A mother’s day short story for the women who invest in the lives of others.
Between 2:00 A.M. and 4:00 A.M.
by Ann Fields
I remember the first time it happened. It was a Tuesday night, or rather Wednesday morning, when my eyes popped open at 3:14 a. m. My mind was alert even though I had just released sweet sleep. At first I laid there, relaxed, staring at the ceiling sorting through reasons why I was awake. But, the longer I laid there fully awake, the more agitated I became as my thoughts shifted to the loss of sleep, my early morning workshift, and whether I would be any good for my patients or the surgical staff. After about an hour, I finally gave up on sleep and my unproductive thoughts and rolled out of bed.
I aimlessly roamed the house from room to room, making out shapes in the dark but not really focusing my eyes or my thoughts on any one thing. Deciding my mindless wandering might wake Mother, I headed for the kitchen, thinking along the way that a cup of chamomile tea sounded heavenly. As I passed Mother’s grandfather clock in the hallway, I noted I still had over an hour before time to prepare for work. So after putting some heat under the teakettle and while waiting for the water to boil, I began sorting a huge stack of junk mail that I had ignored for months. Minutes later, I fixed a cup of tea and while enjoying it finished with the mail. Then I took the tea to my bedroom where I wrote a couple of long overdue thank you notes. At 5:45 sharp, I put away my stationary and turned to dressing for work. I was surprised that I didn’t feel sleepy or cranky. Inclined to be a pessimist, I thought for sure I would have a bad day at work but thirteen hours later when I left the hospital, I realized it had been a good day.
And so started a new routine in my life—waking between two and four in the morning, rising to do variations of housework, light organizing and handling correspondence while enjoying a hot drink. I didn’t wake every morning but at least four or five of the seven days. Sometimes I would catnap before turning to the task of dressing for work, but most times I just called the lost sleep what it was—lost.
One morning, about a month after I had settled into my new routine, something happened that adjusted my routine and made my life richer. That morning in the breakfast nook, while polishing silver and repeating Spanish phrases after a heavy-voiced man on a language CD, I glanced up and was startled by the presence of my mother who looked just as surprised to see me.
“Mother,” I gushed in a shaky voice as my heart pounded in my chest, “You scared me!” I paused, taking deep breaths to slow my heart rate. “What are you doing awake? Did I wake you?”
Mother recovered much quicker than I. She smiled a small smile and touched me lightly as she passed by on her way to the cooktop. “I see I’m not the only one God woke up.” She spoke in a hushed tone as if there was someone else in the house to be mindful of. There wasn’t.
Stopping at the cooktop, she suspended the lukewarm teakettle in the air. Lifting a brow she asked, “More tea?”
I nodded yes and while she added more water to the kettle and placed it on the flame, I stripped off the yellow house gloves, ejected the CD, then powered down the computer, complaining the whole time. “I don’t know why for the past months I’ve been sleeping so poorly. Almost every night I wake up at this ungodly hour.”
Mother joined me at the table and I moved my cleaning supplies to the side, launching into a narrative about my sleep—or rather, sleepless—habits and nocturnal activities. I ended my monologue with a fact. “I didn’t have this problem in my twenties.”
Mother’s smile reappeared and curved appreciatively. “Age can bring on changes we never anticipate.” Her smile faded as her face took on that serious look she adopts when she’s about to tell her children something once and only once. “There are a number of reasons you could be waking. You’re either too worried, too busy, or you need the stillness and silence of the night to learn something. I suspect for you, all apply.” Her eyes narrowed and seemed to laser straight through me, forcing me to fidget a bit. “You’re always busy, Ellen. Working long hours at the hospital, volunteering at church, helping out family and friends. Worrying about others. When do you slow down? When do you relax or just take time to sit and think and be still?”
“I have down time,” I protested.
Mother deadened her stare then shifted her gaze to the computer and silver cleaner. I followed her eyes and it hit me like a sledgehammer to the brow. She was right. I was busy, constantly on the run, shuffling here, there and yonder, checking off items on an endless ‘to-do’ list. Never sitting still. Never “being.” Always “doing.” Even in these quiet hours.
Convicted, I looked at Mother and her expression had softened, a sign that she was proud of me for coming into truth, for learning an important life lesson. One I would have missed had I been sleep. Through Mother’s challenging words I learned that life was not meant to be filled with “doing” every single minute of every single day. At some point, at some time, I was supposed to “be.” I was supposed to dream and rest and enjoy the things I loved such as facials, going up against Mother in Monopoly, and line dancing with the girls. The other things–responsibilities and obligations–were not supposed to rule my life; they were not the things that qualified me as being engaged in life.
This life lesson shook me and I sat there in dismay, wondering how my life had tilted so out of whack. Why, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d read a book or identified the constellations through my telescope or toured small towns in the Hill Country. And yet, those were some of the things that made me feel alive, that made me “be.”
