What I Read To My Mother On Her Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Last Day
The last book I read for myself was One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America. The last book I read to my kids was The Bad Times of Irma Baumlein. The last book I read to my mother was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
It has been almost two months since my mother died of COVID-19, and my world feels very much less. Less loving, less stable, less full, less fun, just less. Less, less, less.
My mother was a voracious reader, but for herself, not for her children. I don't remember her reading to me at all, but what I do remember is her telling me I was not allowed to read a book in my lap at suppertime. (She made an exception on the rare occasions we went out to eat with family friends — I don't think we ever went out to eat by ourselves; she never knew how long it would take for the food to come, and she also wanted me to be occupied so she could have an adult conversation).
No, my mother expected me to read for myself, and she expected me to read a lot. As a matter of fact, when writing her obituary, I made it a point to note that she always let me and my brother read books that were far too mature for our ages (anyone else have a fifth grade teacher who took away your copy of Judy Blume's Smart Women? I remember when my teacher asked me if my mother knew I was reading it, I answered, "My momma gave it to me"). My momma was a busy lady, what with the garden, and the grass, and the laundry, and the pigs, and the horses, so her reading time was HER reading time. I have no memories of sitting in her lap listening to her read Dr. Seuss or Margaret Wise Brown or Ezra Jack Keats; it was as if my mother gave birth to a fully formed reader, and that was just how she liked it.
So when I was able to be with Momma during her last days, I didn't know what to do. I couldn't fill all that time just talking, I did that the first day, so on the second day, which would end up being her last day, I knew I had to bring something to read to her. I didn't have a childhood favorite to read to her; there were no special books that she held on to from my toddler years, and though I suppose I could have read Smart Women, I don't know that I could have finished it, and I wasn't going to leave her hanging. (I only wish I could have found her old Erma Bombeck books. She would have loved those.)
So I did as I often do: I scoured my kids' bookshelves for something that suited the situation.
I didn't know if Momma could even hear me — she was not conscious — but I wanted to make sure what I read to her expressed how I felt, and maybe how she felt, without making us feel worse. There are lots of children's books that deal very directly with grief and dying, but I wasn't going to pick those. There are quite a few highly emotional books about grief and dying, and I wasn't going to pick those either. I was in a Goldilocks situation, but there had to be something that was just right.
I ended up choosing three books to take with me that second day: Todd Parr's The Goodbye Book, Kathryn Lasky's Before I Was Your Mother, and of course, Judith Viorst's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I figured those three books sort of ran the gamut for the day Momma and I were about to face, so I packed them along with my mask, my gown, my gloves and my hand sanitizer, and I tried to prepare myself.
Of course, I could not prepare myself, no matter how hard I tried, and the hours between 9 a.m. (when I was allowed in) and 2:30 a.m. (when it was all over) are long, and three children's books don't go very far. But, knowing what was coming, I chose the Goodbye Book and Before I Was Your Mother to start, and read them aloud over and over again, not sure if Momma heard me, or if she did hear me, thought I was being a big sap (she hated it when I was a sap), or if she just wanted me to shut up.
If I had to put money on it, I would say it was one of the two last possibilities.
My mother was a very practical person, and I was SURE she was thinking I was being sappy (I mean, who doesn't get a little weepy when reading Before I Was Your Mother). I could feel it. One reading of the books? Fine, she would handle that with grace and even enjoy it, but by the fifth time? Well, that's just self-indulgence, and she had no truck with that, even if it were her last day. And it was her last day: I knew it, and I am sure somehow she knew it.
It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
So I broke out Alexander, and I read it aloud over, and over, and over again. I must have read that book 20 times if I read it once, and never did I feel Momma was sick of it, and I never got sick of it either. Again, Momma was a very practical person, and even though I am sappy sometimes, I am as well. If Momma somehow knew that day was her last, she also knew that waking up with gum in your hair is the pits, not to mention having to take three cranky kids to the dentist after school. She certainly knew having something you hated for supper made a day so much worse and that sometimes kissing on TV is the last straw. You see, there are a million ways to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, and I knew that last day was going to be the big one for me and for Momma.
So I read Alexander. I read it to Momma, my voice muffled by a mask, until I was hoarse. I read it as I held her motionless hand in my gloved hand, I read it as her vitals were being taken, I read it to her aides as they came to check on her, and I read it as the sun set. I read it until I didn't even have to look at the words anymore. I read it until that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day came to an end.
Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children's Book Festival. She lives on a farm in Southern Virginia with her family.
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