A place and a person to remember
By Tom Bryant
You are not dead until there
isn’t a crumb of memory left
anywhere in the world.
— John D. MacDonald,
The Empty Copper Sea
There is a place hanging on a mountainside right off the Blue Ridge Parkway where a person can rest his soul. The place is known as the Sourwood Inn. It’s a lot more than the common definition of a bed and breakfast. There are 12 bedrooms situated in a classic mountain lodge, overlooking a beautiful, almost mystic valley. The lovely inn was built for rest, relaxation and, as I mentioned, restoring the soul.
It had been a sad, gray, melancholy time. A good friend had suddenly keeled over and was gone before the EMS could arrive. A cousin I hadn’t seen in years passed away with heart trouble. And my mother, 99 years old and still with the grace and fortitude of a Southern lady, passed away quietly after a small stay in the hospital and an even shorter visit to hospice. It was as if she didn’t want to inconvenience the family with a long, drawn out, sad time of dying. She was that kind of lady, always thinking of others.
My sister’s call about Mom came late one evening. It had been a typical Sandhills summer day, hot with a high humidity that sent folks searching for air-conditioning. I had waited until late in the afternoon to beat the heat and do some much needed yard work. With that finished, I sat back in the sunroom enjoying a cold beer. My cellphone was still in my pocket, and I answered its persistent, buzzing ring.
“Hey, Bonnie, how’re things on the farm?” My sister had been Mother’s caregiver, and they lived in the old plantation house that was built in 1830.
“Not good. Mom’s in the hospital. She fell this morning and is not doing well. I’m on my way back over there to talk to the doctor now.”
“OK. Linda and I will come on down as soon as I clean up a little.”
“No, don’t come now. Wait until I find out from the doc what’s going on. This could be it, Tommy. Mama looks terrible.”
After a short stay in the hospital, Mom was moved to hospice. It was exactly as we feared. She was ready, after all her years, to give up the fight.
Linda and I made it to the hospice building a little after 11 the next morning and entered the room to see Mom.
“Hey, Mom, it’s Tommy. I love you.” Mother was past communicating with anyone. She was in the bed, eyes closed, breathing hard. I couldn’t take it and went back out in the hall.
In just a few minutes, Harriet, my cousin, an excellent nurse who had been observing the efforts of the hospice nurses, came out behind me and said, “Tommy, your mother is gone.”
My other sister, Billie, standing next to me, said, “It’s as if she was waiting for you.”
The rest of the week was a blur. Folks from the old Mizpah Church did a wonderful job with Mom’s funeral. The pastor, an easy-going, caring young man, presented the service just as Mom had wanted, and members of the church put together an afternoon meal for the family.
Mother was laid to rest beside my dad, who died almost 50 years ago. They were finally reunited.
On the drive home, Tom, our son, was dozing in the passenger’s seat, and Linda was in the back seat.
“It was great for Art, Bryan and Sandy and Bob to drive all that way,” she said. Bob and Sandy live nearby in Southern Pines, and we don’t see them often enough. Art lives in Albemarle and is part of our duck-hunting crew; and Bryan, another hunting buddy, drove down from Burlington.
“Yep, remember what Mom always said, good friends are gold.” I was quiet as we motored toward home, thinking about her and all her wise sayings and how she would be missed.
“Babe,” I said. “We really need to get away for a while. What if we go up to the mountains and stay at the Sourwood for a few days? We could kick back, read and maybe ride into Asheville for a bit.”
“That’s a wonderful idea. I’ll call them right now and see if they have a room available.”
We were in luck. Susan, the young lady who runs the inn, said that our favorite room was available and we were welcome. The room that we have stayed in several times is located on the second floor and has screened French doors leading to a small balcony overlooking the valley and mountain ridges beyond.
After a four-hour ride out of the sweltering heat of the Piedmont, we breathed a sigh of relief when we finally saw the mountain ranges to the west. We reached the Parkway; then it was just a short distance to Elk Mountain Road and the little one-lane, firebreak-wide driveway to the inn.
After we had unloaded and settled in our room, Linda went down to the great room and brought back homemade cookies and lemonade. I, on the other hand, decided to kick back on the balcony with three fingers of good Scotch I had been saving for a special occasion. The sun was beginning to set and a smoky gray mist was rising out of the valley.
Linda had put together a little picnic supper knowing that the inn would not be serving dinner that Wednesday evening, and we didn’t want to ride into Asheville after our five-hour trek across the state. We ate out on the balcony and watched as the sun set behind the inn and darkness crept over the valley. Linda went inside to read, and I watched the shadows and listened as nocturnal wildlife started calling and moving about the woods. After a while I went in, picked up the book I was reading and got ready for bed. I left the doors to the outside open, only latching the screens.
In the middle of the night, I was suddenly awakened. It was as if something or some noise had jolted me from my deep sleep. Groggily, I sat on the side of the bed, trying not to wake Linda, and heard the culprits that had roused me from my slumber. It was a pair of barred owls. They were evidently having a dispute over territorial rights and were arguing like a couple of Southern lawyers. I eased out to the balcony to listen.
The dark sky, full of stars, looked as if it had been sprinkled with diamonds, and the Milky Way seemed to be hovering right over the inn. I watched and listened as the owls moved down the ridge toward the valley, and I thought about Mother and a conversation we had before she became so conflicted with dementia.
“Tommy, don’t you be so upset when I leave this Earth. I’ve had a good life and I’m ready.”
“Mom, you’re going to be here for a lot more years,” I replied.
“No, son, I’m not. And listen to me. My death is not going to be an ending. It’s a new beginning. Think of it as if I’m just heading out on a big adventure and will see you again some day. I won’t see you anytime soon, though, because you have a lot of living yet to do in this world.”
I listened as the sounds of the owls faintly drifted up from the valley, and then they were silent. A meteor streaked across the northern sky. I stood and stretched so hard I could hear my tendons creak. It was as if a heavy weight fell from my shoulders, and I silently went back into the room and to bed.
I dreamed about meteors and stars and Mother. PS
Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.