Yesterday my mother, Patricia Adele Patton Richardson, died. Did you notice the world grow dim about 3:42 pm? I did. That’s when Mom opened her long-closed eyes, looked toward the light streaming in through the window, took one calm quiet breath after days of painful labored ones, and then no more breaths on earth. Her next breath was a gulp of the sweet, pure air of heaven.
How can I summarize her ninety years? One thing that has stood out to me lately is how many people comment on her beautiful smile, a smile that lights up a room and lifts up the spirits of anyone lucky enough to be nearby.
She started out as Patty and later changed the spelling to Patti. Her family always called her this and that’s the name she brought to North Carolina, her final home, but she was known as Pat to high school friends and Del-Mar-Va friends.
She was born in a convalescent hospital in Chatanooga on the day FDR was inaugurated for his first term: March 4, 1933. There were no cribs so they put her in a dresser drawer. Her parents were Wade and Adele.
From there, the family soon moved to Richmond, Virginia where they lived in five homes during her first twelve years, usually living with the whole extended Patton family: her grandparents and several aunts. Mom was the oldest grandchild by more than six years. Since alcoholism galloped through the Pattons, she assumed a lot of responsibility that normally wouldn’t fall on a child so young. She was the dependable one, the strong one. She helped raise her two younger siblings, Wenda and Wade. That strength is what kept her living through the four nights hospice nurses would say, “I’d be surprised if she made it through the night.”
Mom loved to say she was Pat Patton from Prospect Park, Pennsylvania. She lived there all through junior high and high school. And loved it. She was smart, popular, pretty, voted “Friendliest” and “Best Personality.” She lived across the street from a boy named Wesley Richardson, who she married two years out of high school. I called him Dad.
Mom moved to a few more states (nine total!) while Dad finished his time in the Air Force. My brother Kurt was born in Philadelphia during those years. They moved to Oxford, Maryland shortly before I came along. When I was four, we moved to a chicken farm in Harmony, the place I consider my hometown and where we lived during the years we went to school.
This week, my brother and I read through a memory book Mom wrote for me several years ago. She said being our mom brought her the most joy of anything she ever did and those years raising us in Maryland were her favorite ones.
Mom grew up going to Sunday School and raised us that way too. She had a reverence for God and knew a lot about him, but she would tell you that it wasn’t until our later high school years, after Kurt and I had given our lives to Christ, that her head knowledge became faith. She was about forty at this time. Her new relationship with Christ transformed her life and gave meaning and joy to her final fifty years. She loved butterflies and the imagery of a new creation: a cocoon transforming into something beautiful.
My mom was creative, bright, a faithful friend, and a good communicator. She imparted to me her artistic eye, her ability to tell a good story, and her love of writing. She invented games for us and made every event a celebration. Our birthday parties were epic. I’d put my mom against anyone in a trivia contest. She was interested in everything we did and came to all our events. She even came to visit me in Romania and then in Hungary, and those trips became two of her favorite highlights of her life.
After Kurt and I were in college, our parents moved to Seaford, Delaware. Mom loved her job there at the Seaford Leader newspaper, and loved writing a bi-weekly column. That was her favorite job ever. During these years she became a pen pal with Chuck Colson’s newly formed Prison Fellowship. That was the ministry in which she believed she had the biggest impact. (But I think it was her ministry of friendliness.) She also gained a beloved daughter-in-law, Susie, during that time.
Then my parents moved to Arizona to be near their three grandchildren as they grew up. Alex, Mark, and Lisa brought so much joy into Mom’s life. Her favorite son-in-law, Steve, entered her life during this time. The grandkids eventually grew up and we moved Mom and Dad for the final move to North Carolina so Steve and I could be a safety net for them as they aged. Dad had already had a small stroke and he had his big one eight months later.
Mom cared for him for eleven years. It took a toll on her. During that time, my role as safety net grew considerably until it became obvious that both parents needed help I couldn’t give. We put Dad in a memory care facility. His dementia was obvious and he died six months later. They’d been married 68 years. Mom was also diagnosed with dementia, but she was skilled at masking it. Most people, the ones who didn’t know the real family stories, would never have believed me.
But thanks to Mom recounting those stories over and over to me, her labor of love and joy expressed in her many photo albums with the history written in captions, and the family trees she made for all the relatives, those stories will live on.
Before my dad died, Mom had declined enough that we had to put her in an assisted living facility. As her dementia worsened, Mom was afraid she’d forget her children’s names, so she’d lie in bed at night and repeat, “Kurt and Taryn, Kurt and Taryn.” She never forgot us.
She so wanted to turn ninety, and she made it! We had a big party for her with her granddaughter present. Each of the three grandchildren, complete with spouses and significant others and babies, came to see her this spring/summer. She often forgot some names but with photos all around her, I could help her remember. She loved seeing photos of herself with the babies, her great-granddaughters, and loved knowing a great-grandson was coming soon (born this morning!).
Because Mom loved people so much–her friends and family especially–and because she was at heart a communicator–a storyteller, writer, and talker–the hardest loss for her with dementia was the ability to communicate. At the end, her words were mostly gibberish. But sometimes I could understand. One day she said she so wished she could pick up the phone and call Elaine, or Judy, or Minnie. And she couldn’t.
Miss Patti was loved at The Berkeley. Really, truly loved. I hope she knew how many people there (nurses, activities director, housekeepers, residents) paraded in to kiss her and cry and tell her they loved her in those final days. They’d talk about how hard it’ll be to no longer see Mom’s smile. Some of them noticed that I have her smile. (I actually have a lot of my mom in me, and I’m so thankful for that.) I promised them I’ll do my best to carry on Mom’s ministry of smiling.
This next photo was taken exactly one week before she died, the day the hospice nurses called “the beginning of the end.” It’s the last photo of me and my mom. She was in a lot of pain then, what they called terminal agitation. Yet, she’s still smiling.
After we took this photo and got her into bed, Mom said to me, “You’ll always be my baby. Nobody can ever take that away from us.” Her words were clear as she spoke.
Now her words are even clearer. She is seeing the beauty that I think she caught glimpses of those last few days when she’d raise her eyebrows above eyes that remained closed. Her faith has been made sight. Her journey is finished. She is home.