I didn’t know her as a young woman, or a girl. I didn’t know the co-ed attending Barnard College. Nor did I know her in Paris with her closest friend Marie Birmingham. I never saw the cold water flat on Sullivan Street where she first lived with her husband, my father, William Birmingham, for $14 a month. I never knew her at Mentor Omega or Cross Currents working side by side with my dad as a young professional in the 50’s, a time when I later learned this was less common for a young mother.
I am her youngest son. I knew my mom, Mary Louise Birmingham, as a mother,
a mentor, and an inspiration.
I first remember my mom as a mother of five, a professional woman taking the train into New York City each morning as an editor in Praeger’s Young Readers Department. Somehow, while raising us and maintaining our home life in Hackensack she was able to develop an accomplished career in publishing.
She was an editor at Mentor-Omega and then, with my dad put together an
encyclopedia of Catholicism. She’d worked on Cross Currents and, I’m sure, other
projects and jobs, but by the 70’s she was working full time for Praeger as an executive
Then one day Praeger decided to close down its Young Readers Department, and so she was out of work. Her career in letters ended in a year when it seemed as though only Jackie Onassis was being hired to work in publishing. Mom took a year or so at home, collecting unemployment. She started knitting during that year and thought about her future. At a time of life when so many complain about the wrench that is thrown in the works of their career by outside forces, Mom decided to return to school and become a nurse.
In her mid-fifties she returned to school to get her nursing credentials. She did it rather quickly, as she “challenged” courses, taking home the text book, Chemistry for instance, and studying it cover to cover, only returning to the classroom to take the final exam and earn that course’s credit.
In her late 50’s Mom embarked on a second career as a hospice nurse at Beth Israel in New York City. She worked twelve hour shifts. This was a time when the typical hospice patient was not a little old lady with graying hair but a young man cut down in his prime by HIV. In those days, the scourge of Aids ran rampant, leaving mothers to bury their sons, as it should not be.
She continued working as a nurse for most of twenty years.
Through this I learned from her that it is never too late to pursue your dreams and your passion. A few weeks ago I saw a “Man on the Street” column in the local paper asking “What do you wish you had studied in school?” The answers came from twenty and thirty year olds, lamenting the path they had taken, and the doors they saw as closed. “If only they knew my mom,” I thought, “they would have learned as I did, that it is never too late to learn.”
Long ago, she told me a story of walking home from work. A boy in his early twenties approached her on the sidewalk. He was a red-headed well-spoken kid and asked her. “Lady, can you spare a dollar.” My mom looked at him and asked, “I am almost 70 years old, and I just finished working a twelve hour shift at the hospital. Why should I give you money?”
“You shouldn’t,” he said as he walked away.
I often wonder if that young man learned something from my mom that day. I hope he did. When I first left home, I know I was a trial for my mom and my dad. I left New Jersey after high school, and pursued a life “on the road.” At one point I was living in tent in a cow pasture, and I would sit in the evenings watching the cattle on the hill, content in the sunset light, and I would think “If only I could learn to graze.”
I saw that as a perfect if unattainable solution to my goal of a peaceful life. I don’t think that is the type of ambition that makes one’s parents proud. However, my mom always expressed to me how proud she was of the choices I was making, and how glad she was that I was living the life I chose.
I’m sure as I reflect back that there must have been some other thoughts that crossed her mind. She must have had some difficult nights wondering what would become of me. She never expressed those fears; she kept them to herself, and just shared her love and support.
As a father, I try to remember that lesson. My kids will tell you that I often fail. But they can be sure when I succeed, its because I try to live up to the example my mom set for me.
When I met Erin almost thirty years ago, it was time to turn my life around. I had recently adopted a dog, who joined me living under a redwood tree in Big Sur.
“I’m going to have to change my life,” I thought. “I can’t treat a dog the way I’ve been treating myself for the last seven years.” This idea resonated through my head, and became a guiding force for me to move forward, and maybe build a life for myself that at least a dog deserved.
Erin is younger than me. When she was nineteen, we discovered she was soon to have a baby. My parents expressed their love and support. We were living in Oregon, 3000 miles away, but from afar there was acceptance, and caring, and an assumption that I could thrive in whatever situation life offered me. I worked hard to fulfill that expectation.
When we got married on a beach in California the next June, my parents came out to the coast. I just have to go to Erin’s book by our bedside to read the card my parents gave us that day. She still keeps it as a bookmark.
We wish you everything good
In your life together –
Bread and wine and joyful balloons!
Read my mother’s words
As through this
Our spirits soar –
Wrote my father.
When we left Oregon the next year, with a plan to drive to England with our nine month old son, Mom never expressed how crazy she must have thought we were. Her only words of advice were, “When you move to get away from your problems, you may discover that they have followed you when you get to your destination.”
Truer words I’ve never heard.
As the years went by, more grandchildren came into her life. When her family comes together, there is my father, the five of us with our five long-term spouses. There are eight grandchildren, who are now all grown.
