Turn On Your Heartlight

Mom and Sean dancing

By Ryan Hilligoss, February 6th, 2020

My mother Madonna Sue Barr Hilligoss would have turned 76 today. She’s been gone now for two and a half years. The day she passed was a hot August day. I was working, looking at my computer screen, sitting at my Uncle Ron’s roll top desk. My father called and said, “I couldn’t wake her up.”Five simple words including a contraction. A life boiled down into a contraction. I didn’t ask for clarification on what he meant. I didn’t need to ask, a part of me deep down knew what he meant: our mother was gone.

She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s six or seven years prior and had started to show sign’s of memory issues that went hand in hand with her physical deterioration. We had been watching her symptoms quickly worsen over the last few months and it’s hard to watch a parent or any loved one for that matter slowly battle a fight they can’t win. You try to help the best you can but in the end, you all wind up helpless. The last time I saw her alive, she sat in her wheelchair in our kitchen, the kitchen she stood in and made us ten thousand meals, taking medicine my father passed to her one pill at a time. She was confused and lost, upset and crying and asking, “Why are all the kids leaving? I must have been a terrible mom.” What do you say to that? Feelings of guilt, sorrow, confusion and heart break as you stand, unable to answer or explain to someone no longer able to understand.

Three hundred miles away, unable to know what the hell is going on, I called our family friend and asked her to go to the hospital and see what’s going on. Thirty minutes later, she  calls back and says, “You need to come home.” Donna had suffered a cerebral aneurysm in her sleep and never gained consciousness again, but her body and the doctors fought to keep her on life support; long enough for us all to gather and long enough to keep her organs ready for donation as she had instructed in her wishes. Despite the Parkinson’s effects on her body and mind, her spirit fought long enough to beat the bastards and help two others live to see another day through her generosity and compassion.

With my son and daughter sitting in the back seat, I drove like a maniac, cutting valuable time off a normal 5 hour trip. Arriving at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St.Louis, late in the afternoon, I walked into her room to see her eyes closed, tubes running in a 100 directions, and machines hissing and popping, keeping her alive just long enough. I held her hands, the same hands that had held me, raised me, nurtured me a million times. We said our goodbyes and whispered into her ear. What do you say after a lifetime of love and countless moments. “Thank you mama. I love you. I’ll miss you. Rest now.”

The nurses responsible for her transport and operation to remove her donated organs come to see us and explain how it will work.  There is a blanket, blue on one side and tie dyed on the other. On a normal day, she would have loved the blue but would have hated the tie dye. She loved bright colors and dressing to the nines but it had to be the right colors in the preferred style. If she was awake and looked down to see the gaudy mix of colors, she would have let out her sternest curse word, “Oh crud.” The blanket was placed on her and the nurses said it would be with her the whole time and we would get it back later as a reminder of her gift. They handed out index cards and pens and tell us before the operation, the medical staff including nurses and doctors will pause and read our cards so they know a little bit about the person lying before them.

The exact wordings of the questions are lost to me now, but they asked to list what the person loved and a memory to share. I stare at the card. How do you sum up a lifetime of memories and an eternity of endless small moments that define a life, moments shared between son and mother, family, friends, pets. The clock on the wall continues to tick. The nurses wait, looking down at their feet, telling us to take our time even though we know they need to move quickly. The seconds pass. Memories flash through my mind at a break neck pace. What  I settle on is this: she loved music, she loved to dance, she loved her kids and family and sister. One song from thousands: Neil Diamond’s Heartlight. She loved Neil Diamond. She and my dad took me to see him for my first concert and many more after that. I played that song at my wedding for our mother/son dance. A memory shared: she used to ride her bike with me sitting on the bike in a child’s seat. That’s all I can fit on the card in my awful, child like handwriting. The nurses collect our cards, we say final goodbyes and they wheel her swiftly down the hallway, headed for the operating room. We watch as she disappears around the corner. Her spirit hangs in the air.

