Driving and Biking in the Big City

A spiritual reminder of going home again

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Image by National Geographic

How my Viking ship looks in my memory, courtesy of National Geographic.

Perhaps my most religious experience in my life was giving the eulogy at my mom’s funeral, now more than 10 years ago. I am always reminded of that day as I prepare to make the road trip, once more, to my native Port Neches, a singular community on the crossroads between Texas and Louisiana.

The community is unique in its diversity, that is. Grandmothers may speak French as often as they speak Spanish or country. The Beaumont Enterprise had a Louisiana edition as well as an East Texas edition when I worked there, and my job included calling French-only radio stations for obituaries. I could spell Atchafalaya and Opelousas as well as Anahuac and Kountze.

In my hometown tropics, the swamp can become a flood during hurricane season, displacing thousands and making hurricane season a way of life for us with our generators, flashlights and outdoor stoves. It’s where, when I was growing up, anyone with a job at the plant could have two cars and a boat right out of high school. Where the conservatives carry guns, have grandchildren with beautiful sun-resistant skin and turquoise eyes, sport ink that is so old no one even thought of adding colors and consider boats and motorcycles as common of transportation as cars.

The "real" Viking ship that sailed my mother's dresser for 40 years.

The “real” Viking ship that sailed my mother’s dresser for 40 years.

In the city, if I have electrical or plumbing problems, I call a repairman and pay a hefty price. Back home, my nieces and nephews call their brothers and sisters and the job is done for a return favor down the road. Everybody has a “low boy” to haul that extra ‘frig to the camp, and it’s nothing to install your own hardwood floors.

It was February 2002 when I got the unexpected call from my girlhood friend and former neighbor from that rowdy crowd of kids on 14th Street. She said she was riding with my mom to the hospital, and the last thing my mom had done was handed her my business card and said, “Call Denise.” I was just halfway across the Lake Houston Bridge, still an hour away from my mom and my hometown, when my girlfriend called back and asked me to pull over on the side of the road.

It hit me hard that I did not get there in time. I’ve chased that phone call and that ambulance many nights in my sleep. I’ve anticipated better; I’ve fulfilled promises. But, in the end, I’m trudging through the mud with leaden feet and no voice to call out.

The family eulogy was the least I could do to honor my mom for my independent soul that made me doubt how badly she needed me on the last day of her life. Of course, it should have been Charles standing there in the pulpit, giving the family’s message at my mother’s funeral. As the oldest son, he had always been our spokesman, and we were still aching from his loss while still at his liveliest at a very young 60.

Charles had died of lung cancer just four months earlier and while the world was still reeling from 9-11. I stood by my mom in the shadow of a lonesome pine as a 21-gun salute rattled me to my very bones. You would never suspect by her Depression-shaped exterior how little time her heart would beat after this terrible heartbreak.

Lifelong Methodists, my mom had joined the Mormon church in the last few years of her life, and we respected her choice to have her service in the Port Neches church she attended and loved. However, my surviving brothers and sisters wanted someone to speak for the family and the duty came all the way down the line to me, the sixth and baby of our family.

None of the speeches I’d made as a lifelong communicator nor the years as a teacher could have prepared me to give the eulogy after my mom’s unexpected and quick death. The crowd couldn’t have been more familiar with my brothers and sisters, their kids who are like siblings to me because of the birth order of my family, even mom’s great-grandchildren and distant cousins from miles around. And then, of course, the old neighborhood of my girlhood running buddies, many or whom are still in my hometown and some of whom have moved back to 14th Street. The crowd couldn’t have been more familiar but I couldn’t have been more cotton-mouthed and shaky.

I remember opening my bag of remembrances as I began to speak. I explained how Charles should have been there instead of me. But, like Charles, I could make them laugh at the memories but I’d also make them cry for the loss.

Then my mind is blank. My next memory is of reaching for the final item in my bag — a Viking ship I’d made in fourth grade that still held pride of purpose on Mom’s bedroom dresser. In between the shaky beginning and the smoother ending, I feel now like I was possessed with the Lord’s spirit, leading me through about 30 minutes with hardly a thought of my own. Needless to say, it went better than I could ever have hoped.

I stepped down and into the loving arms of my oldest sister and surrogate mom who congratulated me in her cigarette-deepened voice. “You did so good, Baby,” she wept, squeezing me hard and long, a memory I hold dear now that I’ve also lost her to lung cancer — another striking characteristic of my hometown.

It was only a few weeks later that I had my first and only dream where God spoke directly to me. He told me I was being prideful to think the eulogy had anything to do with me. He said He used me to honor my mom, assured me she was in a heavenly place and left me to contemplate the virtue of humility.

I wish I could capture and revisit the feeling of peace His words gave me. I would like to hold it like an experience instead of a memory, again and again like the many fireflies that appeared to me on the swampy road from Port Neches back to Houston and in the next few days on my bike rides in Kingwood.

I felt closer to my mom in those intimate days after her death than I ever did during her lifetime. The experience gives me a warmth that I never knew in her company. My relationship with my mom was a bumpy road with a quite respectful journey’s end.


Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

September 4, 2013 at 9:33 am

2 Responses

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  1. Once again, you speak and read from my mind… I have been planning for 3 years now for this very event, which I can honestly say has not come to pass yet. I know I’m living on borrowed time with my Mother, my best friend, my old confidant (who cannot remember anything now from all the medication and TIAs). I pray I can make it too, to be there before she goes – terribly important to me and every time I think of it my eyes fill with those familiar tears. Thanks for sharing the insight God gave you – it gave me peace reading it. I believe more and more in the power of faith and that God speaks when we are listening. I know the peace it brings which is far beyond our understanding, but peace nonetheless. Thanks again, my friend! Victoria

    Victoria Beryl Allen

    September 5, 2013 at 7:13 am

    • I love this, Vic. Thanks for saying. I’m sorry your mom’s memory isn’t there for you. My mom was totally healthy and fine and then gone. Rationally, I can advise to try not to be worried about your timing and to cherish the moments you are there. My heart still says something else. Love you.


      September 5, 2013 at 7:29 am

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