Tomorrow, January 6, is Epiphany, the day the Magi arrived bearing gifts for the new Christ child. Tomorrow, January 6, is also the date of my mother’s birth in 1936. Those two events may seem completely disconnected, but I assure you, they’re not.
Mirraim-Webster defines Epiphany as “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.” The arrival of the Magi was the first manifestation of the baby Jesus as the Christ child. Now, of course, I don’t mean my mom fits this definition; only Christ can do that. However, another definition from Mirriam-Webster for the word is “a revealing scene or moment.” In this sense, Mom’s birth, no, really her whole life, truly was an epiphany.
Christmas was sparse for Wid and Blanche in 1935. The Great Depression did not make for a very merry Christmas for anybody around, but way back in the North Carolina mountains, not too many people even noticed a difference. Christmas was always sparse for most of them. Still, they had the tree they cut on Christmas Eve for Blanche’s mother and father, and decorating it with paper chains and popcorn ropes made for great fun. Blanche even knew how to fold pieces of paper into different shapes to use as ornaments of a sort.
Christmas of 1935 held much more excitement for the couple than decorating the tree and preparing for a Christmas feast, though. Wid and Blanche knew they would soon receive the greatest gift of all for they knew Blanche would give birth to their first child in just a few more weeks, certainly by late February. They were extraordinarily excited!
So, Christmas passed, and as 1936 started, Blanche noticed that she did not feel quite normal. She seemed tired more of the time, and then those twinges of pain came and went, but consistently grew stronger. Since this was her first pregnancy, she didn’t know exactly what to expect, but her mother, who had had nine pregnancies, wasn’t too worried. Blanche rested more while Wid made sure the little home was warm and snug. The farthest he strayed was to go just down the hill a bit to help out at his in-laws general store.
The weekend arrived, and Blanche felt even worse. She wasn’t even sure when the midwife arrived to check on her, but they all knew it was much too soon for the baby to come. Blanche and Wid’s excitement had gradually turned to worry and dread. The worry and dread was warranted for Blanche was now indeed in labor, and even though the midwife sent for the doctor, there was no way to stop the inevitable. This impatient baby was intent on arriving too early to survive.
And arrive she did. The day of Epiphany, January 6, 1936, became, in the words of the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, ”a revealing scene or moment” that would forever change the lives of Wid and Blanche and almost everyone else who would ever meet that baby who couldn’t wait to shake up this world.
The doctor, whose bedside manner was less than comforting, took one look at the little two pound girl, and flatly said, “I wouldn’t give you two cents for her life.” But little Joan’s* parents and grandparents knew they had to do everything they humanly could to keep her alive. She was breathing, and that was enough.
Even though she was so small that a teacup would fit over her head, she lived. For three long months, the family took turns sitting behind the kitchen stove holding little Joan on a pillow. She was much too small and weak to breastfeed or even take breast milk in a bottle, so these people who loved her so much that they simply refused to give up on her fed her just a few drops at a time every few minutes from an eyedropper. They didn’t know that her lungs were barely developed enough for her to breath, and that was probably a good thing. If they had, even they might have resigned themselves to the doctor’s prognosis.
But Joan lived. Little by little she grew. Warm weather came, and Joan lived. She crawled, and by her first birthday, she walked. She got sick. She got sick a lot. Every childhood illness that came her way hit her harder and took longer to recover from than they did with her younger sister and brother, but through it all she lived.
Then came whooping cough, and time and again, Joan coughed so hard that she sometimes couldn’t catch a single breath. She would start to turn blue from the lack of oxygen. When that happened, the only thing that helped was for Wid to scoop her up and rush her outside into the cold air just long enough for it to open her airways. And somehow she lived.
Because of an absolute will to survive, she lived. Because of a family who loved her intensely and cared for untiringly, she lived. But mostly because of the grace of God, she lived. That is the miracle of my mom’s day of epiphany…
And so it was. My mom’s whole life was an epiphany. She should have never taken her first breath. She should have died many times over, but she refused to stop living long enough to let Death catch up to her. She lived to graduate high school. She lived to work harder than I could ever dream of working. She lived to marry my the man she loved. She lived to give birth to two daughters of her own. She lived to bury her parents, and she lived to bury her husband. She lived until Death took her youngest daughter, my sister, Libby.
Life wasn’t so good after that. Her heart beat, but it hurt with an indescribable pain with each beat. She breathed, but each breath caught with the realization that Libby was gone. It took a lot, but Death had beaten her down. And finally, the woman who, by all rights, should have never breathed her first, breathed her last. She flew to Heaven where I know the rest of my family and the God who gave her such a remarkable life met her with open arms. The date was December 6, 2009, one month exactly before her 74th birthday. Medically, she died of a massive stroke, but I know better. I know that she died of a broken heart.
* pronounced as if it were spelled “Joann.”
Thanks to Aunt Bet (Mom’s younger sister who savors life at least as much as Mom did!) for help with some of the details of this story.