Her given name on some census records is Marie Jacqueline, but Marie also preceded her mother’s given name, Adele, and no one called her Marie either. The practice, a nod to the mother of Christ, was common among French-Canadian Catholic families almost a century ago in eastern Ontario and just across the Ottawa River in Quebec. The name on her certificate of birth dated Christmas Day, 1925, is fittingly enough Jacqueline Noella Ravary, sans Marie. In 1947, age 21, she married Leland Sullivan, a World War II combat veteran from the States, in a bond that would last 54 years. At that time, she was known as Jackie, but my two brothers and I called her Mom. She died peacefully Jan. 23.
I had a pretty tumultuous relationship with my mother but I am the fruit of her loins, so her passing last month was a milestone. I’ve known for years that the call was a possibility, but the real call is always different from the imagined ones. So I grieved with that photo of her from 2011 in front of me. It was probably the last time she looked like my mother, not an old, disheveled woman near her end.
We had fallen out of communication years ago. My visits were infrequent, there was dementia, or side effects, or maybe the intended effects of medications, but when I last saw her last August there was a light in her eyes that had not burned for a while. While there was no real conversation, there was an awareness; she would answer a clear question with a nod or smile without speaking. She knew where she was, with her three sons and their sprawling families with the Olympic track finals and a Yankees baseball game alternating on a big, wall-mounted TV and the smells of a monster dinner on the way. She was the matriarch again—more Victoria Barkley, as played by Barbara Stanwyck, in The Big Valley TV series, not the mother already dead and buried in the 1965 film The Sons of Katie Elder. And she was visibly happy.
After one of my brothers and I returned her to the nursing home, where he was for eight bloody years, as we prepared to depart, she looked up at me from her wheelchair, her eyes filling, and asked “You’re not going, are you? When are you coming back?”
“I’m not sure, Mom.” It was our first spoken exchange in at least two years, and the last time I saw her.
My mother had a complete mental and physical breakdown after the birth of my youngest brother, never got a clear diagnosis or effective treatment, and some years ago she was discharged from an extended hospitalization almost fully paralyzed with the expectation that she would soon die. Better that occur at home than in the hospital, the doctors reasoned. My bullheaded mother, however, who was known to claim, “There’s nothing wrong with me now and there never was anything wrong with me,” recovered beyond what anyone thought possible.
My biggest concern when I got word her end was imminent was that she pass peacefully, not kicking and screaming in pain. The next day, writing the discrete obit she wanted, my brother Mike told me he was at my mother’s bedside holding her hand when her breathing ceased. In my reckoning, those were pretty good departure terms. I was happy for my mother.