Last September, a little more than a year ago, my mother ran out of breath.
I have struggled with how to communicate the finality of that. Despite years of journalistic training not to be euphemistic, I have usually said she passed away.
A journalist would follow Associated Press Style and say she died. Died. Dead. Thud. So staccato. So monosyllabic.
Saying we lost Mom sounds like the “Seinfeld” episode where they misplaced Jerry’s car in the parking garage. Sorry for your loss somehow makes it sound temporary, as though we will open a spare bedroom and find she is still with us.
Pardon the pun – I think Mom would laugh – but I could live with passed away. Frankly, it’s a far easier way to say it.
But as a writer, I feel the need for something more eloquent and permanent for Mom, who was a great grammarian and nurtured my writing when I was young.
And so the more I thought about it, there is something about breath that sounds light, ethereal, and, well, airy. In some way it connotes more about living than dying. The breath of life is about as early Old Testament as you can get – Genesis 2:7.
I had to look that up, but Mom probably wouldn’t have; she knew her Bible. So life starts with breath, and it ends when that breath runs out.
That is what happened to Billie Carnell Herd LoCicero – and doesn’t that kind of sound like royalty, even though my kin and I are far from it – on Sept. 20, 2017, at age 88. She and my dad, Jim, had marked their 60th wedding anniversary 33 days earlier.
My wife, Allison, and I drove home to Columbia, S.C., on Sept. 19, arriving around 9 p.m. About 45 minutes later, I made it to the care facility where she had been living, worn down by the slow decline of dementia.
My sister, Jane, had sent the urgent request earlier: You have to come now.
And so my dad, my sister and I were with Mom, comforting her and each other in those final hours, as the clock rolled past midnight and Tuesday became Wednesday. We slept in make-shift accommodations.
I woke up sometime after 1 a.m. and realized she was gone. Now that I think back, I could literally see that she was no long-er breathing. Ran out of breath.
My mom was unconscious by the time I got there. I may be kidding myself, but it was comforting to believe she was holding on, waiting for me, knowing that I was not home with her yet. She would not run out of breath until I got there, even if it was only to have three more hours together.
My move to Hattiesburg in 2009 was, I knew, bittersweet for Mom. She was a native of Union, Mississippi, in Newton County, but South Carolina had been her home for nearly 45 years. I had gone away once, for college and my first job, but returned after eight years and stayed in South Carolina 14½ more.
She did not want me to go, but was proud I was going to work at “Mississippi Southern,” as she knew it in the 1940 and ’50s. And I was proud, too. My mom was the first in her family to attend college, at then-East Central Junior College in Decatur. Education meant so much to my family, and so working in higher education – in Mississippi, no less – has always felt like a way to pay it forward.
My grandmother, Codie, sold butter and eggs to put my mom through school and, three years later, her youngest sister, Kay. The three older sisters had not had that opportunity. Or they might have, but they didn’t think about it or they didn’t ask.
But times were changing, even in rural Mississippi in 1947, and fortunately some of my mom’s high school classmates were planning to go to ECJC.
With an associate’s degree, she was able to leave Union and work in Jackson, where she met my dad at a boarding house. He was a handsome Italian, a Yankee from Connecticut, an Army sergeant who was transferred to Jackson during the Korean War. What a blessing. What a chance meeting. But it’s the stuff of life.
Billie Herd, before she became Billie LoCicero, led a remarkable life. At least compared to what we know today. In her time, though, it was very unremarkable. It was just how people lived.
No electricity, no indoor plumbing. An outhouse where they used corn cobs for, um, you know. … I don’t even want to know how exactly that worked.
My mom picked cotton, along with her four sisters. Picked cotton! That is hard, back-breaking work that tears up your fingers on the prickly pods.
And to keep away the boll weevils, they mixed up a concoction of molasses and arsenic and used a mop head to dab it on the plants, while also splattering themselves in the process. Can you imagine any of us doing that kind of work and exposing ourselves – or our children – to buckets of arsenic? That is tough living.
By any standard, they were living in poverty. Meat was a rare treat, and Mom told a story on herself, about how she would rather feed a biscuit with molasses to the family dog because what she really wanted – and couldn’t have – was a biscuit with ham. Or the time she broke a doll she received as a Christmas gift because she wanted a bigger one – no doubt breaking my grandparents’ hearts in the process.
My mom was feisty like that, perfectly imperfect. She had a bit of the devil in her, too, a proper prankster. There was the time she got in trouble and was told to pick her own switch – a tree branch – for a spanking. She first tried a large limb she knew was too big and heavy and then another one too small to do the job.
Like Goldilocks, she found one that was just right – but she bent the switch enough to weaken it. When Codie struck her with the switch, it promptly broke – and my grandmother broke up laughing.
The Billie many people knew was incredibly artistic and creative. As an artist, she dabbled in oil paintings and, later, found her groove as a prolific watercolorist, regularly exhibiting, winning awards and selling her work.
She could also be fiercely protective of the creative process. Once, while serving on a committee to install new stained glass at their church, she discovered that one of the renderings of Jesus was incorrect in its two-dimensional perspective. Ms. Billie was not about to let the Body of Christ be misrepresented, even if the non-artist salesman couldn’t see or understand the mistake. She eventually won out, of course – and the stained glass was replaced.
For fun, my mom wrote and illustrated her own children’s book, “Flopsy the Long-Eared Rabbit,” about a rabbit who thinks it’s nighttime because his oversized ears have inadvertently covered his eyes and left him in the dark. She wrote poetry. She was an avid reader, a grammarian par excellence. She instilled my love of reading, and she encouraged me to write. She was a constant presence in helping me with my English work in school.
I have mixed feelings about being away from her those last eight years. Mom and Dad left their homes and forged a new life together, so they understood you can’t always stay put. But I know the move broke Mom’s heart in some ways, coming just after she turned 80. As much as she loved Mississippi, she loved having her son close by even more as she got older.
We have beautiful pink roses outside our living room window that remind me of my mom. They are third-generation, transplanted first from her homestead in Union to South Carolina, and then back here from clippings at my parents’ house.
Many times I have questioned our Mississippi move, even if just rhetorically. Allison and I would occasionally turn to each other in those first few years and ask, “Can you believe we moved to Mississippi?” At some point, we later realized, we had stopped asking ourselves that question.
We still like to say we’re from South Carolina, but that we’re living in Mississippi. But Mississippi is home now. We love our community. We are Hattiesburgers, albeit transplants like those roses.
Those roses are a constant reminder of Mom. They have thick stalks with massive thorns, protecting the delicate blooms. Like my mom, they are both tough and feisty, and delicate and airy. I breathe easier every time I see them.
Geoff has lived in Hattiesburg with his wife, Allison, and worked at Southern Miss since 2009. He's previously worked at the University of South Carolina and at newspapers in Birmingham and Columbia, SC. He loves sweet tea, barbecue and college football.