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Saw God in a Tribute to a Mom

One last column for a one-of-a-kind mom

By Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press Columnist 11:03 p.m. EST January 24, 2015

(Photo: Family photo)

Over the years in this space, I have, occasionally, written about my mother.

I once wrote a Halloween column on how she made me the Mummy. (She wrapped me in toilet paper, which was fine until it started raining.)

I wrote about how she marched me into the library after a librarian had told me “that book’s too hard for you” and my mother yelled, “Never tell a child something is too hard for him! And never THIS child!”

I wrote about how she insisted I stay in college, even when my father lost his job. How she refused to learn e-mail because she feared I would stop calling her. How I beckoned her to the stage at the Fox Theatre during a charity benefit, and a friend yelled out, “She’s in the bathroom!”

I wrote what it was like feeding her after her stroke, a spoonful at a time. And, finally, what it was like to stare at her as she withered, wondering whether she knew me at all.

The difference between all those columns and this one is pretty simple.

I could show her those.

I can’t show her this.

She is gone.

Funny, fierce and loyal

We lost her gradually, first her balance, then her movement, then her speech, her recognition and finally, last weekend, her breath. She did our family a final kindness going that way, because she was too great a force to disappear all at once. Instead, like one of those NASA rockets, she stripped away piece by piece en route to the heavens.

How can I tell you about my mother? How do I fit her 84 years into words? She didn’t change the world. Only our world. She didn’t run a country. Only our country.

DFP albom column mot.JPGRhoda Albom, Mitch Albom’s mother, has died at age 84. (Photo: Family photo)

She lost her father when she was 15, and with him went her dreams of college and medical school. Instead, she became a teenaged parent to her heartbroken mother and younger brother.

She married the only man she ever dated, my father, when she was 20. They wed on Christmas Eve, because the restaurant was available. For six years they lived with my grandmother, who made no apologies for bursting through their bedroom at any hour. No surprise, my folks remained childless until they moved out.

How can I tell you about my mother? She went by Rhoda, Rho, Aunt Rho, Mrs. A or Bubby. She was funny and fierce and loyal and brilliant and while she never became a doctor, everyone ran to her for advice. She was loving, wise and patient and she cared not a whit what the world thought. She used to say, “The masses are asses.”

She volunteered as a clown in hospitals and in fund-raising for ALS. She taught herself interior design and became one of the most-respected designers in the Philadelphia area. In death, she leaves her mark all over the country, in armoires, ottomans, wallpapers and throw pillows.

Remembering her voice

She loved to walk while holding her children’s hands, she loved to sing and twirl us around in a dance. She loved to jump into our affairs, no matter how much we might resist, and she once actually said to me, “Mitchie, if you let me, I could straighten out your life.”

Yes. She called me Mitchie. Only a mother can do that, right? It’s funny. Over the last five years, as she slowly slipped away, I lost the sound of her voice. I only saw the suffering body in front of me, the locked arms, the grimaced expression, the 80-pound skeleton wearing an adult diaper.

The horror of that seemed to muzzle my memory. But now that she is gone, her voice is coming back. And so is the reminder of how truly, truly loved I was, and how much I miss it.

How can I tell you about my mother? This might sound silly. But in the 1941 movie ”Dumbo,” there’s a scene where the captured mother elephant, through the bars of a cage, cradles little Dumbo in her trunk and sings:

Baby mine, don’t you cry

Baby mine, dry your eyes

Rest your head, close to my heart

Never to part

Baby of mine

I choke up whenever I see that, because I know that feeling. Forever loved, forever comforted, through whatever bars may separate you, never to part. If this is the last column I write about my mother, then you should know. That was what it felt like to be her son. And it was glorious.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to


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Saw God in Seeing


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Saw God Ferrying the Dead

Ferrying the Dead of Both Sides in a Cruel Afghan War


Malik Abdul Hakim, who has lost two sons in the conflict, delivers the bodies of Afghan soldiers and insurgents to their relatives. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — On the brindled plains of southern Afghanistan, Malik Abdul Hakim is death’s ferryman.

He collects the bodies of soldiers and police officers killed in areas of Taliban dominance and takes them home. From government centers, he carries slain insurgents back to their families, negotiating roads laced with roadside bombs.

Mr. Hakim, a slender 66-year-old with a white beard that hangs to his chest, laughs when asked what drives him. He never envisioned he would have this life, crossing front lines for strangers. But he finds meaning in his work, delivering a measure of dignity to families scarred by war.

Still, he prays that one day he will be out of a job.

“Every time I see a body, I pray there will not be another,” he says in a soft and oddly youthful voice. “I will be thankful when there is peace and stability, and I no longer have work.”