Mom and Bill Thomas

My handwriting on that 3×5 index card cheated her. Here’s what I would have liked to have written:

The Blue Bike: Her bike was a shiny blue, metallic flake cruiser. The black cushioned seat was had a white, fluffy wool cover. She had a child seat put on the back so she could ride me around the neighborhood until I started kindergarten. I have a clear memory of riding on the back of the bike on a clear, cool sunny spring morning. Some white clouds hang in the sky. We are riding along Highway 100, she’s taking me to my preschool at Evangelical church. She’s wearing blue pants and a short sleeved button up cotton shirt, and a white scarf on her head. I’m small enough I can’t see around her if I look straight ahead so I watch the cars passing along side us and I look up at the beautiful blue sky with not a care in the world.

Compassion: She had the biggest heart and felt empathy for anyone with a sad story or circumstance in life. She was always the “sucker” for people with a story about hard circumstances which forced them to beg for money even though deep down she knew she was being conned. She always felt a need to lend a helping hand and to look after the underdogs. Always feeling the pain of humans and animals alike that crossed her path.

The perfect birthday cake: For every birthday celebration in my family, year after year, she would bu what she considered the perfect birthday cake: From Duke Bakery in Alton, Il. A round, 16 inch two layered white cake with white frosting and a series of yellow roses on top. She always cut the cake and ensured she got the slice with the roses on top.

Day trips: When we were small children, she loved to go to Eckert’s Orchard in Grafton every fall so we could ride the wagon pulled by a tractor that would take us deep into the orchard lanes where we would collect red and green apples by the bushel full, taking home 10-12 bags at a time that we would put down in the basement and eat for two to three weeks. It was one of those bags that we took on road trip, driving out west to visit our family in Phoenix, that turned into a tragedy after our father ate a whole bag by himself and left the remains on the side of Interstate 10. I remember clearly her keeping me home from school one  fall day my kindergarten year so we could play hooky and made a whole day of apple picking, just the two of us enjoying a moment together.

Her girls: she always wanted a girl but wound up with three boys, I was the youngest and think she thought until the day I was born that I was going to be the girl she always wanted. But alas, there  I was, one more boy born on a hot July morning  in Springfield. Having decided to call child bearing quits, she gave up on the dream of having one of her own. Instead, over the years of running a restaurant and hiring hundreds of locals, she developed a whole series of girls she loved and considered her own. Karen Brooks, Kathy Lawrence, Carrie and Melissa Boomershine, Karin Lefferson, Renea Fencel White, Sherry Season, Dawn Lewis, Theresa Elliott, Gina Graham and many more. She loved them like they were her own daughters and many of them remained in touch after they had  moved on to other things in life. Instead of one girl, she had them by the basket full.


Saturday mornings: Yard sales, Duke’s Bakery for glazed donuts and orange drink, grocery store trips to Schnuck’s and carrying 10 packs of bottled Pepsi from the car to the house. Pearl Street Market for fresh meat at the butcher’s counter. Never ending hours spent waiting for to finish shopping at TJ Maxs, Marshall’s, Famous Barr, and Venture.

The Kreem Machine: She loved ice cream cones from Rick’s Kreem Machine on Elm Street and Henry in Alton.

House Hunting: There was a period of time when I was a kid she took me with her to look at houses all over Godfrey and Alton, the older the better. Historical and haunted. She loved it, I was spooked. The Alton House Tour every fall.

Cars: late 1970s Ford Mustang, yellow body, lack convertible top. Early 80’s Mustang, fox body, silver metallic body and red vinyl top. First a metallic gold Chrysler New Yorker and then a metallic baby blue New Yorker complete with the first mobile phone I ever saw or used. Black handset inside of a black leather bag, looking like something George Patton used to call in artillery strikes in North Africa.

