One More Dolores Story for the Road

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Growing up, the Welmans were that family. You know, the family that was always late to everything. In our extended family, we frequently arrived at my grandparents’ farm house in the bootheel of Missouri with approximately 40 faces staring at us with hunger in their eyes, as the meal had been held off until our arrival.

I was once late to my own birthday party. During the height of my gymnastics obsession, I opted for a lock-in of sorts at the gym where my friends and I could bounce on trampolines, jump in foam pits, and pretend to be Kim Zmeskal. Instead of flipping on bars or creeping across balance beams though, my friends were waiting in the parking lot for my mom and me, who showed up 30 minutes late.

Many associate tardiness with disrespect of other people’s time, but for us, Mom in particular, we were just incredibly bad at assessing how much time it took to do things, in particular drive in a car from Point A to Point B. Over time, my sister and I took measures in our adulthood to be more punctual. I am now typically oddly early to things and just always have a book on me. My sister changed the clock in her car to be ten minutes fast so she always felt like she had less time than she did to get places.

We also pulled tricks on poor Dolores to ensure we made it to family gatherings on time. The two of us would band together and claim we needed to leave easily 90 minutes earlier than necessary and insist we aim for that because we knew our mom would then be able to arrive on time. Even for a simple day trip to the farm, she would somehow manage to pack four bags of stuff, prepared for a tornado, messy meal, car breakdown, or act of God.

We also were always those people who tried to do everything. We had dance classes, piano classes, gymnastic classes, soccer, theater rehearsals, church and Sunday school, and my mom spent the majority of her life as a single mom functioning as Hoke to our Miss Daisy. When you spend that much time shuffling from one place to another, you tend to be late. When your youngest, spunky redhead of a child also chronically loses things, it inevitably tacks time on when you get out the door. This is why I keep three sets of car and house keys in my car/purse/house and have another four sets spread out amongst friends in Vegas. It sounds crazy, but like Dolores and her chronic tardiness, I knew I was never going to learn how not to lose things, so my solution is to just buy two of everything. Mom, on the other hand, just accepted timeliness wasn’t her thing, as one thing she always hated to do was hurry.

It wasn’t so much that Mom dawdled. She simply took longer than anyone I have ever met to do just about even the most basic of tasks. This is the woman who could take a dine-in meal at Long John Silvers and stretch it out to 45 minutes (yes, in the past year I have dined-in at the ole LJS multiple times). She would also do things like curl her hair with her beloved hot rollers before going to get a haircut because she could not bear not looking okay in the brief walk from the parking lot to the second floor salon of our local department store, McCalpins. Even at her sickest, she still insisted on “getting dressed” to go to her oncology appointments. Somehow, she found a pair of stretch pants that resembled khakis, which she would pair with an L.L. Bean blouse, her “going out of the house sneakers”, and even a little make-up.

My mom was the one who instilled in me that having spares of everything from your favorite jeans to your laptop is a good idea. Like a Boy Scout, she wanted to be prepared. That is a lesson I did manage to learn from her, but this habit of taking your time and not rushing is something I probably should make more of an effort to do now that she is gone. Granted, I don’t intend to do it at an establishment where I order at the counter and ask for “extra crispies”, but I’ve lived my entire life in a hurry and that should probably change. Waiting makes me uncomfortable, but I need to live in the present a little more. My last weeks with my mom, there were some days I wish could last forever, so I think I might just be making progress on this front already.

And Dolores really hammered this point home in the most Dolores way possible–she was late to her own funeral.

People use that line as a joke, but our mom actually managed to pull it off. We did a visitation and funeral mass in Memphis, but mom was buried in Lexington, Kentucky next to our father in the most beautiful cemetery in the United States. While her family and Lexington friends waited around in a torrential downpour of rain, we were informed that the vehicle transporting her was stuck in traffic.

At first I was angry that the weather was awful and we were all just sitting in our cars mulling over what a long, sad three days it had been. I felt like the burial didn’t do my mom justice. I left sad that, while everything else seemed to celebrate her life so well in the funeral process, this day sucked.

Two days later, I was supposed to meet a middle school friend for dinner. I had misplaced my car key, which set me back enough to text her I’d be five minutes late. Then I overestimated my memory of Lexington back roads and got lost. As I profusely apologized to my friend, I realized I was seriously late for the first time in a while. Then I thought to myself, maybe Lexington is what makes me late. Or perhaps I had spent too much time with Mom and she was rubbing off on me. Then I burst out laughing, prompting funny stares from other cars at the traffic light at the crazy lady cracking up alone in her car. But that crappy day at the cemetery wasn’t crappy. It was actually about the most perfect way Dolores Welman could leave the world–thirty minutes late.

