Monday, February 11, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mom

February 11, 1930, a little girl, Helen Faye, was born to William Edgar "Pat" Dimsdale and his wife Lillian Pearl Taylor Dimsdale in Turner County, GA. Their son Willie Dennis had just turned 2 the month before. She was to be their last child in the age of large farm families. A boy and a girl, simple.

Helen grew up a cherished girl on the farm, but she suffered from terrible asthma. Her family spent many nights trying to keep her breathing, using powders, tar jackets, poultices and all of the "modern" medicine available at that time. Her asthma was to always plague her. She dropped out of school in the 9th grade because the dust she breathed in on the long bus ride to school each day meant that she was wheezing horribly by the time she got to school. Despite her asthma, she was still sent out to pick cotton or tobacco when harvest time came.

When she was a young woman, she met two different boys who caught her eye. One of them, Charles, left for the war and was gone for a very long time. She gave up on him. She was 11 when the war began and 15 when it ended. During that time, she met my father, Ardis Edwin Evans, a native of nearby Irwin County, GA. He was handsome and had a bad boy swagger. He did two tours for the Army in the war: the first was as a paratrooper on D-Day in Normandy. He dropped in behind enemy line, just a boy himself - 21 years old. Later, he was in another historic battle - the Battle of the Bulge. He carried a pocket Christmas card from Gen. Patton until the day he died. He was very proud of having served under Patton and he loved the movie biopic with George C. Scott. It was that second tour that hurt him, I think, in more ways than one. I have heard that he had to use his friend's body as a shield during some of the worst fighting. He had to resort to hand-to-hand combat when weapons froze in the bitter cold of Bastogne. Killing a man face-to-face changed him. He had a purple heart, from getting hit with shrapnel. He still had it in his neck when he died.

I say all of this about my father because he was not a good husband to my mother. I believe that he had a lot of good in him, but the war changed him. She married him nonetheless, in 1947. The next year they began having babies.

There were six of us, but the first baby died a couple of days after he was born on July 14, 1948. It was terrible for my mother. She took it very hard. The only glimpse she ever had of that baby, a boy, was in his little casket. My aunt says that he was the most beautiful baby she had ever seen.

Another son followed, in 1949. A girl in 1951. Another boy in 1955. I came along in 1962, followed by my baby sister in 1967. Mom's health was never very good. She had a hard time having all of us, and her health suffered even more. Her marriage was never very good, and my father was abusive to her and sometimes to us. His temper was volatile, so we learned to walk on eggshells.

In 1977, Mom and I left Dad one night when the violence was really bad. It took 6 months for her to get custody of my little sister. It was a very rough time for her. She had to get a factory job to support us. She had to learn to use a bank account. She had to get a car and start driving again. Gradually, she gained confidence and stood up to my father. I know they loved each other, but they were like gasoline and a lit match. She never married again, though she did have a little fun later in life.

Her health turn a bad turn in her 50s. Eventually she was diagnosed with diabetes (type 2), lupus, osteoporosis, COPD (from breathing all of my dad's secondhand smoke all those years), and heart disease. It is hard to know which disease ultimately was responsible for her death. Diabetes caused a lot of stickiness in her blood which caused more propensity toward heart disease. Her breathing problems were worsened by the heart disease. Lupus caused damage to many of her organs. Circulatory problems were caused/worsened by lupus, heart disease, and diabetes. Her bones were so brittle the doctor compared them to lace.

Two years ago today, I was 3 days post-op from having neck surgery (fusion) and Mom was going into the hospital yet again. She was having more heart problems. She had been in the hospital so much that there was no reason to think this was any different. Yet things seemed to go downhill.

Two weeks later, we drove down to Georgia where Mom was hospitalized in Fitzgerald. An echocardiogram showed that two of her heart valves had failed. She'd had a triple bypass in 2003. This time she needed valve replacement. Gradually, we all gathered (except for our oldest brother). We followed her up to Macon, to the heart center there. We expected that the surgery would be hard on her. She was scared. We all tried to put on a brave face. She was tough.

We didn't expect that the surgeon would review her case and refuse to do the surgery. He was blunt. If she survived going under anesthesia, which he doubted, she was not likely to survive very long into the surgery. In the unlikely even that she survived the surgery, they would not be able to shock her heart without breaking bones. He flatly refused to even try the surgery.

Meanwhile, Mom kept a brave face on, listening intently to what he had to say. We were stunned. She kept her cool. The surgeon was handing her a death sentence.

I won't tell you how it was those next days, but it was the hardest thing I've ever seen. It wasn't mercifully quick. She died March 11, 2006, exactly a month after turning 76.

Today I remember Mom, our ups and downs, our intense love for each other that sometimes made us battle. I remember her incredible strength for whatever life threw her, whether it was a difficult marriage, the loss of a child, the loss of her own parents, or learning to support and love herself after 32 years in an abusive relationship.

She was a tough cookie, my mom. I miss her still.

Happy birthday, Mom.

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