My little runnin' buddy is gone.
If you've seen me out and about in the past 12 years — theater, concert, restaurant, even the grocery store — you've seen her, too, all 85 pounds (soaking wet), 5 feet tall, impeccably dressed, my mom, Peggy LeBaron. If I went, she went with me.
Years ago, when I was one of two female newspaper publishers in Texas, convention itineraries always included "activities for wives" while we "bigshots'' went to our meetings. That she qualified as my wife became a running joke between us.
We'd sit on the back row at shows, convinced that two fellows 7 feet tall followed us around to sit in the row ahead, no matter where we'd go. We often flipped up our seats and propped ourselves on the edge of them, not willing to miss a sound or scene.
The one exception was what we called "The Royal Mezzanine" at Richey Suncoast Theatre in New Port Richey, the little triangle booth that the late Charlie Skelton built catty-corner just below the balcony. We'd sit in those plush chairs and feel like the monarchs of all we surveyed.
But not any more. On Monday morning, my mom's heart, 98 years, 9 months old, finally gave out, never mind that she insisted to the end that she was absolutely NOT having a heart attack. Her theory was if you said you "had" something — a cold, bronchitis, pneumonia — then you owned it. If you denied you had it, it went over there somewhere, maybe to someone or something else or just out into space.
She was a wonderful, marvelous companion, game for almost anything and excited at every new adventure. We once flew to London and were fogged out, so our plane went on to Birmingham and we took a bus back to Victoria Station in the heart of London, 15 minutes before curtain time for Bubbling Brown Sugar. We made it, empty stomachs and all, then fell into bed to recover. I woke up in a daze shortly after sunrise, only to see her perched fully dressed, in her high-heeled boots, impatiently tapping her foot. "We're burning daylight," she said. "Let's get going." We walked the width and breadth of London that whole day, and she was still ready for a show that night, while I, 25 years her junior, was almost crawling from fatigue.
A few years ago, when The Producers first came to the Straz Center in Tampa, she again wore some of those confounded high heels. As we neared the center, her heel caught between the concrete step and a metal band in front of it and she tumbled down five stairs, scrapping great swaths of skin off her forearm and leg and blacking both eyes. Horrified onlookers started dialing 911, but she stopped them. "We bought these tickets a year ago, and I'm not missing this show," she said sternly.
We went back to the public library restroom, where I tried to stop the bleeding, but couldn't. Finally, I folded a dozen slick toilet seat covers and wrapped them tight around her arm and leg and secured them with masking tape. She took her seat in the mezzanine, propped her leg on the arm of the seat in front of her, and drip-dropped on the floor — but she didn't miss a line or lyric (though I didn't hear a word, worrying about her).
Another time, she climbed the hill to Hearst Castle and partially descended the Grand Canyon six weeks after she'd had major abdominal surgery. She once broke her heel climbing around the rafters over our garage storage area looking for some holiday decoration. That didn't stop her a minute. She'd sling her foot up on the kitchen counter and go on as though nothing was amiss.
I always called her a tough ol' bird. And even late Sunday, mere hours before she left for good, she was planning visits from a grandson and hoping she'd feel well enough to go see her favorite show, Evita, in Tampa.
And it's Evita I caught myself humming a few weeks ago, when she came to stay with me after a bout in the hospital with bronchitis, as she, like Evita, had started slowing down. "Your little body's slowly breaking down," I hummed absent-mindedly. "You're losing speed, you're losing strength — not style — that goes on flourishing forever . . . If you climb one more mountain, it could be your last."
Like Evita, she physically protested: "Have you ever seen me defeated? Don't you forget what I've been through and yet I'm still standing."
She had started apologizing to me because she was finally requiring some home care. "Hey," I'd tell her. "You took care of me for 21 years (indeed, when I started college, she went to work full time and sent me all but $10 of her monthly check so I wouldn't have loans when I graduated). So I'll take care of you for 21. So far, it's been 12 years, so you have nine to go, and after that, you're on your own," I'd tease. She would have been 108, but I was convinced she'd make it — and so was she.
The last words we said to each other Sunday was when I called to tell her good night: "I love you," she said. "I love you, too," I responded. Then she added, "You're my rock. I don't know what I'd do without you."
Same here, Mom. I don't know what I'm going to do without you.