Until then, he says, he will not be deterred. Not by the wretched smell of corpses, the physical demands of lifting the bodies or the psychological toll inflicted by a front-row seat to the atrocities of war. Not even by the death of his two sons at insurgents’ hands.


Mr. Hakim with Afghan Red Crescent workers in Kandahar, said he had picked up 313 bodies in the last year alone. His work began seven years ago in his native Zhare. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

“All these years, I have done this for God,” he says. “I call both sides my brothers because they are Afghans and Muslims. I don’t want favors or position. My only aim is to help those in need.”

That a man can shoulder such a burden is a sad feature of the prolonged war in Afghanistan, which grows more deadly by the week. The Afghan security forces lost more men last year than in any previous year, as did the Taliban. Since he started seven years ago, Mr. Hakim has carried 713 bodies, including 313 in the past year alone.

His efforts have tracked the violence from the bombed-out remnants of airstrikes to the vehicles shattered by roadside bombs to the churned landscape of intensified fighting between the Afghan government and the Taliban now that the American troop presence has dwindled to a token force.

“He has stayed neutral — he is not against us and he is not against the Taliban,” said Mohammad Masoom Khan Qadiri, the district police chief in Zhare, in Kandahar Province. “He is very much loved by the people whom he has helped throughout these years.

Esmatullah, whose two brothers were returned by Mr. Hakim last year after the Taliban executed them, said his family revered the man. “My elderly mother doesn’t pray for her sons first,” said Esmatullah, who goes by one name. “First she prays for him. That’s how much she admires his work.”

Mr. Hakim’s work began by chance after the death of a famed Taliban commander in Zhare, his native district. The insurgents wanted the body of their leader returned, and neighbors suggested they ask Mr. Hakim, who was volunteering for the Afghan Red Crescent at the time.

Mr. Hakim decided to give it a try. He drove to the district center and made his entreaty. As he waited, the district police commander had a question of his own for Mr. Hakim: Why had he never offered to collect the government bodies?

“I told them it never occurred to me to do any of this,” he said with a wry smile. “I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do this for the Taliban.”

Eventually, the government agreed to release the body, but on the condition that the Taliban would do the same.

“I wasn’t expecting this war to go on so long or to carry so many bodies,” Mr. Hakim said, plucking at a set of green prayer beads. “I thought it would only be these first few.

“Who would think about this crazy job for themselves?” he asked.

As the war intensified, so did his work and the danger that accompanied it. He demanded that both sides give him paperwork identifying him as a neutral party, so that neither would unwittingly attack him. He carries the documents at all times.

A few years ago, he began receiving assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross. His area also expanded to include parts of Helmand, Zabul and Oruzgan provinces. One day last summer, he carted 28 Taliban bodies after an exceptionally brutal fight in Zhare.

Days like that worry him. Time has done nothing to bleed either side of its will. With foreign troops fully off the battlefield, the death toll is rising.

“They have been at war for 13 years, and if they fight another 13 years they will not see peace,” he says. “They must sit down and speak with one another.”

Such advice has not come cheaply for Mr. Hakim. He has lost two sons and a son-in-law to the war.

Five years ago, his son-in-law, Ismatullah, drove a water truck on a road construction crew. One morning, he brought two of Mr. Hakim’s sons with him to Khakrez, a district directly north of the city of Kandahar.

The men never returned.

Mr. Hakim knew the area. Months earlier, he had delivered two Taliban bodies to a commander there. But the commander now refused to divulge anything, offering only that the fate of his family was in the hands of the Taliban court. Mr. Hakim waited four days, then left.

Distraught, Mr. Hakim drove to Quetta, Pakistan, to meet with a senior Taliban member to plead for information. He returned home with an official letter instructing another local commander to take him to his sons.

A few days later, he met the commander along a nondescript stretch of the highway in Khakrez. The man was leery. He asked Mr. Hakim’s driver whether the courier’s sons, Azizullah and Ruhullah, had been working for the government.

After an hour’s drive, the convoy pulled onto a desolate plain, where the Taliban conveyed one final insult before vanishing down the road.

“They told us to smell in the area and we would find the bodies,” Mr. Hakim recalled, weeping slightly.

After searching for an hour in the blistering heat, Mr. Hakim found his dead children buried in a shallow grave. He dug for two hours with his hands.

He drove straight to his family’s cemetery in Zhare. He did not stop at his home in Kandahar city so his wife could say goodbye. Her boys were no longer recognizable.

“She tells me I buried them alive,” he says, his voice rusted with sadness. “To this day, my wife cries to me that I never showed her our sons’ faces.”

