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by Judith K. Witherow

In 1992 I wanted to write something about Columbus Day and the five hundred
years of non-stop destruction of my Native American ancestry. However, my
elderly disabled mother came to live with us, and I had to put the article
aside to care for this precious old one.
The story would have been about how my large family is riddled with diseases
without number.  I especially wanted to write about what happens when you are
impoverished and live off polluted land. We did not have the benefit of
electricity or running water in any of the houses we rented. Drinking water
came from mountains that had been strip-mined for coal. The streams that
supplied our needs flowed down to the river and killed every living thing.
The poisons were so toxic that they will continue to cripple and kill us for
generations yet unborn.
My mother died on November 24, 1992. She had emphysema, high blood pressure,
osteoporosis, heart disease, arthritis, pancreatitis, etc. She was on oxygen
twenty-four hours of every day.
I need to write about her. Keeping her alive aids me in wanting to exist
without her
for 74 years because I made the medical profession treat her with respect as
well as their medicine. It always made me laugh when she told me not to "get
huffy" with the doctors. Her fear was that they might hurt her if I made them
angry. Just the opposite was true. To quote Audre Lorde, "Your silence will
not protect you." 
 During one office visit her female, primary care doctor said, "You were
poor, and yet you brought so many children into this world. Why?"  Mom looked
like she had been physically hit. Because I didn't want to embarrass her
further I spoke softly in her defense. I quietly replied "Whatever would make
you think that because someone was poor that they would not make love? There
is not always money for birth control when you are poor, and it may also run
counter to other culture's beliefs. If one parent had to quit school in the
third grade, and the other in eighth grade to help raise their sisters and
brothers, what do you think they learned about birth control"? (There were
eighteen births in my father's family and eleven in my mother's) An
"unexpected" apology was given and accepted.
There has always been a gnawing need to write about how my family of eleven
came to live in Maryland in the year of 1964. Columbus Day would be the
ironic time to turn our oral history into a written one.
As a World War II veteran, my father received a separation bonus. It took my
parents until 1960 to collect it, because of all of the bureaucracy involved.
With the $1,500 allotment they bought a house on the main street of a little
town in the Appalachian Mountains. Having both electricity and running water
in the house was pure magic. The idea of flipping a switch or turning on a
faucet was something one only dared to dream about.
During the four years we lived in the house various hateful incidents
occurred. Our dogs and cats were repeatedly shot or poisoned. One dog was fed
ground up glass. It died a horrible death.
Another time a bulldozer came on our land and destroyed my mother's beautiful
lilac bush among other things. Putting the ashes outside from the furnace
provoked this incident. (We knew nothing about what this so called
"civilized" town's expectations were.)
A small house fire occurred in the summer of 1964. A faulty pump that drew
water up into the house from the well caused it. The firemen destroyed
everything they could with their axes. What couldn't be cut, like mattresses
or living room furniture, was soaked with water.     I remember Dad taking
one of the firemen back into the house when the fire was out and saying,
"Why? Why?" No answer was ever given.
Dad was a carpenter and a lumberjack. It was decided that all of the trashed
furniture would be removed so he could repair the two fire damaged rooms. We
worked for days carrying all the trash to the landfill.
Late one night, before we finished, someone came in and poured gasoline
throughout the house. The house was burned to the ground. A neighbor woman
told my mother that she knew who had done it but couldn't tell because she
had to live in the town. Right, she had to live there. Hell, we could live
anywhere, couldn't we? 
Mom, I kept meaning to tell you about that stupid Mother/Daughter Banquet in
high school. Even now, if you were still alive, I wouldn't have the heart to
tell you why I did what I did.  My shame is still that great. When I told you
that I had invited this red-haired white woman to the banquet you just nodded
your head. You didn't say a word, but the look on your face spoke volumes. To
this day it haunts me. I loved you so much that I couldn't bear the thought
of anyone making fun of you. To tell you this I would have had to explain
what I found so unacceptable. I couldn't. I can't. It should have been as
obvious to me, as it was to you, that discrimination resides in every region.
You will take no comfort in hearing that I was wounded when my sons asked me
not to use my cane when I came to their school. There were different times
they asked me not to wear my hair braided, but I always refused. It's not the
same thing, is it? I can't be as good and as forgiving as you always were.
