My mother developed breast cancer while she was carrying me in her womb. I do not know any of the details of the discovery and diagnosis of that cancer, but as a physician, I know that the extremely high concentration of hormones present during pregnancy greatly accelerates the growth and spread of breast cancer. In most cases of breast cancer diagnosed during early pregnancy, the medical recommendation given to save the life of the mother is termination of the pregnancy. My mother literally sacrificed her life to give birth to me. Despite aggressive treatment following my birth, she only lived a short time, and died at age 37, when I was 1 ½ years old. My brother was 13 years old and my sister was 5 years old at her death.
My grief-stricken dad, who was a very busy family doctor, was left with the daunting task of trying to raise 3 small children, while maintaining his medical practice. There was an additional burden on the medical personnel in our town, because this was near the peak of our country’s involvement in World War II. The doctors left at home were working at high-stress levels. Fortunately my dad had lots of physical and emotional support from family and friends, but still had to hire several ladies to do the cooking and cleaning in our home. Unfortunately for me, I don’t remember any of the people or events until I was 5 or 6 years old.
One of the ladies that I do recall is Lillian Singleton. The reason I remember her so well is she worked intermittently for our family for the next 8 to 10 years. She would later tell me stories of my early childhood; of things I had said and done and how she had “fallen in love with my brother, my sister and me from the very beginning.” Lillian was only 55 years old at the time she was employed, but seemed to be a very old but sweet lady. She and her husband Will lived in a modest home in the “colored quarters” across town. These were the years of racial segregation in our town and all across the South. Will and Lillian never had children, and I’m certain that some of her attraction and affection for us was related to her natural mothering instincts. Lillian always wore a starched white uniform with a black apron, which was typical for domestic help at the time, and I remember it was spot-less despite the many things she did cleaning the house and cooking meals for us. Her hair, which was graying, was always pulled back, and neatly pinned. Most of the time she had a wide smile, revealing teeth which appeared a bit too large for her mouth. Her upper teeth were so white and perfectly formed they had to be dentures.
When Lillian spoke, her lips didn’t seem to move much, but I had no trouble understanding her because she talked slowly while emphasizing many of her words. I don’t ever remember her scolding me, even though I know I was spoiled and like all children needed to be scolded and occasionally spanked. Lillian knew all the foods I enjoyed, and I could depend on her to prepare whatever I asked. There were very few things Lillian withheld from me. She would occasionally tell me, “Now don’t let on all the things I let you have, because the Doctor doesn’t want me to spoil you.” She told me later after I was grown she “always felt sorry for us children because we didn’t have a mother.” I do remember that she hugged me a lot, and frequently kissed me on the cheek with what seemed like “big, juicy kisses.” During my pre-teen years, those open expressions of affection were embarrassing when any of my buddies were present.
Dad re-married when I was 6 years old, and our step-mother, “Mom,” raised my brother, sister and me and loved us as her own children. They never had children together, so I always believed Mom made an exceptional sacrifice to provide a loving and caring home for children who were biologically not her own. After Mom assumed her role Lillian continued working but much less often. I never knew the reason and never asked, but suspected that there was tension between the two of them. I didn’t see Lillian very often after I left home to begin college and the years of training as a physician. Many years passed and I would perhaps see Lillian only once a year for only a brief visit.
Upon completion of my training, my wife Cathy and I returned to my home town to establish our life and raise our children. It wasn’t long before Lillian re-entered our life. Her husband Will had died of heart failure, and she was living alone. She had retired from domestic work, and once every few weeks would drive to our home for a visit, so she began to establish a relationship with Cathy and our 3 children. She especially loved telling them what I was like as a little boy, and particularly how she had spoiled me, in spite of “what the Doctor had said.” Our children loved hearing those stories with each one hoping that Lillian might somehow spoil them in the same way. Before she left our home, she would hug each one, and more often than not, kiss each one on the cheek. Our daughters also remembered how “wet and juicy” were the kisses that Lillian planted on their cheeks.
When Lillian became physically unable to drive her auto we would go to her home for visits, usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Her eyesight had become so poor her usually spotless house became more and more dusty and dirty. Cockroaches took advantage of her disabilities, but we never told her, thinking we might hurt her feelings. On more than one occasion Cathy and our daughters went to her house to dust and clean as much as possible, and especially the kitchen which needed more cleaning than the rest. We had the carpet replaced throughout her house, and in exchange Lillian insisted we have her antique RCA radio console, which we had always admired. All of us remember during the winter months how hot she kept her house, and to visit with her for more than an hour was extremely uncomfortable. With each visit we usually carried food, and she always appreciated our show of love. At the end of each visit, there was always the “big hug and the juicy kiss on the cheek.”
In remembering the past I am confident God sent special angels to watch over 3 little children who had lost their mother. One of the brightest and most loving of those angels was Lillian Singleton, who instead of having wings had long and strong arms capable not only of tireless work but were used to hug those children who needed special hugs. As one of the children so blessed I thank God He knew and sent Lillian and others to provide. Lillian’s life also reminds me I should live out Jesus’ words when He said, “As ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me (kisses and all).”