Susan Kiernan, 1948-2015

Twelve years ago, before Denise and I were engaged, I moved to Rome, Italy, where she was working as a freelancer and a news producer covering soccer. After we were engaged, we decided to come home to the states for a short visit to meet each other's parents. We saw mine in New Jersey first, then drove down the coast to South Carolina to surprise her mom, who didn't know we were coming. Just as we were driving up to the exit on I-26 that would take us to her door, who should we spy on the highway with us but Mom, driving behind the wheel of her minivan. She was a sales rep who frequently traveled through the region to visit clients. 

We nearly had an accident that day. You can imagine Mom's surprise. The daughter she thought was five thousand miles away was suddenly driving alongside her on the highway, heading home. Of course we didn't wait to get to Mom's condo. We both pulled into the parking lot of a fast-food place to throw our arms around each other. 

I had met her a few times over the years, but now she was going to be my mother-in-law. I suppose I was a little nervous; according to the rules of American comedy culture, mothers and sons-in-law are destined to be forever at odds. I never found that to be the case, at least with Sue. Instead, she always treated me with the same mixture of admiration and love as the day we met up at the exit. I daresay she treated me more fondly than my own mother, who still can't shed the memories of stuff I broke as a kid.

But Sue and I got along, and for nearly twelve years I was privileged to call her Mom. That privilege ended in part Wednesday morning when she left us forever. It had been a long, cruel illness, and for three months four of us--two sisters and their husbands--gave Mom the only gifts we could, our time and our love, to see her through it.

Like all of us, Sue was many things in life. A superb salesperson. A runner and athlete. A devout Christian and a supporter of foreign missions. A daughter and niece. But the role that meant the most to her was being a mom.

I don't share Sue's faith, so I don't know if I will ever see her again. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised someday to find her waiting for me at the exit of a different kind.

Until then, Sue: crack the window, crank the tunes, and ride, ride, ride.

Five Windows


There are five windows in Mom’s bedroom. Five windows that let in the morning light and allow her a glimpse of the woods and river behind her condo building. There’s a small dam upstream that guarantees white noise nearly every hour of the day. The river flows south to become the Congaree, the larger tributary that rushes past this old southern city of walled burying grounds, grits mills, cotton bale warehouses, and confederate printing plants.

Mom’s decline has been slow yet awful. One morning recently she struggled to get from one side of her bed to the other, her eyes fixed on the bits of the river she could see through the glass. “I just want to get to the edge of the river,” she kept saying. And then she winced, because that isn’t what she meant to say at all. The bed. The bed. The edge of the bed. By now we get it. We know what the potent mix of disease and painkillers is doing to her brain. She confuses words all the time.

That morning, Denise went to prep the morning meds and I was alone with Mom as she sat by the window and watched the river. “Tell me something, Joe,” she said suddenly, grasping my hand. “Is this the end?”

Frankly, I didn’t know how to answer her. I assumed she was wondering if her doctors had told us something that we had not shared with her. (They haven’t.) I said we didn’t know; no one knew. And nervously, I prattled on about how she didn’t have to worry about any of us anymore—her daughters, her son-in-laws, her friends. We could take care of ourselves. I was hoping to relieve what they say dying people always worry about—unresolved issues with their friends and family.

But what the hell do I know? Comes down to it, I know precious little about death. I write about it almost exclusively, but I’ve seen very little of the real thing up close. I absorbed a lot of Catholic theology and schooling in my childhood, but if you tied me down and forced me to tell you what happens after death, the closest I could come to telling you could be summed by this scene in the Cary Grant film, Houseboat. I don’t know when I saw the movie, but this scene made an impression.

And yes, I’m well aware of the stupidity of basing one’s spiritual life on a scene from a Technicolor movie, but my next closest source would probably be several fantasy trilogies I read as a kid. I know my lack of religion disappoints my mother, who is devout. I think I was always a little like my father, who I suspect treated church as an obligation, not an opportunity, and who was more galvanized by the possibility of such things as psychic phenomena. 

But no matter. As I spoke, Denise’s mom gripped my hand tighter and wept. Denise came in and the moment between us passed.

I’ve spent most of the time since then kicking myself for not coming up with a more profound, chipper response. “No,” I could have said, “this is just the beginning,” or something else that would have reinforced Denise's mom’s personal cosmology. She is also devoutly religious. Friends visit from time to time to pray with and over her. One friend, with a beautiful voice, sings hymns. The pastor from her congregation is a welcome sight, too. Some mornings, when the pain has been intense, I’ll find Mom curled up on her side of the bed, clutching her purple plastic crucifix. It comforts her greatly.

Earlier this week, Mom had another question for me. Again, we were alone. (Maybe she waits for her daughters to leave before springing these on me?) She was sitting up in bed, looking heavily drugged and confused. “Hey Joe,” she said, “can you get me out of this?"

This time, I went with the humor. “What do you want me to do, smother you with a pillow?"

She smiled.

“I can’t get you out of this,” I continued. "None of us can. Who can?"

She pointed at the ceiling.

“So ask Him,” I said.

“I do, I do,” she said.

I hope she receives her answer soon, and from a guy who has the answers.