I sank deeper into my mind, still wondering, and missing the act of Mother getting up to answer the call of the kettle. She refreshed my tea to which I absently said, “Thank you.”
Her reply, however, was not offered so carelessly. “God doesn’t wake everybody up, Ellen. Consider yourself blessed.” The seriousness of her words and tone baited me out of my private thoughts and held me. I stared at her, understanding there was a deeper meaning to her words, which at the moment evaded me. I could have taken the shortcut and asked Mother to explain herself, but I’d been raised by the woman and knew shortcuts weren’t her way. She expected her children to think and this she emphasized now by picking up her teacup and heading for her bedroom.
I sat there, alone, tossing and turning Mother’s words and finally after a few minutes, I got it. Her meaning. I was being given a chance to enact my new lesson, a second chance to get life right, to reorder my life, and I tell you, I didn’t waste one minute taking that chance. Smiling, I stood and hastily put away the silverware and cleaning supplies. Since I was still far from sleepy, I went to my bedroom with tea in hand like Mother, and selected one of the many unread books on my bookshelf. For the first time in a long time, I escaped into another world and loved every minute of it.
Several weeks later on a Thursday at 2:10 a. m., I languished on the sofa, reading a New York Times recommended thriller when Mother walked into the living room. I had gotten used to seeing her at this time of morning. Not every morning or even weekly, but often enough that her presence didn’t startle me anymore. Nor mine her.
“I’m putting water on for tea. You want some?” she asked.
“Sure,” I answered, rising from the couch and following her into the kitchen. While she handled the water and kettle, I secured cups and tea. Then we parked at the table, waiting for the whistle.
“What Scriptures you reading?” I asked Mother, pointing at the large, black Bible which she’d carried into the kitchen and placed on the table.
“I was reading Paul’s letter to the church…” She patted the heavy Bible. “…the part about not forsaking the assembly of men. It made me wonder why you joined St. Barnabas.”
I scrunched my face, perplexed by Mother’s comment. She, of all people, knew St. Barnabas was my…our home church. I’d been raised in that church as had my brother and sisters. Why wouldn’t I be a member? “What do you mean?” I asked, needing more information before even attempting a response.
“After college… Why didn’t you visit other churches, other denominations before rejoining?”
Now I was really confused! Why would I need to visit other churches? St. Barnabas was not only the church base for our immediate family but also our extended family. It was full of aunts, cousins, grandparents, nieces, uncles, nephews, and more, including ex-family members who were exes because of divorce or common-law separation. In addition to family, there were a fair number of professionals and “working Joes” who mixed well with our people and so, too, were considered family. So why go anywhere else? And as for other denominations, well, the Episcopal doctrines suited me just fine. Even Redeemed Episcopal—the church in Houston I had joined and attended during the six years I lived there to study surgical nursing—playing lax and loose with the doctrines and practices didn’t dissuade me from the Episcopal way of life.
Speaking hesitantly because of my confusion and my uncertainty about where Mother’s line of questioning was taking me, I answered, “Because St. Barnabas is home. It’s…it’s family and I’m surrounded by love.”
Mother’s facial expression remained bland, giving no hint or clue to the point behind her words. The teakettle sang and she stood, snagged it. She poured the boiling water into our cups and returned the kettle to its resting place. I sat impatiently throughout and even afterwards as she sank into her chair and then dunked her teabag up and down several times before letting it rest inside her cup. Finally, just as questions were about to erupt out of me, she sat back and pinned me with that same serious look from the last time she challenged me to think about my life. I had enough smarts to squash my impatience, sit forward and wait for the lesson. It didn’t take long.
Mother leaned forward and curved her hands around her cup. In a low, thoughtful tone she said, “Sometimes, Ellen, love is not enough.” She shook her head, saying, “Oftentimes tradition is not enough.”
I crooked my head, frowning, and feeling like a parrot asked, “What do you mean?”
“Some people do things because that’s the way it has always been done. Some people do things because others tell them to. Some do things from the heart. I want you to be a heart person.” She laid a hand against her heart, repeating, “I want you to be a heart person.” She let her hand fall and sighed sadly into her cup. “Unfortunately, the problem with being a heart person is it requires you to be courageous, to say no sometimes, to risk looking like a fool at other times. Not everybody is that brave especially when it comes to family.”
“Are you saying I should join another church? …that I shouldn’t worship with family?” I still struggled with Mother’s lesson.
