You never know when it might be the last time

You never know when it might be the last time

I hope you don’t mind if I take one last look back before this year, like all the ones that are long gone, disappears.

New Year’s Eve 1980 was the last time I saw my mother alive.

She had no idea, probably, that I was even sitting there at her side, reading a book I would never finish since, whenever I picked it up again, I was right back in that hospital room, waiting for the end.

That’s what it had become by that December, a death watch, since — and I’ve always hated this phrase — there was nothing more that could be done.

So the doctors concocted a narcotic cocktail and doped her intravenously, hoping to quantitatively mitigate the pain. I remember hushed conversations during which drugs like Dilaudid were discussed with accompanying sad shakes of the head.

This represented their final solution, the inevitable escalation of a process that had begun around Labor Day when the diagnosis changed abruptly from pneumonia to cancer, brutally introducing the term “terminal” into our family’s fragile lexicon.

I was 25 that fall, four years out of college, working as the sports editor of my hometown newspaper. I had a girlfriend, my own apartment and a Sony Trinitron, the first color TV I ever owned.

Thanks to a twice-monthly paycheck, I also had upgraded my stereo system, replacing my worse-for-the-college-life Electro-Voice speakers with a sweet pair of JBL L50s, which would serve me well into the 21st century.

Beyond rent, utilities and food, though, my expenses were largely recreational, and it wasn’t unusual for my friends and me to decide, two hours before first pitch, to drive up I-71 for an Indians game.

They were not a good baseball team; in fact, they were terrible, but that meant we could buy general admission tickets and, a few innings later, relocate to primo seats on one of the baselines.

No one ever hassled us, not the ushers or the folks around us, since, as the old saying goes, misery loves company. Watching a team with no chance to win appealed to me, especially that September.

I sought diversions when and where I could find them, going to movies and concerts with my girlfriend, playing poker with the guys, taking the occasional road trip back to South Bend to watch the Fighting Irish play football, then walking through the campus my mother had always loved so much.

“I can’t believe you actually live here,” she said one afternoon during my freshman year. “You get to see all this every day.”

“Easy, Mom,” I said, taking her arm and steering her toward the Grotto, her favorite Notre Dame landmark. “It’s just a school.”

She gave me the look I knew so well, the one that said, rather tartly, “Michael, you’re smart enough to know better than that.”

Growing up in the teeth of the Great Depression that gripped America, she had a keen appreciation of what it was like to do without, which made her frugal, bordering on parsimonious.

I remember walking the grocery store aisles with her, lobbying for extravagances like Lucky Charms cereal or Chips Ahoy cookies, only to have her stock up on Corn Flakes and Fig Newtons.

One look at my disappointed face was enough for her to pose one of her favorite rhetorical questions, the one that went, “If I buy those, they’ll just be gone quickly, and then where will you be?”

It was hard to argue with the intractable truth she posited, though I did do my best to sway her by mentioning the loaves and the fishes.

“I don’t believe that’s what the Bible has in mind,” she said, and once again, I had to defer to her deft ability to win most any debate.

But she was as skillful with a cudgel as she was with a scalpel, and many’s the time I watched her reduce an opponent to pitiable whimpers, especially in defense of one of her children, often when she perceived an unfounded accusation or an intentional slight.

I used to enjoy witnessing the verbal thrust-and-parry at which she excelled and the way she’d systematically shred unsuspecting foes and their statements to confetti, which she’d scatter on their heads.

Mom was not to be trifled with when it came to the three of us. To do so was like kicking a dozing dragon. You’d regret it as soon as the thought entered your mind to attempt something that dumb.

Speaking of Puff, she also liked listening to the music of the day, and rather than have the TV keep her company while Dad was at work and we were in school, she’d listen to the radio as she perfected her role as a homemaker with a master’s degree.

She liked songs that told a story — “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and, of course, “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” among others — and enjoyed show tunes like “Hello, Dolly,” “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Climb Every Mountain.”

But there was one song in particular that, regardless of the setting or the company, almost always reduced Mom to tears.

Even now, whenever I hear “Lara’s Theme” from “Dr. Zhivago,” I find myself remembering my mother and the way it touched her.

The truth is that whenever New Year’s Day draws near and images from that winter of 1980 resurface, it’s all I can do to keep myself from falling headlong into a river of memories, wishing I had done more to be a better son, to alleviate her pain, to make it all go away.

When John Lennon was killed on Dec. 8, it seemed the whole world went into mourning, that things just couldn’t get any worse.

But I knew better.

Whereas his death was something I could share with friends who’d also grown up loving the Beatles, Mom’s lingering illness was more personal, more private, and though we did our best to smile through our tears, as the holidays approached, we understood it was the last Christmas she would ever see.

She insisted she not be taken to the hospital on Christmas Eve, that she have one last chance to experience our traditions at home, surrounded by her family, giving us one more lasting memory.

We lighted the same candles we always had, passed “A Certain Small Shepherd” around our small circle and listened to “A Christmas Carol” on the record player I had brought upstairs.

And though she sat propped up on pillows in the bed she’d shared with Dad for so many years, she was happy, or so it seemed to me.

A week later, though, in the darkening shadows of her hospital room, the clock struck midnight, and my brother and his wife relieved me as the vigil continued. Our sister waited her turn.

Each of us carries memories of our final moments with Mom. They are locked away, safe and secure, and as another January chill closes in, they remind us to treasure today, for it may be all there is.