How many great people have you met?

When we’re asked that question, we reflexively start cataloguing our brushes with famous celebrities, performers, and ballplayers. But they’re not great; they’re lucky. And despite their insane good fortune, any supermarket checkout aisle reveals the long trail of broken families, hearts, and promises most of them leave behind as they ego-crash through others’ lives.

My mom, who died last month at 90, was a great person. And the odds are, you know someone who’s great in the same way that she was.

She was an aspiring model in New York City until the night she met my father. He told her that night that he was going to marry her, and, not long after, he did. Five kids followed in quick succession.

One horrible day, she walked into my brother Johnny’s room to discover that the worst thing had happened: her infant son had died. It nearly broke her, but eventually she was able to pull herself together and persevere for the four of us.

My parents always had more kids than money, but mom insisted on sending us to the best schools. She yearned to finish college, but our education always came first. So, she worked every hour she could spare to pay our tuition. She dreamed of seeing the world, but our needs always came first. So, she contented herself by experiencing the world between the covers of hundreds of books.

And then one sunny day, she found the four of us had all flown away: She was free.

She continued to work, but sold her suburban home in Houston and moved downtown. She became a regular at cultural events and bought season tickets to the opera. Mom began a fiery correspondence with David Gockley, the general director of the Houston Grand Opera, about the more salacious aspects of his productions. Most of her letters began, “How dare you!” To his credit, Mr. Gockley always fired back a thoughtful response.

She suddenly started throwing together shoestring trips to Europe and the Far East with old friends from high school. We’d get postcards from the other side of the world when we had absolutely no idea she was even out of town.

Mom was always very grateful that when her brothers came home from World War II, they had pooled their money and sent her off to one year of college in Virginia. When she talked to us about it years later, her voice sounded different and you could see in her eyes how joyful she was at the memory of it.

And then her life’s dream came true. At the age of 72, and while still working full- time, mom somehow finagled a scholarship to the University of St. Thomas, and — proclaiming that it was her dream to die a junior — began pursuing, part-time, a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

She sat in the front of every class, because she had perfectly prepared herself and was eagerly anticipating any question the professor might ask. The professors loved her because her enthusiasm was contagious. Her fellow students were intrigued by her because she brought to the classroom the perspective of seven decades of struggle and sacrifice. For a time, most of her friends were a third her age. Somehow, her story got out, and Houston’s PBS station produced a short documentary about her life.

At 80, failing health forced her to quit school, a junior and an honor student.

One of the last times I spoke to her, I asked how she was doing. She replied, “I’m just waiting for angels to take me. And if they’re not angels, I’m not going!”

I told her that she would have been great if she’d concentrated on a business career instead of the four of us. She snapped at me and said she’d done exactly what she wanted to do: raise four great kids.

Mom knew the great secret of life: If you sacrifice for those you love, there is no sacrifice, there’s only love.

If you have someone in your life who has sacrificed for you, give them a hug and thank them for their greatness, before angels take them.


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