During this past Atlantic City show, I was in a souvenir shop when a Christmas tree ornament caught my eye. It was a small mouse wearing a Santa hat and holding a sign that read, “Be Merry.”
Now, generally, I don’t like those little slogans that tell you what to do. What if I don’t feel like being merry? What if sweating the small stuff actually creates a better product? But the stuffed mouse was cute and had been marked down to practically nothing. I bought the ornament and absently stuck it in my coat pocket.
On the last day of the show, my mother called to say she was in the hospital. She has a blood disease similar to leukemia and wasn’t doing well. I rushed from New Jersey to New York to be by her side.
A number of things had gone wrong at once, and it was clear she’d be in the hospital for a while. The room was bleak and noisy, and her “roommate” was an old Hungarian woman who repeated the same question, in a loud whisper, to everyone she saw, “Can you tell me, please, is leukemia catching?”
I hated leaving her there, but as a small comfort right before I left that first night, I placed the Christmas mouse on her tray table. My mom picked it up and lightly stroked the sign with one finger. “Be Merry,” she said.
Over the next three weeks, she underwent brutal treatments that left her very weak and full of pain. I brought stacks of personal items from her apartment, but again and again she looked to the Be Merry mouse for encouragement. When I told her that I didn’t take orders from rodents, she laughed even though it hurt her lungs. “The mouse is just making a suggestion,” she said, “like a friend offering advice.”
Her condition continued to worsen and finally, after the hardest conversation I’ve ever had in my life, we decided that the best course of action was for her to enter hospice. She was completely calm, explaining that her life had been wonderful and now the time had come to continue to the next great adventure.
As I write this, I’m sitting on her bed, where she’s resting quietly. The room is so full of flowers it looks like a spring garden, and her bed is situated so that she can see the cheerful bursts of color as well as the sky outside her window without even having to move her head.
Earlier today, I saw her staring ahead, quietly lost in thought. “Are you OK?” I asked. “What’s on your mind?”
My mother turned toward me with a smile that was so full of peace and pleasure you never would have thought she was dying. “Look at the way those tulips cup the light,” she said. “Isn’t that amazing?”
And at that moment, I realized that we had both been wrong about the mouse’s sign. “Be Merry” isn’t an order or a suggestion. It’s a prayer. It’s a wish for all of us to find joy even as our bodies slowly die. And it’s a hope that once found, we cup our hands around that light and hold it close until the end.
In memoriam: Erika Taylor’s mother, Sybil, passed away on February 29.