He might have refused to aid the Taliban any longer and taken another job or continued to farm on his land. But he buried his bitterness with his sons.

“If it took me this long to find my sons, imagine how long it must take ordinary people,” he said, stifling tears. “I told myself I had to continue what I’m doing, for the sake of the powerless.”

Tom–Bloomfield Twp, MI

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Saw God in a Teddy Bear

Breeze and Buttons
Hours after his birth, Breeze was found stumbling around by a farmer. The new-born foal had been abandoned by his mother so the farmer
took him to the Devon-based Mare and Foal Sanctuary where they cared for him. What happened next is heart-warming. One of the staff
put a four-foot giant Teddy Bear called Buttons into the stall with Breeze.

The foal was instantly attracted to him. He had found a comforting replacement for his mother. The two are inseparable.
The caregivers expect Breeze to be fine, thanks to the farmer who rescued him and to those who cared enough to take this little Cutie in.
Special thanks to Buttons.


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Saw God in Love

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

- Martin Luther King Jr.


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Saw God in a Phone Call

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Jim Palma played one year of freshman basketball at the University of Miami in the 1940s. His name appears in no official program records, and since he wasn’t on the varsity squad, he’s not recognized as a letter winner at the school.

To Miami coach Jim Larranaga, that’s irrelevant.

[+] EnlargeJim Larranaga

Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsJim Larranaga dedicated Miami’s game against Duke to Jim Palma, an 88-year-old former Hurricanes basketball player who died of pancreatic cancer shortly after his alma mater defeated the Blue Devils.

“We have a saying,” Larranaga said, “Once a Cane, always a Cane.”

That’s why, last week, Larranaga took a break from preparing for what became Miami‘s win over Duke and spent a few minutes on the phone with Palma. Larranaga told the man, whom he had never met and will never meet, that the Hurricanes were dedicating their game against the Blue Devils to him.

“He was thrilled,” Palma’s son, Larry, told The Associated Press. “And that was the last phone call he ever took.”

Miami won that game 90-74.

Jim Palma died Sunday morning in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications related to pancreatic cancer, his son said. He was 88. For the 65 years between his graduation from Miami until his death, the Navy veteran who decided to become a Hurricane when World War II ended could often be found wearing the school’s orange and green.

That was why Palma’s daughter-in-law decided to write a letter to Miami’s athletic department last week, telling them his story, how he was in hospice care and asking if someone could send a team photo or something to lift Jim Palma’s spirits. Her note eventually found its way to men’s basketball director of operations Adam Fisher, who alerted Larranaga.

He asked Fisher to get Jim Palma on the phone.

“Coach was incredibly genuine,” Larry Palma said. “He was asking, ‘How tall are you? What position did you play? How was your team? What did you study? What was your job? How are your kids? Did your kids play?’ It was not like a mail-it-in phone call. He really cared, and at the end of the conversation, he said his team was dedicating the Duke game to Jim Palma.”

We have a saying: Once a Cane, always a Cane.

- Miami coach Jim Larranaga

The game started at 9 p.m., way past what was Jim Palma’s bedtime. He stayed up later than usual, going to bed when Miami led 14-12. Larry Palma woke him at midnight to give him some medication, told him the final score and watched his father’s face light up.

“He was just elated,” Larry Palma said. “And I don’t know if what happened next was fate or whatever.”

The next morning, the light wasn’t there.

Jim Palma had clearly started to slip away, and on Sunday, he was gone.

“We’re a sports family,” Larry Palma said. “For this to happen, it was a great family moment and a tribute to my dad and really a tribute to Hurricane sports. Little things can be huge things at the right moment in time — to me, that’s what I take from this.”

Larranaga believes the same.

His philosophy on stories like this one goes back to when he got the phone call that his father had been diagnosed with bone cancer and that he needed to find him a doctor. Unsure of where to begin, Larranaga called his high school coach, the famed Jack Curran of Archbishop Molloy in New York.

Curran told him not to worry about anything. Larranaga’s father got an appointment to see a renowned doctor the next day. For the next seven months until his death, his father got the best care possible.

“That stayed with me,” Larranaga said.

So he pays it forward, whenever he can, and does so quietly. In the past few weeks, he has invited a cancer-stricken girl and her family to a Hurricanes game, taken his team to the Homestead Air Reserve Base to pay tribute to troops and tell them that his team with players from many different nations is thankful for them, and reached out to a dying man to bring him a little peace.

“I know he doesn’t want to pat himself on the back,” Larry Palma said, “but my daughters played college sports. I know how busy it is. He had better things to do on the day before they played Duke. But my dad, he was a Cane for life, and for Coach to do what he did meant so much to our family.”


