Mother Steel & Marlo Thomas


I worry that we have only changed out addictions. Traded in the packs of smokes for boxes of nicotine gum and increasingly larger doses of morphine that appears to offer very little pain relief.

I fight this urge to walk up to completely random people and lecture them about the evils of smoking. I want to yank them by the scruff and sit them down in front of my mother for half-a-day. Sort of the smoker’s version of Scared Straight.

How many bosses do I have? Mama demanded tonight after she was instructed to go to bed.

You have the same number of bosses as you do caretakers, I replied.

She ignored me, even though I wasn’t the one doing the bossing of her at that particular moment.

Any other human being would have been comatose given the amount of drugs pumped into Mama’s system: Three doses of morphine. A sleeping pill. A muscle-relaxant.

I have long known that my mother is a strong woman. A survivor. What I never fully understood, however, is that she possesses the will of ten men twice her size. Steel Magnolia be damned. I was birthed by Mother Steel herself. She has three grown children who resolutely refuse to defy her, even in her altered state of mind.  Thank God for the Sister-In-Law who gets the right to boss Mama in ways we never could, simply by a position of default.

There is a reason I decided not to go to nursing school after enduring two years of Latin during which time I never did learn how to conjugate verbs. Somewhere between high school graduation and freshman orientation I developed a life-long aversion to projectile vomiting, loose bowels, and blood and mucous in any form.

I simply am not cut out for the role of caretaker.

If that is your ministry, God Bless you. I bow to you in honor and admiration. I will sing your praises from the hilltops.

While I am not a complete and utter failure at this caretaking Mama thing, it is simply because I know it’s for a season. If I thought I would be at this for years to come, I would stock up on my own supply of anti-anxiety drugs.

Not that there aren’t moments of hilarity to be cherished. Today, as I bent over the bed, making it, Mama, who was sitting in a chair nearby remarked: “I guess we all have big butts in this family.”

Perhaps I should have been offended, but the truth is that I rarely concern myself over that which is behind me.

OHMYGOSHMAMA! I said when I walked into her room on Monday. What happened to all your  hair? You are bald!! We must go tomorrow and get you a wig!!

I knew you’d come in here like a tornado, she replied, smartly, like we had rehearsed this particular exchange for a SNL skit on ways in which daughters annoy mothers.

Then, tonight, while opening up her upteenth pack of nicotine gum, Mama remarked: Marlo Thomas is older than me. She married Phil Donahue back when I was still single. 

Mama has been single since July of 1966.

I told Sister Tater what Mama said about Marlo Thomas and Sister Tater texted back: Marlo Thomas got married when she was 43. And is still married to Phil and she is mom’s age. 

Sister Tater got an iPhone last week. She’s apparently learned to use the Google App on it. But even Google can’t explain why the women of this family are discussing Marlo Thomas to begin with.

I blame it on the morphine myself.

Morphine is the friend I love to hate.

When Mama nods over her bowl of Cheerios at breakfast it’s because the morphine makes her sleepy.

When Mama curls into a fetal position, every breath a mini-seizure that racks her, it’s because the morphine isn’t working.

When Mama takes the hem of my shirt between her thumb and forefinger and rubs it over and over again, like a baby with a favorite blankey, it’s because the morphine makes her loopy.

When Mama wants to make a late-night run to the grocers to buy $20 worth of Powerball tickets, and then wanders the aisles of the store picking up munchies she’ll never eat, it’s because morphine makes her hyper.

She hated getting that hospital bed. She likely never would have had it not been for the Hospice nurse who explained, You need it, Shelby. It will help you sleep more comfortably. So you don’t wake up in so much pain in the mornings. 

Unable to breath. Much less gossip about Marlo Thomas. 

Still, Mama wept. I’m really going downhill, she said.

Sam’s mama died yesterday, of lung cancer. She was diagnosed a few weeks after Mama. Both women widowed by the same war.  They will bury Sam’s mama on Saturday.  Just enjoy all this extra time with your Mama,  Sam said in a note to me today.

I’m trying. I really am trying.

Leaning over the hospital bed and I got down real close to Mama’s face and said, Mama you have cancer. It is terminal. You will go downhill. But you have already lived two months longer than the doctors said you would. You have seen Landon born. You had all your family, every single person, here for Thanksgiving. You are loved and adored by so many. You have had great medical care and the insurance to pay for that care. God has answered all of your prayers except the prayer of healing you. You have much to be thankful for. 

Then, I prayed that when the morphine failed to help her sleep that God would.

The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.  Zephaniah 3:17

Where were you when Marlo Thomas married Phil Donahue?


*To learn more about Mother Steel read AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED: A Daughter remembers the father she lost to war and the mother who held her family together. (HarperCollins, 2006). 


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