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Dolores Welman, “Standing Man”

The evening my mother passed away I watched the Oscars. What may sound strange was both a pleasant distraction and a reminder that some things will continue to go on even though my mom will not be there to pretend to care about who won, as she often pretended to care about the numerous things which seemed so important to me but were completely foreign to her.

If you watched the Oscars too, you know there was a bit of an upset in the Best Supporting Actor category. Most people thought Sylvester Stallone would win for his latest portrayal of Rocky Balboa in “Creed,” a boxer who was always willing to take up a fight, even when the opponent seemed impossible to beat.

Instead though, a relatively unknown actor named Mark Rylance won for playing a quiet, timid Russian spy in “Bridge of Spies,” a quiet movie from another era. I was thrilled, and my family was thrilled to see me so happy. I always cared about movies more than they did, so I tried to explain why it matterred so much that this man won.

I told them about a scene in the movie where Rylance reminisces about a man his father told him was truly remarkable. Day after day, Rylance saw nothing impressive about the stoic man, until the day military police showed up at his house and started beating his parents and this man. Every time they hit him, the quiet man stood back up. They hit him again, he silently rose. After so many beatings and so many climbs back to his feet, the police finally relented, granting him peace.

I grew emotional because I saw something you don’t get to see very often—someone getting recognized not because they are willing to take on a fight or because they will go toe to toe with an unbeatable adversary, but for their admirable ability to rise, forgive, and rather than retaliate, regroup and move on.

I didn’t want Rocky the boxer to win because I hate boxing movies and, more importantly, I have grown tired of metaphors about cancer survivors being fighters. People say that those who beat cancer are tough and fought hard, implying that those who do not survive cancer simply didn’t want it enough. But if beating cancer was about toughness, neither of our parents would have ever gotten sick.

And my mother was so much more than Rocky. She was a person who wanted many things in life and they never arrived quite the way she expected. She and her husband wanted children more than anything, but biology and a long list at the adoption agency tested their patience. As they did everything they could to just get a baby to call their own, my mother didn’t scream or yell. She didn’t crumble, collapse, and give up. Instead, she simply took each blow, then got back up, readying herself for the next hurdle life put in her way.

My mother lost her husband at just 41 years old and never cried in front of us about his passing. She never complained to us about how difficult we could be with no one else to turn to for help. Instead, she managed to make our lives feel as normal as possible as long as she could, bearing financial strain and emotional pain with the enduring patience of a saint, always putting aside her own self-interests for her children.

She later had grandsons, whom she heaped adoration on at every opportunity because she was so happy to have someone else to throw her unconditional love and support behind, keeping herself out of the limelight so others, like those boys, could bask in it.

When our mother got sick, she was shocked and saddened, but in many ways I think Mom had the most difficult time accepting everything was suddenly about her. We wanted to take care of her. Family frequently visited and helped with appointments and finances and food. While Mom always expressed her gratitude, we could always tell she wanted to be the one helping, not the one being helped.

As her illness progressed, she fought for every shred of independence she could. She even took something that should’ve been entirely about her, and made it about us—her own funeral. She planned it in advance. She picked out pictures. She had the outfit and shoes together to go and told us ten time not to use anything but her own lipstick. The closest she got to angry was threatening to haunt us from the beyond if we played Amazing Grace because, while our mom was always more happy to be in the background instead of the foreground, she didn’t think anyone deserved to be called a wretch.

While sick, those around her often cried or prayed for miracles. She was the shoulder to cry on, even though it was her shoulders we felt had to carry too much of a burden throughout her life. But that was our mother. She did not get angry, and she did not punch her way to what she wanted. Instead, she was the quiet man who just kept getting back up. Our mother was not motivated by spite or revenge, but by love. The kind of love Corinthians described as patient and kind. The kind of love that does not boast and is not proud. The kind that Matthew refers to when he says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a]39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Dolores Welman was and is eternally giving. Eternally selfless. Life did beat her down sometimes and she always got up again, knowing there were more hard knocks to come, but she was prepared–filled with love, resolve, and faith that everything would work itself out in the end. So today, while I am tempted to wonder why God chose this path for her or to blame somebody or be angry, I remind myself that the best way to honor this inimitable woman, whose true toughness and beauty shone through when she didn’t know you were watching, is to look towards tomorrow and remember that each day is an opportunity to forgive, to hope things get better, and if you do get knocked down, to have faith you will always be strong enough to get back up again.