It seemed as if my mom was born to be a grandma. She had a toy basket right next to her favorite chair at home, and the walls were soon filled, and still are filled, with
artwork and photos from her beautiful grandchildren.
All the kids loved visiting with their grand parents. My dad would make spider
bread, a home-made loaf made pull-apart-style, with each section of dough colored a
different garish color. My mom was always there for them, sharing a toy, or a game, or listening to their stories.
I hope if I am blessed to be a grandfather one day, I will remember the lessons of
patience and caring that my parents showed to their growing family.
As time went on, both my parents retired. My dad taught at Fordham University
and Truro College for many years, and my mom had worked as a nurse into her early
70’s. My folks never talked about money very much. Raising a young family in the 50’s
and 60’s, I know there hadn’t been much money to talk about.
Now it was time to live on the fruits of their labors, and frankly, I don’t think any
of us kids knew whether they had a dollar or a lot more.
When they retired, they sat down and put there books in order. They had figured their savings and felt confident they had enough to live on modestly, as they’d always lived, throughout their retirement.
They put pen to paper, and shared a run-down of their financial situation with all five of us kids. They didn’t want us to worry, and they wanted us to know that they were comfortable and set for whatever life put before them.
They repeated this financial report every few years, and lo and behold they found they had a bit more money than they thought they would ever need. Every few years they would share some with each of us kids along with a note of sharing their blessings with
the ones they loved.
While this money was never so much to be life changing, it seemed to come at
opportune times, when a chunk of change was just what my little family needed to get
through a minor catastrophe, or it would help us to save for the future as their example
I work hard as I get older to create a life for myself and Erin that will be
sustainable, even after I no longer choose to or am unable to make a living. I appreciate
the example that my folks set, that work was not to be avoided, but to be relished as a
rich part of life. I appreciate the peace of mind their reports offered, and of course, I
appreciate there generosity.
I hope to hold on to their lesson always.
Now as our children are grown, our parents settled into a peaceful retirement.
I thought my mom had taught me all she could. Now it was up to me to hold on to
her lessons of kindness, equanimity and generosity.
I was wrong. My mom had one more lesson to share with me, maybe the most
important one of all.
My little family just visited my mom and dad six weeks ago in Stuyvesant Town.
Our son lives in Brooklyn, and he was receiving his Master’s in Illustration. I had come
to town with Erin and Emily to celebrate. Of course, we came to apartment 7C almost
every day of our visit and shared a couple of hours with my folks.
My mom was a bit of a hermit. Many people say guests are like fresh fish. After
two or three days they both go bad. My mom loved our visits, but even her most beloved
family was welcome most if we kept our visits to under a couple of hours.
Even though she was as hale and hearty as she’d always been, she was tired, and
didn’t feel up to coming out for our graduation party for Chi…of course I understood. Of
course we knew she loved him, she was just feeling a bit tired.
Just three weeks later; just nineteen days ago; just out of the blue, Mom felt more
than tired. She felt so poorly that on a Monday morning in the first week of June she was
admitted to the hospital. How could it be that this healthy, stalwart, capable woman could be taken down so far so quickly?
Soon the diagnosis came back. Acute Leukemia. Prognosis Grim. The doctors and
nurses loved Mom, of course, but now she was at the mercy of the AMA whose quixotic
task is to tilt at the windmills of grave disease, as if they can prolong life indefinitely, and
you know what, sometimes they can.
But not for Mom. She knew her age as well as any of us. As a hospice and hospital nurse she knew the rigors, sometimes tortures, of modern medicine and the havoc it can wreak on a frail body. “No,” she said. “Chemotherapy and radiation is not the way I plan to spend the last months of my life.” She would allow nature to take its course, and she would peacefully face that against which so many of us rail, futilely.
My mom was given drugs to clear the mutated white blood cells out of her system and the poison in her blood the Leukemia had left behind. She was given three transfusions of fresh red blood cells, and lo she was offered a miracle. Not the miracle of eternal life, that came all too soon possibly, but she received the miracle of one wonderful week.
She returned home Saturday, two weeks ago today. I arrived for a visit on Sunday. I hoped it wouldn’t be my last. She didn’t have the energy or steadiness to walk by herself from the chaise lounge in the living room to her modified and bolstered bed for sleeping, but she had the will and the humor and the comfort to have one last hurrah!
Her family rallied around her. My dad, who is no kid himself, came up to bat; to support her and help her; to get food and drink; to walk her from chaise to bed and back again. Each of us served her as we could, as she had served us for so many years. Kate and John live just a block away in either direction, and they came every day to be with her. Meg and Moira came down from Connecticut. I flew out from Big Sur.
After Meg, who is a nurse (or is she an angel, I’m not sure) called the doctor to check that Mom’s new medications weren’t “contra-indicated” with her normal regimen, she came in with the news.
“The doctor says you can go off your cholesterol medication.”
“Great!” Mom said. Then a few minutes later…”I wonder if you could go down and get me some cheese?”
