the Maslow scale late one night in Alaska–the night that I saw the real Santa Claus in our backyard on Christmas Eve. Mom, I would like you to check into that for me and get the full scoop on what was going on that night. But I digress.)
Mom went on to earn a master’s degree in nursing, back when graduate study in the field was still a new thing. Women were taking off those little white caps and becoming professors, and she was part of the advance guard. She loved her job as a teacher and as Director of Health Services at CCSU and was a fixture on campus putting around in her little golf cart. When a maintenance worker fell off the scaffolding and broke his neck, she was on the spot immediately, calming him, skillfully positioning him to prevent further damage, barking orders at the EMTs when they arrived about how to handle him (“DON’T Touch Him!”). And he lived to walk again and come back to work, and he credited her care and expertise for that.
After retirement, she continued to support the well-being of others, for instance working here in the food pantry, or in her faithful weekly visits to a young paralyzed woman in a local nursing home, and in helping a friend of hers to establish the first home health agency in Texas. And, most importantly for us, in the care that she took of Dad during those last years when he became increasingly dependent on her. It was not easy.
She was, till the end, our “go to” for all of our owwies and medical maladies. Whenever I walk in for a physical, even now, I hand over to my doctor the list of Stuff That My Mommy Said I Had to Have Checked. In fact, my last conversation with her a week ago was when she called to find out how a doctor’s appointment had gone earlier that day.
She was intrigued both by medical healing and spiritual healing, and was a big early advocate of the laying on of hands. So, it makes sense that the last thing she did before she left us was to go to a Mass of healing.
And, to be sure, she did have parts of her that called out for healing. Besides physical ailments, I know that, like all of us, she had her share of old hurts and restless dreams and roads not taken. She was a woman of such intelligence and capability—she literally read a book a night—and there were a lot of things she could have done in life. But her course was set early on when, at age 19, she and a handsome young Army officer made the ridiculous decision to get married after knowing each other for a matter of weeks. And she stayed that course for more than 60 years and 30 moves, and we four kids are grateful that she did.
Staying the course. That term has its origins in sailing, and that brings me to a final image of mom.
Another reason the soldier metaphor finally doesn’t hold up, is because Mom was in love with the sea. She was raised on the island of Aruba in the Dutch West Indies—where her sister, Patty, was born—back before it was “cool” to go to Aruba. It was just beaches and refineries back then, and their father was an engineer for Esso. I remember once taking the ferry with Mom in Port Aransas and hearing her gasp and gesture at a rusting tanker sitting at dock. “My God, the Esso Aruba.” It was the same ship that she had taken back and forth as a girl.
When she pursued her dream of becoming a nurse, she did it in Panama City, Florida, and she had a little apartment that sat right on the water that she stayed in whenever she was at school. And the ocean is one of the reasons that she and Dad stayed here in the Coastal Bend after retirement. The Army directed where they were going to live during much of their married life, but she got to make the call on their final duty station. She loved the smell of salt air and the sun- and moon-lit horizon of the sea.
Maybe that’s why, when her own beloved mother, our grandma Marie, passed away, a particular reading really spoke to her. We just stumbled across it again a couple of days ago, looking through her papers. Interestingly, she had left four copies of it. Here’s how it goes:
I am standing upon the seashore
A ship at my side spreads her white sails
to the morning breeze
and starts for the ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength,
And I stand and watch her
until at length
she is only a ribbon of white cloud
just where the sea and sky
come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says,
“There! She’s gone!”
Gone from my sight—that is all.
She is just as long in mast and hull and spar
as she was when she left my side,
and just as able to bear her load
of living freight—to the place of destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment
When someone at my side says,
“There! She’s gone!” there are other voices
ready to take up the shout,
“There! She comes!”
And that is dying.
One of the last statements that anyone heard Mom say in her final extremity, before she lost consciousness, was, “I just want to go home.” With full hearts and strong hope in the mercy and love of that Mystery that beckons to us all from beyond the veil, we trust that she got her wish.
Bon voyage, Mommy. Godspeed.