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Saw God in a Friend Called to Heaven

Last summer, Peg sent me a birthday card apologizing for being several months late, because as she put it: “The cancer is doing its thing.”

“I’m OK,” she explained, “but I think I’m probably only going to be around for another six months.”

It was quintessential Peg, as blunt as she was kind, as tough as she was soft, and with the singular courage that enabled her to say she was “OK” in one breath and that she had six months left to live in the next.

Along with the card, she’d enclosed a colorful cocktail napkin that read, “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning, the devil says “Oh crap, she’s up.”

That, too, was classic Peg: a fiercely faith-adhering woman even when the doctrine of her Catholic church clashed with her open heart (“Thank God for Pope Francis,” she’d said in a phone call in September) and especially when life’s deck of cards dealt her more than anyone’s fair share of calamity.

Born Margaret Moira O’Brien in 1949, Peg was the youngest of Bill and Mary Jane O’Brien’s three daughters. She was raised in Grosse Pointe Farms. Bill and Mary Jane were among my parents’ oldest friends from Chicago. Peg attended the Academy of Sacred Heart and went on to St. Mary’s College in Indiana. She was likely on track to marry and have a family when, in 1985, Bill and Mary Jane, both 67 at the time, died in a fire in their Lake Shore Drive home in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Arson investigators said flammable fluid had been spread in a first-floor pantry and an adjacent den, but they never arrested anyone. Because Bill was a vice president in labor relations for Chrysler, and early on, had been a FBI agent, there were whispers that this was some kind of mob hit.

I remember the memorial service at St. Paul’s by the Lake — my mother in visible shock, haunted by the thought of Mary Jane, because she’d been found at the top of the stairs in her nightgown, her wristwatch stopped at 3:03 a.m.

To be sure, I never fully appreciated the sledge-hammer grief that thwarted any plans for a carefree, happily ever after for Peg. When I later moved to Chicago, newly divorced, unemployed and completely self-absorbed, Peg took me under her wing, as was her way with any lost soul: doormen, custodians and bag ladies. Her bounty of compassion prompted one friend to conclude that while she worked at Continental Bank, International Harvester and as a writer, her real profession was a humanitarian.

In the days following 9/11 when the rest of us were hunkered down in front of our TVs too panic-stricken to move, Peg typed up an invitation: “Cookies and a Kind Word” and slipped it under each of the doors on the 15th floor of her high-rise condo on Chicago’s lakefront. “Dear Neighbors,” it said. “I believe that the more we are communal, the more we spread peace and hope resonating in our broken world. So, as a small, or maybe bigger than we know, act to bring love and counter fear, let’s get together and have some tea and cookies with our 15th floor friends to be.”

After tea was served, she led the group in St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love.” She explained to Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, who later wrote about Peg’s outreach: “I like it because it’s not too Christian; it covers everybody.”

After I received the card, I called Peg and we talked for almost an hour. I was so struck by her acceptance: “I told the doctors it’s not like I’m waiting for any grandchildren to be born, I’d just as soon make my way to heaven.”

Peg had estimated six months about right; she died on Nov. 29. In mid-December, my best friend (also a lifelong friend of Peg’s) and I drove to Chicago for her memorial service. Because Peg wouldn’t have it any other way, we Christmas shopped on the Magnificent Mile the night before and went on an early morning run on the beach before the service.

Peg handpicked every scripture passage, reading, hymn and psalm. In fact, the priest said he’d really struggled because Peg’s instructions for the mass was 25 pages long. We cried and we laughed and we prayed. But most of all, we felt loved by Peg, which, of course was per Peg’s orders.

So while our hearts were measurably heavy, there was great comfort in the knowledge that if Peg could elicit from the devil an “Oh crap she’s up!” surely St. Peter said upon her arrival: “Thank God, you’re home!” Marnie Rich Keenan Detroit News

Pat–Scottsdale, AZ

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Saw God in a Rescue


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Saw God in a Thank You


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Saw God Playing “Catch Phrase”

Tonight we celebrated my nephew’s 13th birthday at my sister’s house. It was a crazy, busy weekend for all so my sister just grabbed some pizzas and we had a casual dinner watching football and celebrating her youngest child’s special day.

One of the gifts he received was the game Catch Phrase. It is a game where everyone tries to guess a chosen word or phrase with the clues given by one other player. We had my parents, two of my sisters and their husbands, my three kids, my two nephews and my husband and I all playing (along with my little nieces and nephew running around in the middle of the group). As we passed around the “clue machine” the laughs kept coming. At one point my older sister and I were brought to tears by our dad and his hysterical and awful clues. My stomach actually hurt from laughing so hard. Nothing is better than being with family and laughing together. It was the perfect night!


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