“Ellen, only you know if St. Barnabas is where you should be.” Mother paused to blow steam out of her face before sipping cautiously. She replaced her cup in the saucer and said, “But if God directs you elsewhere, it’ll be a hard break. But you’ll survive, and love will continue to surround you because you’ll be living from the heart which is where real life is lived.” Again, she placed a hand over her heart and in the unfilled moments that followed, I noticed Mother’s hands. Really noticed them—the length of her fingers, the white crescent-shape at her cuticles and the darkened knuckles. I looked down at my hands and saw that they were identical to hers. Indeed, as I considered our similarity further, I conceded that of the four of us, I had more of Mother’s features and ways than my brother or sisters. Even though it’s never been discussed, I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why Mother agreed to move in with me after Daddy died. Another reason was her diminishing health, which I, as a healthcare professional, could better manage than my siblings. There were other reasons but the important thing was they all combined to make it possible for Mother to be here in our kitchen at 2:35 in the morning, with me staring at her hands.
For a few moments longer I continued to study Mother’s hands, then suddenly, the full meaning of her words opened to me. I, not family or friends, was responsible for making my life one of truth, and truth could only be obtained from the heart. My heart. I sat back, amazed that yet again Mother had taught me a valuable lesson, one that would forever guide and shape my life. And yet again, it was a lesson I would have missed had I been sleep.
I looked up, smiled at Mother and she smiled back.
“How did you get to be so wise?” I teased. But she and I both knew there was honesty in the teasing.
Mother didn’t reply immediately. Still smiling, she stood up, tucked that heavy Bible under her arm, picked up her drink, and said, “I’ll let you and the Lord work out the rest.”
She left, leaving me a priceless gift—time to sort out how to incorporate it, the lesson, into my life.
Because living a life of truth based on heart decisions didn’t just apply to church membership, I thought about the other areas of my life—relationships, career, lifestyle, home, neighborhood and more. I wanted to know if I had made heart decisions in those areas or if my decisions had been influenced by other people or circumstances. Unfortunately during my short review of those areas, all of my major decisions began stepping on one another, entangling themselves and confusing me, so I reached for paper and pen. I wrote down a few questions that I hoped would help me analyze my past decisions and guide my future ones: How does it feel? …right? …wrong? …indifferent? What’s influencing me? Have I prayed about it? I sat back and reflected on those questions, decided they were good guideposts, and then went to work, retreating backward in time to evaluate 32 years of living to determine if I was living a life of truth.
Over the next several years, I had plenty of opportunity to apply those questions to life decisions, and they worked beautifully. I felt good about the life I was living. I also felt good about the new dance Mother and I had naturally fallen into: frequently rising before dawn, meeting in the kitchen, drinking hot tea, and exchanging words that sometimes led to me learning another life lesson. I should be one hundred percent truthful and admit that not all of our shared time occurred in the kitchen. Some mornings we met in the living room. Like the morning after my thirty-eighth birthday, which also happened to be three months to the day that I was to marry Dwight Araylio Grant, a great man I had met at work and fallen in love with. We planned to marry at St. Barnabas; it remained my church home, a decision that had passed the questions test, and a decision that Dwight fully supported. When I walked into the living room, Mother was seated in her recliner with the richness of Nat King Cole’s voice serenading her.
“Your favorite?” I asked and as soon as I did I admonished myself, I should know my mother’s favorite singer. And her favorite candy, hobby, dress, Scripture, and so on. But I didn’t and why was that? The answer shocked me and made me feel an inch tall. Sadly, I had never taken the time to see Mother as a woman or as an independent, multi-dimensional being. All these years, Mother had been simply the vessel that had birthed me, a stick figure with no emotions, dreams, or interests outside of nurturing her children. How selfish of me to not see that Mother was a real person who, like me, had goals, fears, peeves and preferences. How crazy and lacking on my part to have taken her for granted, to have dismissed the woman behind the “mother” label.
Stunned and shamed by my answer, I drifted unconsciously into the seat across from Mother and studied her—the slight rounding of her shoulders, the dark veins that scribbled across her legs, the silver-white of her hair that had been gray at some time and dark-brown before that. I stared at her tight face, which made a lie of her 69 years and marveled that at 69 she moved and lived like one much younger. With her eyes closed and her head tilted back, rocking in time to Cole’s smooth piano playing, I could almost imagine her as a young woman, my age, with a husband and four small children. Almost. And since I couldn’t quite get there on my own, I asked, “Mother?”
Mother, or rather Vera Jo Jones Askey, her birth and married name, opened her eyes and raised her head, meeting me eye-to-eye. “Hmmm?”
“What was your life like at my age?”
Instantly there appeared that secret smile of hers, the one that hinted at something magical to come. Closing her eyes again and laying her head back, she answered, “It was good. It was busy, hectic at times, but full of love. Good memories.”
“Tell me about it,” I requested, curling my legs under me and settling in as if anticipating a bedtime story.
Her smile widened as she rewound her life’s tape to 31 years in time and began sharing her sunup to sundown days, telling me about the joys and challenges with Daddy’s career as a policeman and her own as a restaurant cook, and rewarding me with tales about the happiness in raising her children as well as the difficulty in releasing them to themselves and a topsy-turvy world.
