Her Life: Climbing Those Stairs…To Heaven
I started this draft shortly after discontinuing my mother’s treatment. The neurologist at Loyola University had informed me that minimal gains from intensive radiation were to be weighed against the more negative conditions my mother would endure in the days and months to come. He had suggested I up my mother’s steroids for the short-term, hoping she would gain responsiveness and climb back to a better baseline that had been lacking upon his consultation. She did not climb back.
Donna Clark was a simple woman; of simple tastes; but that simplicity does not belie her hidden complexity as a overwhelmingly generous, forthright, fighter for the underdogs in life. What she did was often unseen – as she never sought credit or the public eye. She made the choice to join the U.S. Marines in 1970 that would be important to her life in immeasurable ways. She met her only husband and gave birth to me while stationed at Quantico, Virginia. She maintained a marriage for a decade when many others would have called it quits in less than one year, enduring physical and emotional tirades the likes of which I have only seen in the most brazen Hollywood send-ups. Her painful marriage and divorce were very real. And she never dated again because of it.
A hint of her metal: We often did not have a car – or rather – her husband left her without one to do chores, like laundry. She and I would load up a little red wagon and walk two miles in oppressive heat to the laundry mat on Cowan Road in Winchester, Tennessee. Sometimes we had a dog, Lady or Runt, and they would come along too. She made sure she had quarters for me to play Ms. Pacman at the mat.
She later came north with her clothes and her strong shoulders to Lowell, Indiana, her hometown, seeking shelter and a rebuild of her life. She found work as a consignment shop employee, soon to be owner, where for twenty-three years she tag ten of thousands of clothes, carrying them all up and down stairs, greeted everyone with a smile, and never made much more than rent and food money. She was happiest in Neat Repeats because it was soon hers to put her best efforts into daily.
She raised me to respect the idea of an education. She attempted several times to complete college courses – coming up only 3 credits short of an associate’s accounting degree – but money or time or my failings stop her from that ultimate goal. She saw to it that I graduate from Purdue in 1996, which was very special to her, probably even more than to myself. We took a few pictures around Stewart Center, ate at pizza joint in the Levee, and toured campus as we had many times before. (It took place seventy years to the day of her father’s birth.)
I remember later moving out of a 4th floor apartment with my mother assisting me. It was the first time I realized my mother was getting older as she collapsed from exhaustion of climbing stairs, a task she did so much in her life.
Her first battle with cancer came in 2004. She lost a kidney, and rebounded well physically, but would lose some of her drive as her shop closed for good in 2006. She still continued to walk and climb stairs though; she delivered papers for nearly fifteen years while maintaining her shop and also working part-time at the Lowell Library for seven years. She adult tutored, tried teaching volleyball to 4th grade girls, played softball well (even on the Marine Corps traveling team), and adored her Chicago Cubs. She wrote very little – only when she was trying to solve a problem did she express herself the most – but she did send out Christmas Cards with letters religiously to those she made friendships with in all avenues of her life. She rarely got mad – or lacked understanding with me – and was there for me as I made some really ignorant choices in my post-college career.
Even in her last days, she walked and climbed the steps of our little apartment in Merrillville. She is destined to climb a set of stairs that will lead to a bustling shop, where she will be loved always, and the Cubs she loves will win every, single, game they play.
The Marines are climbers; Donna climbed further than most in this life.
God Bless You Mom!