An excerpt from My Grief is Not Like Yours.
In March of 2018, I took Momma to a women’s conference in Dallas. We didn’t get great seats, but we were in the middle section, halfway back in a group with about 2,300 other people. I was hoping there would be a monitor for captioning or even a person performing sign language, but there wasn’t.
I looked at Momma and moved my lips to silently say I was sorry that she couldn’t hear anything the speakers were saying. She said, “It’s OK. I’m just happy to be in the room.”
When I was about nine, and the annual piano recital was approaching. Momma was in the kitchen washing dishes and preparing for the next meal. When I needed her to listen to one of my piano pieces, knowing she couldn’t hear my fingers hit the keys didn’t matter. I just needed her there.
Looking back, I cannot imagine how tired she was, having worked with Daddy all day on the farm. I had been practicing my piano music that I was going to perform, and I asked her several times to come and listen, come be in the room. It is one of the only times that I saw and felt her frustration. It was a feeling I would never be able to understand because I took it for granted that I could hear my fingers hit the keys and she couldn’t.
I persisted in my childish ignorance. She dried her hands on the worn kitchen towel and came in the room. It was there that she would sit and pretend she could hear me play. She never said anything about my mistakes, but she did offer some of the best advice I have ever received. “Sit up and be strong. Don’t show me when you mess up. Just keep going.” This echo was familiar. My piano teacher, Mrs. Bessire, told me something very similar. “Make your mistakes loud,” she’d say as she caught my posture falling, my shoulders shrugging, or my lips pursing from a few keys that were mistakenly hit by my nervous fingers.
Having spent a lifetime in a silent world, Momma had become an expert at being. Being present. Being there. Being in the room. When I was sick and stayed home from school, she was there, sitting on the end of my twin bed, running her hands up and down my leg or lying beside me. Her presence was felt.
During the night, if I was sick or feeling bad, I could never call out for Momma. She took her hearing aid out at night, so even the smallest amount of sound she had available to her disappeared. If I felt bad, I had to call for Daddy. He would get up and help us, whether that was bringing me a glass of water, cleaning me up if I had thrown up, or just telling a story to soothe me back to sleep. Later, Momma would be upset that Daddy didn’t wake her up. She told me once that she felt she missed out on part of motherhood by not hearing us each time we might have needed her. I assured her that she only missed out on those gross parts, ha ha ha. She was there for everything beautiful, no matter how disguised it may have been.
Having thought about this so many times since, the power of that statement has never left me: “in the room.” Most of us can hear, and often we are not even in the room. We skip, dodge, and even lie to avoid being present in a moment when someone may need us the most. When was the last time you sat in a room by yourself without distraction, quietly and still? Maybe you do this in prayer or meditation, or perhaps you never stop long enough to even try.
Momma was deaf; she couldn’t hear anything that was said, but she was present. She always was, no matter what it cost her. Never doubt the importance of being present, whether it is to help someone or just for yourself. Remember, sometimes it’s not about anything but being in the room.
The last time I was in the room with Momma, all I could do was think about all the times she had been there for me. She modeled perfection for being present, no matter when, where, or what the situation may have been. All the years of my life summarized in that short time I was with her for the last time. What was so familiar during this time was her silence. There was a peacefulness in the air. She was there. I was there. My Daddy and sister were there. We sat with her for hours. She was once again the strength in my being, the push that I needed, the love that gave me wings. She was in the room.
Whether he realized it or not, Daddy was also an expert at being in the room. Daddy’s room was larger. His presence was overpowering at times. He commanded a room, whereas Momma’s presence was a subtle sway in a soft section of space. Daddy was a powerful force felt by everyone immediately. In the pulpit he was respected and listened to. He was the leader. Momma was his cheerleader. The last time I was in the room with Daddy, he was still the wind beneath my wings. He was at peace, silent, and with Momma.
As I sit here writing to you, I realize that I have learned how to live from two of the best examples life had to offer—Sue and Joe Bob, my momma and daddy. They were the most important and necessary ingredients for a story to have meaning and be the testimony needed to help others when they feel they are in sinking sand. These two extraordinary human beings gave me a foundation grounded in Jesus, sprinkled with peanuts, and topped with love.
Theo Boyd is a writer and author of My Grief is Not Like Yours.