Saturday, September 28, 2013

Closing Time: My Mother


This is the last entry of the first section of this book. 

The sections are DEATH and LIFE.

The section DEATH has is completed with this entry. 

This is an account of the end of her who gave me a beginning.


I was with my father when he died. I was alone with him. No one else was there.

My mother died in a crowd.

She had had a heart attack some time before my father’s death but had recovered to the point of being back to an apparently normal life. Normal included driving a car. The day I was alone with my father it was because my mother had driven her car. That had given her the ability to come and go from the hospital as conditions allowed. She had left just before I arrived. She had not gotten home when the change in my father’s condition occurred. The hospital left a voice mail. My mother was on her way back to the hospital when my father had died.

The hospital staff worked swiftly. They removed the tubes and devices from my father, put a tag on him and wheeled him into and down the hall. I suddenly had visions of my mother coming up the hall and encountering my father being wheeled away in the opposite direction.

I took off down the hall as quickly as propriety would allow with the intent of intercepting my mother. I had no idea what I was going to say. I just felt compelled by the belief that I needed to spare her the shock of encountering her departed husband being wheeled down the hall with a tag on him.

On the way to wherever my mother might have been, if she indeed were even there at all, I was intercepted by a well-intentioned member of the clergy. He wanted to help me in my time of need and grief.

I thought briefly before I telling him the irreligious but absolute truth: I didn’t have any time, any need, or any grief.

Thinking me crazed with grief he persisted.

I didn’t want to explain the fact that I was trying to spare my mother what I perceived to be a potentially life changing unpleasant experience. I couldn’t conceive of making my case lucidly at all, let alone in the small amount of time that I perceived to be at my disposal to intercept my mother.

I just wanted to not talk to him and get on down the hall.

So I took the approach of trying to make the point, as respectfully as possible, but firmly, that I was probably a lost soul and that abandoning me to the dark side would be the most prudent and efficacious course of action for him to take on behalf of all that was yet left of holiness in the world.

He went on his way shaking his head sorrowfully and muttering what I assumed to be scripture.

And I intercepted my mother on her way into the ICU reception area.

That evening my mother and I went to dinner. We went to a local sea food restaurant that we had enjoyed and had our usual pre-dinner martinis. We had a couple of them because we had a lot of talking to do. My mother had early in the re-marriage to my father realized that if she were going to have anything resembling a normal life she was going to have to do it on her own. His being an alcoholic didn’t ever impact his making a living or being reasonably effective and successful at what he did for a living. It did, however, impact all aspects of his off duty life – his family life.

And the impact had increased incrementally over time.

Since I was ten and twelve years older than my two younger sisters, I had escaped into adulthood early in this process. In fact it was early enough in the process that I hadn’t even been aware that I was escaping from anything.

My mother had a great job that paid well and allowed her independence of operation. She used this independence to provide as normal a life as possible for my sisters. In the process, of course, she filled the classic role of enabler for my father. Why she chose this course, given her financial and social independence was something that I never understood.

But she looked at the second time married to my father to be permanent and irrevocable. And she did whatever was necessary to keep that bargain while at the same time providing a life for her two young daughters. There was probably a great deal more to the story. There was probably a great deal more to my mother and father’s relationship. In retrospect, the events of my mother’s and my father’s last few months of life would seem to indicate that there had been a great deal more, but I was never to know.

The conjectured great deal more to the relationship notwithstanding, my mother’s life with my father had been difficult in the best times; it had verged on unbearable in the bad times. But they had continued.

My father almost died due to alcohol and had had a strong enough survival instinct to know that he had to quit. So he did. That was a number of years before he died. He went through a period early in the having quit phase of his life of making and consuming prodigious quantities of fruit pies. Sometimes in the middle of the night he would get up and make one. Apparently the sugar was required in the absence of alcohol. He never gained any weight and had never acquired, even during the pie period, a potbelly. The thing was, the same personality that was there during the alcohol days was still there in the post-alcohol days. He didn’t become any easier to live with. He just became more consistently rational. The alcohol had robbed him of his short-term memory, but he was always willing to start a conversation with “I know I’m supposed to know this, but I don’t. So please fill me in on the details I need so I can talk about such and so.” During that post alcohol period he and I had numerous interesting conversations about a great variety of things with these starter kit tutorials as prologues.

