My mother's memory slowly slipped away into the last decade. Gradually, the darkness erased the names, faces and celebrations that had filled his extraordinary life. When he died a week ago, the remnants of his mother's memories had been reduced to an old address in Rome, in Ga., To the telephone number of his 89-year-old sister and to the faces of his three children.
Watching dementia slowly chew the mind of a loved one is a particularly painful way to lose them. For those who loved my mother, the journey was so difficult because Mary Jo Scarborough was such a fierce and concentrated presence for 86 years, whether she ran the "Chorus of the Alleluia" during the services of Christmas Eve, speaking Republican politics at the table or cheering on his children during sporting events.
Despite its intensity, my first memory of Mom is her reassuring appearance by my side when a midnight storm roars over our neighborhood on the outskirts of Atlanta. He sang gently "Where Is Love?" From the musical "Oliver!" And then he told me how reciting the 23rd Psalm aloud would bring me peace. He was not 4 years old, but my mother's presence has always done so.
The youngest of three children, I had my mother for me after my older brothers left to go to school in the morning. My first memories revolve around her teaching me to throw a soccer ball, hit a baseball and play a guitar. He made me take piano lessons that he taught to older students, compete in Bible exercises with older competitors, and play soccer in a row against boys three years older than me.
But regardless of the challenge, the mother has always provided the blessed certainty that I could overcome, think and crush anyone I met. Somehow, he convinced me that his faith in my abilities was unique, and it was only after his funeral that I learned that his mother's extraordinary security was equally directed at her older children. My brother and sister both confirmed during the funeral service that Mom told them they could succeed in everything they tried, and that this insurance continued even at times when they failed.
But it wasn't quite my experience.
One of my favorite memories of Mary Jo Scarborough would have made most of the child psychiatrists tremble nervously. It happened in the middle of a baseball season when I was leading the standings with a .450 batting average. On this particular day, however, I was ingloriously destroyed with the bases loaded to lose the game for my team. After banging a helmet on the ground and puffing back at my parents' car, I announced that I would leave baseball forever. My mother's answer? "Well, if you can't do better, I'd like you to do it. At this point, you're just embarrassing your family."
When I told that story years later to a horrified friend who was also a child psychiatrist, he shouted in disbelief: "Dear God!" And he asked me how he felt.
"It made me feel like I needed to pull out less," I replied with a laugh.
The mother did not distribute participation trophies. He believed that a lot was expected of those who had been given a lot. Whining has never been allowed and "good enough" has never been good enough. Even after my first re-election as a young Congressman, my parents were stunned to see that I had won with only 73% of the votes.
"Who the hell was the other 27 percent?" They kept asking for the next few months.
That drive to success was transmitted to me, and without the emotional baggage one might expect, I think, because I could even fill a hundred of these columns with stories of how much my mother loved her husband and her children intensely. We always knew that we were his top priority.
Mom and I were emotionally inseparable for 55 years, and while she was dying, I knew her life should have ended the same way my memories of her had begun. I whispered blessed assurances to his ear as he struggled during his last week on Earth for his last breaths. I knew she could hear the silent words I uttered, just as I knew what she would have whispered in response if she could answer: "Joey, be more careful with your words. If you keep talking about Republicans, you could just elect a Democrat."