Dogs: Max the Magnificent…..my first dog, a black dachshund, short hair, long body, floppy ears. he got so heavy as he got older, his weenie dragged in the snow leaving a trail from the front door to the yard, Coco a large gray poodle, and Gretchen our Airedale.  Alfie was her favorite. We went shopping at Target every Sunday before we went to the restaurant. The 5A dog shelter was next to the parking lot, surrounded by a chain link fence. We parked on the side and as we walked to the car, a small black poodle stood next to the fence looking in our direction and wagging her tail. Mom was a sucker for sad sweet faces and we came home with a new dog that day. She named her Alfie after the Dionne Warwick song. Alfie proceeded to drop a deuce on our dad’s pillow, letting him know where he stood on the food chain.

Auctions and antiquing on weekends

Trips to Springfield: Many weekends on Saturdays we would drive to Springfield to see her parents. We’d go to Jewel Osco where she would buy Sunbeam Bread by the sackful, her favorite bread which wasn’t available in St.Louis area, which we would take home and put in the deep freezer so she could eat it for months. Bottling gallon jugs of water from the spigot on the back of granddad’s house because Springfield water was much superior to Godfrey water in her mind. Del’s popcorn shop on 6th street where she’d buy flat pans of vanilla caramel by the pound, usually 8-10 pounds at a time. Maid Rite hamburgers, the original Maid Rite. Vics and Gabatoni’s pizza.

TV and movies: Friday nights she had to be home at 7:oo to watch Dallas, Falcon’s Crest, Benson and Different Strokes. Golden Girls, countless viewings of reruns like Alice, I Love Lucy and the The Andy Griffith Show, Murder She Wrote. Somewhere In Time, Awakenings, Big, Casper, The Natural, Somewhere In Africa.

Oak Ridge Cemetery: Our grandmother Ivy Barr died in the spring of 1983, one year after her seeing her beloved Cardinals win the world series. On later trips to see our grandfather, we’d go to the cemetery every time so she could check on her mommy’s grave, cleaning off the stone, straightening the flowers and arrangements. Bowing her head and talking to grandma’s spirit. Our grandfather William Hubert “Hubie” Barr passed in the spring of 1994, knocking her for a loop I don’t think she ever fully recovered from in some ways. An orphan.

Last year I posted the picture below on Facebook. Inspired by the photo, Sharon Hardin-Eaton, wrote a poem about this brief snapshot of a moment that I’d like to include here.

Mom with boys black and white


He didn’t know, when he snapped the picture,

What the camera had actually captured.

It happened so quickly, lasted so briefly

Only the camera understood what it caught.

In fact, not until years later, after her funeral,

Going through pictures with the boys,

Had he even looked at the snapshot again.

The day he’d snapped it was ordinary,

Just a day-in-the-life, like most other days.

Only when he pulled it from the stack

Of old photos, noticed how sunlight

Filled that whole space where they stood,

Donna and her boys, saw the way sunlight

Spun their hair to gold, made their faces shine,

Saw how light answered light, in their eyes,

Only then did he realize he’d captured

That subtle, brief moment disguised as ordinary,

That moment of realization that everything,

Every longing you’ve ever had is answered

In what you do have, and they each knew it.

My mind and memory are working faster than my fingers can type and I could be here all night as my brain dictates all the moments, big and small. This is for me and a way of holding onto the memories but it’s for others to maybe know a little bit about my mother since she’s no linger here to speak for herself. But her spirit is still here with all of us. I guess in a way, this is my answer, two years too late to what she said that morning two years ago. You were not a terrible mom. What you said was a manifestation of where your mind was at that time, beyond your control. You did your very best to love your kids and husband and sister and mom and dad and your friends. You raised us the best you could, the best you knew how while still being your own person, running a household, helping run a business, being a sister and daughter and all the other roles you played in life. We remember you and think of you everyday and love you. You rest for now. You’ll need your energy when I see you further on up the road and you give me another bike ride on a sunny beautiful spring day. Any maybe this time we’ll have music and Neil will be singing:

Turn on your heartlight
Let it shine wherever you go
Let it make a happy glow
For all the world to see
Turn on your heartlight
In the middle of a young boy’s dream
Don’t wake me up too soon
Gonna take a ride across the moon
You and me
Love you mama.