This week, Christmas week, is typically a source of wonderful memories and happiness. I'm no different than any of you. I am grateful for the blessings I currently have, that I have had in the past and, with the good Lord's grace, will have in the years to come.
But each year around this time, another memory bubbles to the surface, one that I rarely mention, not just out of a desire for discretion or in order to avoid spoiling the holiday season for others, but just because it's so intensely personal and painful.
But it was 10 years ago this week, on Dec. 24, 1999, that my mother passed away. Her name was Sue Hammer and, although her name is found in no history books or Google searches, she will live on in my heart as one of the great persons I have known.
Her memory stays with me, no matter where I go, no matter what I do. And, even now, a decade later, I occasionally hear about something and think that I should call her and tell her about it.
Anyone who has lost a parent will tell you that it's something that you never really "get over" or recover from, but something that stays with you as a constant reminder of loss. Ten years later, I still feel that loss. Luckily, mostly happy memories remain and submerge the sadness of her death.
I'm sad that she never got to know two of her three grandchildren and that she never got to see her youngest daughter become a respected lawyer and prosecutor who's helped put away hundreds of felons and gained the admiration of her state's law enforcement community.
It saddens me that she never got to meet my beautiful wife, Katie, or that she'll never get to spend an evening in our home, watching Pacers basketball or her beloved IU Hoosiers with us.
But when I think of her, I think of a strong, opinionated, occasionally hardheaded woman who was decades ahead of her time. Had she been born in another, less sexist era, she might have become a surgeon or attorney. Instead, she was a registered nurse, tending to the sick and injured.
She spent years as the chief nurse in the medical department of the old International Harvester plant on Brookville Road, which in its prime built diesel engines in its foundry. Dealing with molten steel, workers would frequently become injured and, on rare occasions, die.
She described holding one man in her arms, comforting him as his life drained away after a horrible accident severed two of his limbs. More frequently, though, she performed more routine tasks such as removing bits of glass from the eyes of workers and performing hearing tests, things that endeared her to her patients.
I remember her as a woman whose laugh could fill a house with pleasure, whose cooking was amazing and whose love for the small things in life was immense.
She was happiest during the summer, tending to row after row of tomato plants, slicing big, juicy tomatoes as a side dish for every meal. At the end of the summer, she'd spend days over giant steaming kettles canning them for the winter.
She read endlessly and her appetite ran mostly to trashy romance novels. But she read both Indianapolis daily newspapers from front to back, cursing them for their conservative viewpoints. Every now and then she'd get angry enough to cancel whichever one had most recently incensed her.
She shaped my passion for politics by talking about it constantly. I forgave her for supporting Ronald Reagan, because she'd met him while a nursing student and found him impressive. But she also supported Jimmy Carter, Bobby Kennedy and Bill Clinton — her test for a politician was the degree to which they supported the common man and woman.
She suffered a stroke in 1997 and was severely incapacitated, barely able to talk and completely unable to take care of herself. My father selflessly catered to her — largely without my help, a fact that will eternally torment me.
When she suffered another stroke and finally died, of course I was devastated. I came to the family house to spend those tragic hours with my sisters, my father and grandmother. We talked and mourned for hours and hours.
When it finally came time to sleep, I found it impossible to drift off. When I finally did, around 3 a.m., I had a dream which even today gives me chills to describe.
It was my mom, freed from her wheelchair and able to speak once again. She told me that she felt great, better than she had in years. She told me to not be too sad she was gone. She said she loved me, would always be proud of me and to stay strong.
I've since read that this is a common experience for those who've lost someone. But nobody will ever convince me that it wasn't her, speaking to me from another place where she was, in fact, healthy and happy once again.
I hope she is still there and I hope she is still proud of me. I am proud to have been her son and will always miss her. Her presence will never leave me.