By Cara Ruegg
Her hair was the color of wheat in the summer; her eyes the color of the gray Atlantic; pictures of yellow daffodils danced down her dress, as she gathered the blankets from the clotheslines, folded them, and set them gently on top of her twig-woven basket.
My shadow, which was previously hidden behind the blanket, now lengthened to the tips of her sandaled feet. Her eyes focused on the spot, and then looked up at me, standing there with my fingers fidgeting with the collar of my shirt.
“Oh, Thomas, I didn’t see you!” She waved me over, smiling. It was a smile that told memories – the same smile that greeted me after a long day at school, that said goodnight as I lay in bed, that comforted me after a fall.
I had to tell her. It would break her heart, I knew, to have her little boy, her only boy, leave her. She had always wanted me to do something noble – become a doctor or teacher, do something, anything that would make a difference, but there had always been limits to that request and, by my decision, I had just crossed those limits.
“Ma, I have something I gotta say.”
Her gray eyes met mine; they were still soft and gentle, but there was also a hint of worry in them. She knew she wouldn’t like it, whatever it was.
“What is it, Tom?”
“I’m…it…well…” The words stuck to my throat like glue. I wanted so much to say them, just get it over with, but seeing her eyes so intent on mine made it nearly impossible. I’m leaving you, Ma. I’m leaving you.
“Cat got your tongue?” She playfully nudged me with the basket. “Come on, get it out, will ya? You know I lack patience.”
“I…well…I don’t know.”
“Tom, come on, you can tell me. I’ll understand.”
“I’m leaving.” The words hung in the air for a long time it seemed, replaying again and again in my jumbled mind. “I’m, uh, I’m going to the missions to be a priest in Africa.”
The basket dropped with a thud; it was the first thing to break the heavy silence between us.
“Africa? A priest?” She threw her head back in an attempt to keep back the tears that were already getting caught in her eyelashes.
I swallowed the stupid knot in my throat. It was too hard. I couldn’t do it. God couldn’t be asking such a sacrifice from us. It was just too much. I was all she had left in the world. Pa had died a long time ago. There was no one left to take care of her but me, and she needed me; I knew she needed me.
“Don’t cry.” I reached to touch her shoulder, but she dodged my grip, lowering herself to the dusty ground. I watched as she gathered the blankets and put them back into the basket with shaking hands. Once she had finished, I waited for her to rise, but she didn’t; she just stayed there, motionless, with the blankets sitting there, a now ruffled mess held down by her pale hands.
“Ma.” I crouched down next to her and leant my weight against her shoulder. “I won’t leave.” It seemed so easy to say it, to even want it.
There was a long pause, a great span of unbearable silence, before she said to me, “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me.”
She took a deep breath before turning to me so that her forehead was against my own. “You need to go, Tom. I want you to go.”
I quickly stood, and turned, and ran my fingers through my hair, and looked up at the sun that temporarily blinded me. I breathed in. I breathed out. I tried not to focus on the stupid aching feeling inside of me. She was making a bigger sacrifice than I was, giving me her blessing, letting me go; now it was my turn to actually do what I told her I was going to.
When I finally mustered the courage to turn around and look at her again, she was standing and smiling that beautiful, loving smile of hers.
“I gave you my blessing. Don’t go be a coward now.” She patted my cheek, and then let the palm of her hand rest there for a while. “We aren’t really leaving each other, you know. We’re actually coming closer, joined always in His Sacred Heart.”
It’s been a long time now since that farewell, but I can still see her face: wet cheeks and a smile, that same smile I imagine the Madonna had when she said farewell to her son as He sorrowfully trudged toward Calvary, the smile of a mother sacrificing her son for the glory of God. It’s that smile of hers that gets me through the unbearably hot nights, the rampant diseases, the lack of food, and the disappointment of lost converts. It is her smile that reminds me to smile in gratitude for the crosses God asks of me.