This post is really about my mother-in-law, who died January 12 at the age of 86. She was sweeter and more selfless than I’ll ever be. You might say she was the kind of person our new president pretends to understand, but does not and never will, because his heart is several sizes too small. But I’m going to let her son, my husband Rustin, take it from here:
My mom, Donna Thompson, never thought of herself first. Even in the last month of her life while in the hospital, she’d offer her lunch to me or my wife (or her grandkids, Nick and Claire, pictured with her here) before taking a bite. Sometimes her unselfishness was exasperating. “Mom, it’s okay to take care of yourself,” I’d implore, but she was too stubborn to take my advice.
Mom would be the first to tell you she was just an ordinary person. She’d say she never did anything special or remarkable her whole life. She never flew on an airplane, never traveled farther than Disneyland to the south or Mt. Rushmore to the east. She drove the same car the last 35 years of her life, lived on nothing more than a pension and social security since she was 65, and she never owned a credit card. She worked hard for every penny she ever had.
Mom drove a Franklin Pierce district school bus for 28 years, working overtime at sporting events, and she picked raspberries and drove the berry-picking bus in the summers. In the mid ‘70s after I went off to college, she started playing volleyball and softball, becoming an All-Star pitcher several years in a row. She made crafts for her Children’s Orthopedic guild and carved pictures and Christmas ornaments with her great friends in a woodcarving group the last 20 years. When I cleaned out her house after she moved to a retirement home, I found boxes and boxes of unused ornaments and bins filled with elegant carving tools she forgot she bought.
My mom always had trouble getting rid of stuff, but I think it was because she suffered so many losses in her 86 years. The Lakebay, WA house she grew up in with her parents and seven siblings burned to the ground in the late 1930s, forcing the family to live off the kindness of friends. She quit school in the tenth grade, both to earn money and to get away from her father, a difficult, abusive and angry man.
She met my father, Lawrence Thompson, a few years later. They married and had two sons, me and my older brother Rex, and we lived, along with my half-sister Laura, in different houses in eastern Oregon and then mostly on the property my mom owned for 58 years in Summit View, WA. She had a field to keep the horse she loved. I think this was the happiest time of her life.
Eventually Mom sold the horse to help pay for my dad’s graduate school, and then my 9-year old brother died after surgery to repair a hole in his heart. This tore my parents apart in a time when people like them didn’t know anything about grief counselors. They divorced two years later and Mom and I lived alone for the next 11 years until I went off to the University of Washington.
As the years went by, her large extended family also splintered. Stubborn grudges were held and relatives stopped talking to each other. During this time, my mom took care of my grandma until she died, and then Mom lived alone the last 20 years of her life. I’d noticed her hoarding when I was a kid, but eventually the house I was raised in was crammed with so many boxes you could barely walk into it.
Twenty-four hours before she died in her bed at Puyallup’s Brookdale Senior Living, my hardworking, taxpaying, athletic, woodcarving, very ordinary mom, had by now shrunk to skin and bones. But there she was, unselfish to the end, offering me a drink from her bottle of Ensure.
“I just want to go to sleep and not wake up,” Mom told me a few days earlier. On January 12, 2017, that’s exactly what happened.
About the title of this post: Rus is working on a memoir film about Donna called My Mother Was Here.