The pain is piled so high that we're in danger of burying ourselves until
time ceases to exist. It's okay to be angry. It has to occur before change
can take place.
Jesus, Mom, remember when one of your sisters brought you home a parachute
from the factory she worked at? You made us four girls all the underwear we
could use. Unfortunately, girls in junior and senior high school had store
bought clothing, and again we were the target of choice. We didn't mention it
did we? Even if we had, it wouldn't have made you able to buy store bought
stuff. See we also protected you, didn't we?
It also causes me to remember how many weeks you worked scrubbing floors and
cleaning other people's houses so you could buy me a prom gown. Why couldn't
you believe me when I said I didn't want to attend? You assumed it was
because I wouldn't have a dress like the others? Wrong, I've always hated
dresses. A prom gown allowed others to justify their knowledge that we didn't
belong. It didn't matter that I went to the prom with my cousin. Your tomboy
daughter preferred it that way.    
I know that Dad is there with you. The two-year separation almost killed you
with grief, didn't it? You loved us enough to deny yourself his company until
you nursed us through our losing him.
You were so angry with me for making his funeral arrangements before he died.
You thought I had given up hope. I only did what he asked me to do. He
couldn't bear the thought of causing you so much pain. Like you, he thought I
could deal with all of the hard things in life.
Dad, you were wrong. Did you know that I would have to go into a room full of
caskets, and pick out one for you? A cruel container for the one who thought
I was almost perfect. The man who always said, "I glory in your spunk, kid",
whenever I did things that caused others to frown.
Dad, that last night at the hospital when I said the cancer was improving, I
lied. I couldn't tell you what the Oncologist told me. He wanted me to do his
dirty work. The doctor told you that you were improving. Out in the hallway
he told me, "No matter what happens, you don't bring your father to my office
or the hospital. I'm through with him." I couldn't tell you what he said.  A
seventy-two year old man who had survived all that life had delivered
deserved so much more. At least you got your death with dignity at home like
you wanted. 
Dealing with that Oncologist reminded me of the time my dog was having a worm
fit. I didn't know at the time that it was worms. Just that the dog was stiff
and foaming at the mouth. I whipped up raw eggs and milk to put in its mouth.
On the way outside I put my .22 pistol in my pocket. If I couldn't help it, I
wasn't going to let it suffer. Thankfully, the mixture worked and coated its
stomach. Bottom line, I have a real problem with those that can help but
won't even try.
Mom, I knew I couldn't replace Dad. I thought if I took good care of you that
you would get better. Or at least help you want to live. All of the signs
were there, but I didn't want to see them. While I was busy with life you
were already walking amongst the dead. The place in your wallet that used to
hold our pictures was replaced with numerous obituaries of family and
friends. I didn't see it until that night at the hospital.
During the last day at the emergency room, I took care of you like any mother
would a beloved child. For some time our roles had been reversing, and with
the changing of your diaper, it was completed. I wanted no one to touch you
who didn't understand your true worth. 
With my sisters and brothers looking on, I declined each medical suggestion.
"No, no chest compression." (With your osteoporosis it would have shattered
all the bones in your chest, and would not have helped your totally ruined
heart). I said no to a request to do electric shock with paddles to the
heart. Even seeing the pleading eyes of my family, I had to say no.  
They didn't know all of the battles you and I had fought and won these past
years. They still live in a world where you don't question authority.  If
there were more miracles to be had, they assumed I would produce them. I
would have done anything to keep you alive. Anything but let them prolong or
add to your suffering for monetary gain. Causing senseless pain to you was
more than I could have endured.
Mom, I saw to it that your Living Will was enforced. Your last requests were
abided by and honored. Whatever did you and Dad see in me that made you both
think I could do the hellish impossible?
When you died I was able to cry. Before that I could count on one hand the
number of times in life I'd cried. While you were alive to help absorb the
pain, I didn't need to cry. Now, I know that it will be a long time before my
eyes are dry.  I sleep with your pillow, Mom, and bury my face in it as if it
were your breasts. Don't laugh, but I also kept your "little old ladies"
talcum  powder. I open it when days are particularly long and inhale the
comfort no one else can give. What happened? I don't understand this. You
always recovered. You always came home. Each morning when I awake I'm happy.
Then I remember you died, and my breath won't allow my lungs to expand.
There is just one more thing. I will never again let Columbus Day pass
without notice.   You, and Dad, will be proud.

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