On balance, it had seemed to me that his passing offered possibilities of a great new life for my mother. And I talked to her at length that night at the seafood restaurant over the martinis about my thoughts on that subject. She did not disagree. Perhaps it was the martinis; perhaps there was a portion of truth in what I was saying; she seemed enthusiastic for this new phase in her life. But nothing much ever became of anything we discussed that night because my mother died three months later.

After the fact, after the event of her death, I realized that she had been running down for several years. I realized that the same person I had always, since early high school, engaged as a close friend, a person to whom I could talk about anything and from whom I could depend upon for support for any endeavor, was gradually not there anymore. After the fact of her death I realized that the growing irritation that I felt when we talked, but which I hid from myself in that deepest place where I put things I don’t want to think about, had become a frequent component of my feelings about her and about our relationship. After the fact I realized that I had been witnessing my mother consciously and with full intent ease herself into the world of the gradually dying.

It wasn’t long after the dinner at the seafood restaurant that my mother had some kind of health incident that had put her back in the hospital. She was released fairly quickly, but couldn’t really live home alone. One of her life-long friends from Seattle – Mary – came to Portland to stay with her. My sisters, Patty and Mary also spent some time with her. And, again, she got better and went back to a normal life. In retrospect I have never been able to conclude why I had been oblivious to what was actually going on. But I wasn’t alone in that oblivion. Neither of my sisters were alarmed either. And we all had talked to her doctor at length and always heard the same thing. “We don’t know the exact nature of what is causing her various problems, but we have her taking appropriate and effective medication and there is no reason for alarm.”

And then she worsened again and Patty had found her a facility where she could recuperate and receive necessary medical care. I should have drawn some conclusion about the fact that in the other bed in my mother’s room in that facility there was a woman who was in the process of dying. My mother told me that. My mother seemed strangely ambivalent about that. And I was oblivious. Neither Patty nor Mary drew any alarming conclusions either. Our mutual view was that this was all just a bump in the road of our mother returning to good health.

The similarity of that viewpoint to my childhood certainty of Annie's inevitable recovery should have been an alert. But it wasn't.

And then she had another incident. This one put her back in the hospital. This time the doctor had a diagnosis. There was some problem with her heart that could be repaired with an operation. The combination of the seriousness of the operation and the fragility of her condition at the moment of the diagnosis could result in her dying in the operation, but that outcome was thought to be substantially less than a fifty- percent chance. If she didn’t die the operation would bring about amazing improvement in her condition.

Or so the story went.

I interpreted this news as “you can have this operation which has low odds of killing you and which can give you the life which we discussed over martinis not long ago.” That was the backbone of what I said to her as we sat talking in her hospital room on a Thursday afternoon in April after the incident and its subsequent diagnosis. I said – and I had believed what I said - that I viewed that diagnosis as really good news and that my vote would be that she have the operation. She didn’t really say, but it appeared to me – as we sat there having that conversation - that she agreed.

We talked for an hour or so about many things just as we always had. It was a conversation like we used to have years before. I didn’t feel that irritation. There wasn’t any need for me to hide anything from myself in that deepest place where I put things I didn’t want to think about.

As the afternoon waned and became early evening I said something about having a martini. She looked pensive and started to say something - “when you take that first sip…” - she faltered and stifled what seemed to me to be a deep sob.

I should have figured something out at that moment, but I didn’t.

Then she looked up briefly at the ceiling and said, “I’m tired; I need to sleep for a while; have fun this evening.” I took my leave saying that I would see her on the morrow.