For the next few days Mom was in relative comfort. She was surrounded by those who loved her. She had visits with old friends and confidantes. She ate exotic cheeses and dark chocolate. She told me that 70% cocoa was her favorite, but settled for the Jacques Torres 60% I brought from across town.
She seemed, not just at peace, but relishing her time, her company, her cheeses, even a glass of beer. “I don’t fear death,” she told her doctor…”I haven’t lost my joy of living, but I don’t fear the end.”
It was so true. She obviously hadn’t lost her joy of living.
After a few short days I went home to California. We thought there would be weeks, maybe four, maybe six, but no one ever knows the doctor told us. I would return, I hoped, to help when things got tougher, as we knew things would get.
When I’d been home only a few days I got a call from Meg. Mom had taken a turn. She was able to go from bed to bathroom with help, but only just barely. The doctor came and said, yes, this is the beginning of the end. “There may be days, there may be hours, there will likely not be weeks.”
That was Monday morning, I think. By Wednesday, Mom was no longer conscious. Her blood could no longer carry oxygen around as the white blood cells once again crowded out the red.
My dad was with her. My sisters were with her. My brother was with her. I was with them all in spirit, even if I could not be there. Friday afternoon at 2:00 pm East Coast time I got another call from Meg. The call I was dreading, and the call I was dreaming of. My mom was gone. Her suffering was at an end. What a blessing and a lesson she had given me in the end. This was a final lesson, one I cannot but imagine aspiring to follow.
Mary Louise Birmingham lived her life in full for 89 years and 8 months. After a four day illness she was given, by the grace of God and the miracles of modern medicine, a week to share with us in joy and comfort. After only a few days of true suffering, still surrounded by, and in the care of her loved ones, Mary Louise died peacefully in her bed at home on the seventh floor behind a door marked with a C in a neighborhood of lower Manhattan with a park running through it.
There was one more member of our family I haven’t mentioned. A family member my mother loved wholeheartedly and unabashedly. That family member is the city of New York. My mom and my dad love the diversity of New York. They love that the people of New York are all poured together like one giant soup. Sometimes too spicy, at times too hot, but always nourishing and rich.
My mother wept for New York on September 11th, as she’d wept for her city during the tough years of the 70’s and 80’s. Her neighborhood is no longer for working class families. Its ‘luxury apartments’ are now filled with so many NYU students and
Her home was sold and defaulted on in the biggest real estate transaction (and debacle) in history. Tishman-Speyer walked away from their mortgage, so to speak, after losing more than a billion dollars on paper in the two years they owned Stuyvesant Town.
“You know,” she said, “in real estate you can lose money in three ways. Either you’re stupid, you’re greedy, or you’re just plain unlucky.” She concluded, “When Tishman-Speyer bought Stuyvesant Town, they hit the trifecta.”
I digress. These thoughts of real estate and rogue terrorism have no place in my story, or maybe they do.
My mom loved New York. She taught me to love New York. Even though I’ve made my home so far away, I am glad she shared her New York with me. It is a very special place.
Now she no longer has a use for her ruined body. Her soul, her self, is no longer moored to her flesh. Does she live on in some other way? I don’t know. I do know that she lives on in the lives she has touched, and in the lives of her husband, her children, and her grandchildren. I know she is present in my heart.
Her body is now but a box of ashes. Soon they will be spread at Corlear’s Hook, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There, at Manhattan’s widest point, if you walk south along the East River, where the river widens into the harbor. The Statue of Liberty appears far to your right. The Hudson River spills its waters into the tidal basin which is the harbor and the East River.
Just six weeks ago she told me that it was one of her favorite spots in New York. That made it one of my favorite spots in New York. I will go there as long as I live and think of her, and love her.
So that is my mom’s final lesson.
My mom faced death without fear. She relished life whole-heartedly. But she did not cling to hours at the cost of suffering for herself and her family.
I miss my mom. I wish she could still be here, and that this summer we could celebrate her 90th birthday together. However, I appreciate that she wanted to live her life fully, when she could live it in full, but not cling greedily to the scraps.
Mary Louise Birmingham is survived by her husband, William Francis Xavier Birmingham. She is survived by her sister Ruth Gertrude Barrett. She is survived by her daughters, Moira Theresa Birmingham, Katherine Mary Birmingham, and Margaret Mary Birmingham; sons John Francis Birmingham and Thomas Stephen Barrett Birmingham.
Her family was increased by her sons and daughters in law, James Bruce Brewczynski, Lola Ehrlich, Barry Denny, Timothy Patrick Keyes, and Erin Lee Gafill.
She was blessed with eight grandchildren: Chi McCallie Gafill Birmingham, Rachel Eliza Denny, Samuel Adams Brewczynski, Jake Ridley Birmingham Keyes, Anastasia Inez Brewczynski, Emily Reed Gafill Birmingham, Simone Angelica Denny, and William Amory Birmingham Keyes.We all love her and miss her. I know we are thankful for all she gave us.
Everything I’ve learned in my life, everything that I am in my life, at least that which is good, I am and I’ve learned from my mom and my dad.
But this is about Mom.