The wit and wisdom of Mrs. Whale carries on | Whale’s Tales

I have not written much in this space about my mother.

Not because I didn’t love her. I did. It’s just that she was not a talker-at-length like dad. He was the more emotional one, whose eyes would tear up at sentimental moments. From him the long-winded, dadly explanations. She was more pithy with her words and her tears.

In his unguarded moments, dad talked in tones of wonder about her. I don’t think he ever truly understood her. But I know he loved her.

See, Irene Whale was remarkable. At moments when others around her were losing their heads, the stuff whereof God had composed her shone brightly.

How much of that came naturally to this daughter of the drowsy Eastern Washington town of Oroville, and how much was owed to the nurse she became, whom few things could ruffle after all the years she served in Valley Medical Center’s emergency room, I can’t say.

My dad told me about the night a moth flew into his ear, and as he hopped from leg to leg, uttering profanities, she managed to calm him enough the remove the offender. Or the day he’d convinced himself he was having a heart attack, and she told him calmly: “No, George, it’s just pleurisy.”

Her preternatural calm at such moments seemed for some weird reason to rattle him. How could she not be as frantic as he was? In the telling of such tales as these, he’d shake his head, and conclude with a “your mother …”

She also had a long memory, and when he got something wrong, she patiently prepared for the day she’d lay him low with overwhelming proof that she’d been right all along.

Like when he butted into the routines she’d established for us kids, one of which forbade giving us late-night snacks, in this case doling out sandwiches at bed time.

Sandwiches she knew we would not eat.

“Nonsense,” he’d reply.

For two months, she collected the sandwiches we hadn’t eaten that we’d stowed away under our beds, and stored them patiently in a large bag away from dad’s eyeballs. It must have been a delicious moment for her when she dumped all those sandwich brickettes out in front of him. She told that story often, and always with a satisfied smile.

Mom also had her own way of shutting down another tiresome inquiry from some cheeky pipsqueak about dinner. No word salad from her, no sirree bob.

“Poison ickies,” she’d say without looking up from whatever she was reading. Or, with equal word economy, “slop doodle.”

One big thing about her: she was one of those long distance runners of pain. Yes, that headache was killing her, but she didn’t complain, just went on with things.

I only saw her cry on a few occasions, for instance the death of my brother, and when the inevitability of her own death hit her in January 2006. I am confident that she knew the score from the terrible moment she saw the blood gushing from herself in the bathroom at St. Matthew Episcopal Church and threw herself into his arms.

“She was completely unstrung,” dad recalled. He was all the more shaken because he knew how bad things would have to be to break her.

Now I am the one with the terminal cancer. I’m where my mother was. It’s not death itself that frightens me; it’s the dying process, which finally brought even my strong mother to yelping at the end.

I hope I can do as well as she did. But, as in all things, Irene Whale set the bar high.

Robert Whale can be reached at