Larry Efird: My mother’s eyes

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 22, 2022

In 2021, my 91 year old father died as a result of  complications from COVID-19. I watched my mother  gently pat his hand  on the bed before the first responders rolled him out of the house on Iris Avenue they had lived in together for 65 years,  on the morning of their seventy-first wedding anniversary.  I also saw the enduring  love in her eyes that she had for my father. Deep down, I’m sure she wondered if that  might be the last time she would see him.

One week later, my mother, my five living siblings, and I were allowed to tell our father goodbye  in his hospital room. It was a somber visit, but also joy filled. We sang a few hymns to him–at our mother’s request– and we were each able to thank him for being our dad and for loving us.

Once we left the room and painstakingly shed our protective gowns and layers of  face masks, I noticed that my mother’s eyes were gleaming, reflecting the brightness of the  turquoise jacket she was wearing while she  humbly sat in her wheelchair waiting to be pushed down the hall toward the elevator, leaving her beloved behind.

I told my mom that her blue-green eyes  somehow looked turquoise and matched her clothing.  They also looked radiant, rather than red with despair. As usual, she had the glow that we as her children had been accustomed to seeing our entire lives. Her inner strength  and faith always prevailed in difficult situations. Even one of the attending nurses saw it too. She seemed to want to be near my mom, not only to show the love that only a nurse can offer, but also to draw strength from my mother who was facing the biggest challenge of her life. I realized at that moment how nurses need grace as well, as they stare death in the face on a daily basis.

When I told my mom that her eyes looked turquoise, she jokingly told me that when she was a girl, some other kids often  made fun of her green, “cat eyes.” I thought it was funny to think that in such a somber moment, a childhood memory was at the front of my mother’s thoughts. In reality, it was probably  a healthy, brief distraction from the pain.

Anyone who knows my mother sees that her inner and outer beauty are inter-connected, even at age 92. She still has the effervescence of the 19-year-old  homecoming attendant  she was at Wake Forest  College in 1949. And as children, we always believed we had the prettiest mother in town–maybe because we heard our dad tell her so on a regular basis.

A person’s eyes can often tell the story of their lives. Such is the case in the following description of the heroine of a 19th century novel by Kentuckian, James Lane Allen.

Flowers in truth Gabriella’s eyes were — the closing and disclosing blossoms. Somehow they made you think of earliest spring, of young leaves, of the flutings of birds deep within a glade sifted with golden light…They had their other seasons: their summer hours of angry flash and swift downspout; their autumn days of still depths and soberness, and autumn nights of long, quiet rainfalls when no one knew. One season they lacked: Gabriella’s eyes had no winter.

It’s a perfect description of my mother’s eyes and her spirit.

Coming as no surprise to one of  her seven headstrong children, I did see her eyes with  “their summer hours of angry flash,” more than once. I also saw the “autumn days of still depths and soberness” when she buried her  32 year old daughter who died unexpectedly in her sleep.  I  saw those same eyes during a stroke she suffered eight years ago, and then  once again when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 80s.   And when saying goodbye to the love of her life, that “autumn soberness” returned.

The fact that my mother’s name is “Iris,”having been named after that imperial flower by her parents, has always proclaimed a quiet message of hopefulness that shines through her smile. Though that message is more often associated with spring and summer, it’s endearing symbolism is appropriate for Christmas as well —for Christmas is the truest season of hope.

Now in the winter of her life, my mother’s eyes are much weaker as she struggles with double vision and other sight issues associated with old age. But there is no winter despair and there is no fear of the future. Her eyes may be failing, but her hope is not. And even if she can’t see the hope her life gives to others as she peacefully sits in her cozy, sanctified chair each day, all those who come in contact with her clearly see that hope, along with its source.

Whenever I look at an iris, I not only see the hope of spring and summer, but I see the hope of Christmas as well because I have always seen it in my mother’s eyes.

Larry Efird retired from teaching in Kannapolis City Schools.