Mother talked for hours and I hungrily gobbled up every word that came out of her mouth and fired off one question after another. For the first time in years, I was late reporting to work and didn’t care. Mother, opening her complete self to me, gave me something far greater than a job that I loved. She gave me herself.
As our dance between two a. m. and four a. m. continued so, too, did Mother’s sharing of herself and teaching of valuable life lessons. Our time together was the icing on my cake of life; a life of overflow and abundance, more than I could have dreamed or wished for. Five years into marriage, Dwight and I were solid in our partnership, yet evolving as a couple and family unit year by year. We had made my house into our home. We had a beautiful daughter, Chloe. And Dwight loved Mother as if she were his own. I lacked nothing, including personal growth which I attributed in great part to Mother’s expert teaching.
Through her sometimes direct and at other times indirect instruction, I learned the lesson of quality over quantity. She taught me the difference between church folks and Christians; between religion and spirituality; between preaching and the inspired words of God. I learned that being patient with people and circumstances truly yielded the best results, and that multi-tasking is foolish; it simply creates opportunities for “do-overs.”
I learned more lessons than these over the years but interestingly, the place of our dance changed from the various rooms in the house to Chloe’s room. In the two years she’d been in our lives, Chloe had brought a deeper, broader, more loving dimension; one we could not have achieved by any other means. Mother, too, was deeply awed by Chloe and although she told me that often, she showed it more.
The first morning we met in Chloe’s room, the weather was terrifying. Lightning, fast-paced rain, and loud smacks of thunder awakened us shortly after four. After registering the lack of danger, Dwight rolled over and fell back to sleep. I couldn’t. With Chloe on my mind, afraid that Nature’s fury had woken and frightened her, I sped through the dark house to her room. Mother was already there, standing quietly at her bedside, staring down at Chloe, who slept peacefully–her tiny fists curled in defenseless balls; her rounded stomach rising and falling steadily; her pouty lips slightly parted. That morning, the lesson was not spoken, but was no less clear—a heart grows larger when it encounters love in its purest form.
After that morning, we became regulars in Chloe’s room. Sometimes, Mother would take charge of making and serving tea; most times, I did. When we spoke, we used small, timid voices and rarely did we wake the little one. Ohhhh, but those times when she awakened, Mother and I raced to her to love on her.
One morning, Mother did not meet me in Chloe’s room, but that didn’t concern me since our meet-ups weren’t scheduled. There were often mornings when she slept while I hovered over Chloe and vice versa. So I didn’t think anything of caressing and praying for Chloe by myself.
I picked her up out of her bed and transferred both of us to the rocking chair. I had not been rocking and touching her long when she stirred awake. To Chloe, a simple touch meant time to eat or play; this time she chose play. I happily obliged and sometime later when I happened to glance at the pink and yellow bunny clock on her nightstand, I knew I was in trouble. I had spent far too much time playing with Chloe and with Dwight out of town at a conference I would need Mother to prepare Chloe for daycare while I dressed for work.
With Chloe on my hip, I rushed to Mother’s room.
Knocking, then barging in, I pled, “Mother, Mother, I need your help.” I crossed to her bed and rubbed her shoulder, hoping to gently wake her. She didn’t respond to my voice or my touch so I shook her and repeated, “Mother,” and seconds later, “Mother?” I bent lower, examining her face. I saw that it had taken on a more heavenly glow and her sleep, well, it had become eternal. I straightened and stared down at Mother’s profile, hugging Chloe closer to me.
I don’t know how long I stood there before I backed out of Mother’s room to call 911, my husband, my siblings and my job. But I do know the tears and anguish didn’t come then. They didn’t come when Chloe and I returned to Mother’s room to sit on the side of her bed to memorize her peaceful, lovely face. The tears didn’t come during the funeral preparations or the homegoing service or the burial.
The heartache and loss finally hit me months later when I woke between two a. m. and four a. m. and without thought, shuffled to the kitchen, put the teakettle on the heat, and pulled down two cups. Looking at those cups, the tears came and came and kept coming, filling both cups and more.
Many, many years later when Chloe moved back home after completing her undergraduate studies, I happened upon her one morning between two and four. She sat at the table in the kitchen with her head in her hands and with what looked like reams of paper before her. I knew without flipping through them that the papers related to her as-yet-unmade decision to either return to college for an advanced degree or find an entry-level position in her chosen field of study—psychology.
“Chloe?” I called quietly, hoping I didn’t scare her.
She jumped even though I’d been gentle with my voice. I understood. It had been that way with me and Mother our first time.
“Mom,” she gushed, “You scared me. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
I smiled, thinking, almost my exact words. “No, dear, this is my usual haunt. Welcome.”
She looked confused and my smile grew. I crossed the room, turned the heat under the teakettle, and pulled down two cups.