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Commentary: A Mother's Day we didn't expect

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: This Mother's Day is one my family didn't expect to enjoy
  • He says his mother has survived and made good use of precious time
  • Greene: We should all live as if we have only a few weeks more of life
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose book "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams" will be published in a new paperback edition this week.

Bob Greene says he and his family didn't expect to be able to enjoy this Mother's Day.

Bob Greene says he and his family didn't expect to be able to enjoy this Mother's Day.

(CNN) -- This is the Mother's Day we thought was going to be empty.

Last summer, my brother, my sister and I got the news like a sucker-punch to the stomach: Our mother's health, which had not been good for some time, had taken a sudden turn for the worse. A very compassionate hospice evaluator came to her home and said that, although one could never be absolutely certain, the end was quite near.

"It may be two days. It may be two weeks."

Those were the words. We tried to process them.

She would be gone from us by the fall.

Except ...

"Debby just picked me up a book from the library, and I'm a few chapters into it," my mother said to me on the phone the other day.

She got better. "Better" does not mean great; she walks with some difficulty now, she is fragile in ways she once was strong, but on this Mother's Day that we all expected to be such a desolate one for us, she's here.

On that morning the woman from hospice first came to visit, our mother was in her bed in the same room where our father, 10 years ago, had slowly died. Toward the end, he had not been able to get out of his bed, and we foresaw the same awful drama unfolding in the same way in the same bedroom. It was going to be even more wrenching to witness this time around.

But somehow, from somewhere inside herself, she decided: "Not yet."

I don't say that glibly; I know that most men and women, in the months of their dying, do not have a choice about whether they will regain a semblance of their health. There comes a point when there is little to do but give in as gracefully as possible.

Our mother didn't. And while my brother and sister and I cherish the extra time we have been given with her, the most moving thing is to quietly behold how fiercely she is cherishing the extra time she has been given with the world -- the extra time she has been given with life itself.

That book from the library my sister brought her, it is one of many she has read since last summer. It's as if she realized that, if the prediction had been right -- if she had left us within two days or two weeks -- she never would have known the pleasure of reading another book. She has loved reading all her life; now she is reading new books with a sense of gratitude that we can literally feel.

She got to watch one more presidential campaign. She has always taken her responsibility as a citizen with utter seriousness.

She thought, last summer, that she would never know who the next president would be. But as, little by little, she got better during the fall, I can guarantee you that not even Wolf Blitzer or John King followed the day-to-day fluctuations of the campaign with more devotion than she did.

She used to joke with our father that their trips together to the polling place were ultimately a waste of time: He was on one end of the political spectrum, she was on the other, and, as she put it, "Our votes always canceled each other's out." She was born during the Woodrow Wilson administration -- and in November, against all odds, she got to cast a ballot for president one more time.

Whenever my brother flies to central Ohio to visit her, he goes not straight from the airport to her house; he makes a stop. He picks up some pizzas at Rubino's on East Main Street in Bexley, and he has them in his hands as he walks through her front door. She hasn't tasted her last Rubino's pizza, not yet -- she thought she had, and each slice is a reminder of the good things that life still holds for her.

She enjoys the television series "Brothers and Sisters"; each Sunday evening, as she tells us that she is preparing to watch it, we know that it is seemingly small things like that, things that once felt mundane to her -- an hour with a favorite program -- that she relishes anew.

Over the holidays, I bought her the complete DVD series of "The Sopranos." She is an admirer of great acting, and she was enthralled by the talent of James Gandolfini during the original run of the show; she has watched the entire arc of "The Sopranos" again, from the first episode to the last, and she did it in a hurry. You never know how much time you are given.

It might not be the worst way for any of us to live, even those of us who are much younger than she is; it might not be a bad idea for us to live as if someone has told us, "It may be two days. It may be two weeks." Imagining those words is a pretty good reminder that we should savor every hour we are given.

My brother, my sister and I don't fool ourselves; just as warm days in March are sometimes followed by snow and ice, we realize that our mother's return to vibrancy may turn out to be a false spring. Yet even if it is a brief illusion, it is a springtime that brings tears of thanks to our eyes. In October, she will turn 90, if she, and we, are lucky.

But that's the wrong way to put it. If we are lucky?

We are.

This is the Mother's Day we didn't think we'd have. And I think she knows exactly what is in our hearts.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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