July 21, 2020
By Tim Peeler
It was hot 20 years ago today, too hot to have so many people gathered in the family room of my childhood home. There were more than 30 of us: aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, children, grandchildren. There was no thought of the heat.
It had been a difficult spring. My mother, Ruth Peeler, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on my sister's birthday, back in April. She went to all the big hospitals: Duke, Wake Forest's Bowman-Gray, Johns Hopkins. They gave her no hope against the worst of all the cancers.
She went to my nephew's graduation, saying out loud what we all suspected: "This might be the only grandchild I see graduate from high school," she said. I thought about that a lot last month when Michael received his diploma as part of the Class of 2020. How she would have loved knowing him and his brother.
We went on a short family cruise to the Bahamas, both my sisters and their families, Elizabeth and me. We laughed with and at each other and loved each difficult moment and went to bed crying every night.
We tried to make the three-hour trip to my dad's as much as we could over those next few weeks, and it so happened we took a long weekend in the middle of July. I didn't think it would be our last visit; Elizabeth did. Mom was asleep when we got there, having just been visited by the home Hospice nurse. Shortly after arriving, I had to go to the emergency room -- a cyst that had been forming for awhile needed to be removed. It was painful, and I couldn't sit or stand in comfort for the next two weeks.
That morning on this date, I had my final visit with my mom. She looked up and said: "I'm a sick girl." And then she smiled at me. There were no words to comfort her, just the presence of her family and friends. We were there all afternoon, visiting as she quietly slept, pain free thanks to the sustaining morphine mix the nurse gave her. The people from church brought us food, as they always do in these situations, a fabulous feast for those who have no desire to eat.
In the middle of the afternoon, my mom sat straight up in the bed, wide-eyed and awake. She looked around the room, recognizing every face, mentally reliving a short memory with every person there. Finally, she said, "I'll not make it through the night. Thank you all for being here. I want you to have a happy life." She laid back down and went back to sleep. An hour or so later, holding my dad's hand, she quietly left us, taking one last breath in a peaceful and quiet room, surrounded by so many she loved and those that loved her.
The minister stood up to say a prayer. As we bowed our heads, he said: "This is a moment I have never seen. The chance to say goodbye before passing quietly into the hands of God, surrounded by so many friends and family. The strength we witnessed here today is a gift. Cherish this moment. Cherish this memory. Cherish this life lived in the love of church, community and family."
I've rarely told this private memory, and have never written about it. Right now, however, the words of someone who lived it every day need to be remembered and shared: "Have a happy life." Find a way, even in these most difficult days. You only get one chance.
Miss you, mom, every day.
Love, Tim, Elizabeth, Michael and Benjamin.