I had business that took me to Salem the following morning. I had gotten back to Portland about noon and I had decided to go to lunch. After the fact, that plan always indicated to me the measure of my continued obliviousness about my mother’s actual condition. I was in the immediate neighborhood of the hospital and I thought that I remembered a Mexican restaurant in the area. After a brief search, not being able to find the restaurant I decided to go to the hospital instead.

The minute I got to the waiting room I had a totally unexpected encounter. Patty and Mary – my younger sisters - were there as was Kevin, Mary’s son. “What is this?” was my immediate reaction. “Where have you been?” they said. “We’ve been trying to reach you. We couldn’t get you on your mobile phone. Don’t you turn it on?” I had a dead battery, but that hadn’t seemed to be worth saying. “Mommy had another incident and she is dying.”

In one fel swoop I was taken from a feeling of good news about my mother’s health prospects and a recent desire for a taco and an enchilada to the fact that she was dying. Even for one at my level of obliviousness that was a stark leap.

My sisters told me that a priest had grudgingly agreed to administer extreme unction – grudging because although a baptized and confirmed Roman Catholic my mother had not been a mass attending Catholic for years – probably since she and I had started going to the Gollywog lounge instead of mass - and at the point of her death she was not truthfully able to tell the priest that she belonged to some parish.

My sisters told me that the hospital staff had discussed with her the events that were going to ensue, as best they could describe a very personal, and, really, unknown, process. The staff had said that part of the process would be an intravenous introduction of morphine to ease the process and minimize pain.

My sisters told me that my mother said, through gritted teeth, “OK, let’s do it.”

My sisters told me that all this had occurred within the hour. They were both relieved beyond measure that I had finally showed up.

I didn’t mention how close that that had come to not happening.

So we all went into my mother’s room. The scene, for me, was appallingly familiar. There was the machine with the beeps and light pulses; there were the slowly labored gasps for each breath; there was the almost diminished to nothing remains of what had once been one of my parents. I took my post sitting on a chair at the side of my mother’s bed. Patty stood directly behind me. Mary and Kevin occupied chairs across from the foot of the bed in the corner of the small room.

I took my mother’s hand. I immediately made the mental note that her life feeling - that feeling that accompanies the transition of a creature from life to non-life - was well on its way to non-life.

“I don’t think this will be long,” I thought to myself.

What should have induced a feeling of profound sorrow just became the emotionless hands of a cosmic clock. As the life feeling gradually receded, the hands of the clock turned.

Maybe they even turned backward.

I sat there suspended in time and place as I felt my mother ever so gradually recede from existence. And I could feel her progress toward that result, ever so slowly, ever more faintly; and then the machine told everyone what I already knew.

That evening the four of us went to Amalfi’s for pizza.

We were sitting at a table in the back room waiting for our pizza to be delivered.

Mary and Patty and I were discussing what would become for the next few years a major topic of our conversations: what had really happened? How could we have been so totally taken by surprise by what - after the event of her death – had become utterly obvious? How could we have missed our mother’s grave and deteriorating health condition? And had the same been true of our father? Why had the doctor, a doctor in whom our mother had had the highest confidence, not ever seemed particularly worried about her condition? Why hadn’t he ever really been able to tell us what it was that was wrong, or, indeed, that anything WAS wrong? How could we suddenly be in the situation of having both parents dead and having had no warning and having had no feeling of alarm? How stupid or, yes, oblivious could the three of us have been?

The table we were sitting at was down a level from a slightly elevated extension to the dining area behind us. Immediately adjacent to our table was a set of steps. There were two or perhaps three steps. The steps gave access to and from that elevated area. There were a number of diners in that back, elevated, area, so there was some server traffic up and down the steps passing by where we were sitting. One of the servers was ascending the stairs with a tray laden with pizza and drinks. Suddenly with a little shriek she landed more or less in the middle of our table, spreading pizza, beer, wine and soft drinks liberally over all of us. When she recovered and had regained some level of professional poise she, of course was profuse in her apologies. Along with the apologies she offered the observation that she couldn’t possibly imagine what had happened, but that it had felt as if someone had tripped her. We couldn’t be sure, but my sisters and I thought that we heard a distant chuckle that sounded like someone we knew.

