Author: Martin, George

The bell curve of life

Youíve all seen a bell curve: a graph that starts out near the bottom axis,
climbs, levels out and drops back to the bottom. It represents so many things,
like height in a population. Youíve got a few very short folks, then as you
approach average height the curve grows and peaks, and on the downward side you
have taller and taller people until way down at the end there are a few

Teachers sometimes use the same curve for grading, assuming there will be a few
students who utterly fail, most will be grouped in the ďaverageĒ middle where
the curve is highest, and a few will excel, mirroring the number that flunk.

In a different way, that curve is often used to illustrate the human life span.
Low, on the left, helpless babies who gradually grow up and get stronger and
more knowledgeable, hit the prime of life at the top of the curve and then start
to shrink and weaken until at lifeís end we find the feeble aged.

This past few weeks I have been in this crazy situation of baby-sitting myeight-month-old grandson, then going to the assisted living place and sitting
with my 97-year-old mother as she weakened, lost the ability to speak, and
finally passed away, helpless as an infant.

One morning I listened to baby Oliver babbling ďma-ma-ma-ma, da-da-da-da..Ē and
hours later sat listening to my delirious mother calling, ďMama, help me!
Papa, help me!Ē The hospice nurse said my mother wasnít in pain, but she was
somewhere far away due to her dementia worsening. And the morphine may have had
something to do with it as well.

Watching someone die is never easy. Since my sister died in 1996 I have been my
motherís support system and link to the world, helped in no small measure by my
wife, Barbara. She sat up with me as we watched Mom breathe heavily for about
eight hours before fading away about 2:30 in the morning, December 1.

I have never shied away from death. I was with my father when he breathed his
last, but I had dozed off for a few minutes and suddenly awoke when I realized
the room was silent. And I sat with my cousin while his mother, my beloved Aunt
Marie, faded from life as I held her hand. I donít know if the dying person is
aware that a loved one is sitting right there, but I believe it would be a
comfort to her if she did know. It just seems better, to me, that a person not
die alone.

I am sad that my mother died, but satisfied that she had a long, happy life
(just four months shy of 98 years) and did not seem to suffer. Everybody must
die sometime and just a week before my mother passed away she was in the
activity room playing word games and bingo, and a month ago she was sitting in
the middle of a country/folk/bluegrass jam session enjoying the music going on
all around her.

She leaves behind many wonderful memories in the hearts of her family and
friends. As I write this I have just come from a dinner of cousins, who
recalled her enthusiasm, her sense of humor, her love for her nieces, nephews
and grandchildren, and (to great mirth) how she could get totally lit up on one
ounce of whiskey. She almost never took more than one drink, but she only
needed one.

And every Sunday when I was little, after dinner, she smoked one cigarette. She
was the only person I ever knew who could do this. One cigarette a week, never

We remembered how she would sit at the piano and play pretty much any song
anyone asked for, without a minute of musical training. If she knew the melody
in her head, she could play it. As I learned music it never surprised me that
she could play melodies by ear, but she had a sort of stride style left hand
that was totally baffling. Mom never knew what a C chord (or any chord) was,
and yet she would hit a bass note that fit what she was doing in the right hand,
and then sort of whap the keys where the left hand chord should be and come up
with something that kind of worked. It was amazing.

She always sang around the house, kept the radio tuned to a country station
where I heard the sound of Earl Scruggs for the first time when I was just a wee
tyke, and spent endless hours winding up the acoustic phonograph we had when I
was little. That machine would play about three 78-rpm records and then I was too small to wind it, so Iíd start
yelling for Mommy.

I still do some of the songs she used to sing around the house.

I donít think Iíll ever taste blackberry jam as good as the jars she put up
every summer. I might have better luck duplicating her devilís food cake with
raspberry filling and chocolate frosting, and she taught me how to make her
Portuguese-style turkey stuffing, so I have that covered.

But the feeling I have always had that I was totally, unconditionally loved --
that is gone forever. And thatís what I really will miss.

God speed, Mom.
Posted:  12/9/2010

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