As my mother faded to non life an Episcopal priest appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Unlike the helpful preacher that I had encountered after my father died, this priest seemed to make sense in the context of our circumstances. Unlike the Catholic priest this one just wanted to minister to the recently dead and her living relatives. A dialogue ensued that culminated in our having a memorial service at his church. After all, the Church of England was “Catholic”. That’s what they affirmed when they muttered the same Apostles Creed that their Roman Papist cousins muttered.

At the memorial Mysti, Mary, Patty and I all sat in the front pew on the right side. This was quite close to the flowers and the pulpit. All four of us saw something. All four of us had the same thought about what we had seen.

In the flowers surrounding my mother’s memorial picture a bee appeared just as the priest’s discussion of her life began. Prior to the memorial he had asked a lot of questions about just who she had been and he did a masterful job of celebrating her. And he performed that masterful recounting of her life with a clear goal: get the rest of the attendees to talk about Roberta.

Throughout the priest’s opening, stage-setting remarks and throughout all the other reminiscences offered by people, ranging all the way from Norm, her long-term friend and employer, to Tom one of my pledge brother fraternity brothers, the bee flew around the flowers and my mother’s picture as if listening to what was being said.

When everything had been said the bee disappeared and everyone went home.

I was sure that bees got into churches all the time. I would, however, have expected one to check the flowers for nectar. This one instead had seemed to be using the flowers as a premise for circling the area immediately around the picture while the life of the person in the picture was being celebrated. And it was still winter. Bees were supposed be hibernating or something. They shouldn’t be anywhere, let alone in a church on a cold winter day.

My sisters and I didn’t see one another often after that. We had however developed a tradition. The two who were not having a birthday took the one who was having a birthday to lunch on a Saturday as close to that birthday as our schedules would allow. Early in that tradition the permanent location had become Schuckers at the Olympic Hotel. A variety of things had driven this choice not the least of which had been the quality of the martinis. These occasions always lasted for several hours as we talked about all the things that interested us that we hadn’t had a chance to talk about in the interim between birthday lunches. For the first couple of years after our mother’s death the dominant compound topic – just as it had been that night at Amalfi’s - always continued to be: what had really happened to our parents? How could we have been so totally taken by surprise by what - after the event of our mother’s death – had become utterly obvious? How could we have missed our mother’s grave and deteriorating health condition? And had the same been true of our father? Why had the doctor, a doctor in whom our mother had had the highest confidence, not ever seemed particularly worried about her condition? Why hadn’t he ever really been able to tell us what it was that was wrong, or, indeed, that anything WAS wrong? How could we suddenly be in the situation of having both our parents dead and having had no warning and having had no feeling of alarm? How stupid or oblivious could the three of us have been?

There always was a morose sameness to those discussions.

No matter how long or how deeply we ever discussed this, and no matter how many theories about what might have been the facts of the matter ever occurred to us, we never came to closure; and the discussions continued.

One day I was getting a pair of socks out of my armoire. For no reason that I was afterwards ever able to proffer, I had drifted off in thought about that never-answered set of questions. I was standing in front of the open armoire, staring into the space between my eyes and the armoire. I had just started to go through everything that I knew about the whole thing yet again. I had been on the verge of getting frustrated to the point of becoming intellectually tired when a heretofore unthought-of thought came to me. “They knew they were both dying. They agreed to the order of their departures and had held out with their last strength to achieve that order of departure. My mother’s doctor had been enlisted to keep this from Mary and Patty and me. The conversation at the seafood restaurant about my mother’s new life had been just one more component in the artifice.”

As if from a great distance, I heard – or sensed, because it was really in my mind, not in the air - a roaring wind sound. It was distant; it was very subdued; but it was a roaring wind. Then I heard or sensed the words “you can believe it.” A tangible feeling of relief unlike anything that I have ever experienced came over me; and then it gradually faded away like the last pulses of life’s fading vibrations.

This thing really happened.

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