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The light on the trees, in the sky, is brighter, more internal in winter. I watch the tree's leaves change from green to red to brown. It is cold enough only now, February, to send them adrift. Who says there are no seasons here? Though subtle, they are obvious and glorious to the observant eye. The shadows change on my favorite buildings, the sky is fluorescent blue, the clouds rich with gold and coral and salmon come evening. I find myself walking on the opposite side of the street, to walk in the sun where it is warm. Everything's different.
Her last breathing was rapid, irregular, gasps and pants for air, moaning, utterly uncomfortable, no recognition in the eyes. We left her bedside and went to the kitchen to discuss the evening possibilities. "She's not going to make it through the night" I insist, "I‘m staying by her side". "She's okay, she recognized me just yesterday when I arrived from D.C." said Gail. My brother disappeared back down the hall to check my mother's condition. "You guys, come quick, something's happening" he said panicky, waving us towards her bedroom. We gathered around her heaving body, her eyes staring blankly; afraid.
Terrified and bewildered at realizing I was in the moment of watching my mother die, I sat on the edge of the hospital bed that was delivered a few weeks before and held her hand, only subconsciously registering that it was already cold and lifeless. I watched, stunned, as the last few breaths left her dry, parted lips. Her body convulsed, trying for air: gasp!; delay; then exhale (I realized I was holding my breath as I sat paralyzed; my only thoughts: "I'm watching my mother DIE!" and "Is THIS going to be her last breath? Or THIS? Or THIS?")
You never know it is the last breath until another one doesn't come. Her eyes were wide, staring, scared. Her mouth frozen, jaw dropped, as if in the middle of uttering "gone". I wish I could say that she looked peaceful as she braved the transition unto the hinterworld, but she looked scared as hell. There is really no feeling in the world like sitting with a dead body; that just moments before was your mother. I tried to close her eyelids but they we curiously already stiff. And her hands, I will never forget, were creamy porcelain; colorless; perfect.
We must have sat on her bed for ten minutes or more, dumbfounded. A rush of the strangest and most practical things came into my head: "Get her rings off before the undertakers come and take her and them away", "Do we attempt to steal her leftover morphine before they come and flush it down the stool?" "Does she have a soul?" And just that moment, I felt the most incredible surge of energy rise up out of her body and hover over her still form. It lingered there for a few minutes then slowly ascended up through the ceiling.
I watched a dear friend of mine die a few months later and the same phenomenon happened: a distinct energy force rose up, floated above the body, then disappeared. I still don't know how to qualify it exactly, but I think that is the nature of magical happenings: beyond our 5 senses description. I felt it with my understanding. Shortly after her soul left, I called the hospice nurse to tell her that my mother has passed on. She arrived 30 minutes later to "pronounce" my mother officially dead, and to flush the narcotics down the toilet. I was orphaned.
I couldn't sleep that night, or the next. I didn't want to go to sleep and wake up without a mother. It was a terrifying thought that haunted my dream-like waking hours as I went about the business of preparing for my mother's memorial service and becoming the co-chair with my brother as "head of the household". There is a lot to do when someone dies. I understand why people congregate at the home of the deceased, offering to make themselves useful, and perpetually being busy. I must have made 40 calls the next day, notifying friends that she died.
It's odd how the moment you die something so personal as an address book can become public information for anyone to rifle through. My mother's was small, lavender with a little kitten on it. Not that she was the "cutesy" type, but the address book did reflect an aspect of her personality. And to look at the thing, warn, dog-eared, little scraps of papers stuffed into too many of its pages, numbers written all over the inside cover and back, definitely reflected her style. It was difficult to decide who to call, and even more difficult to make the call.
I was surprised to find that I filled up 5 of the entries in "C" with my various addresses between the east coast and west the previous few years. You can tell a lot by a person and their address book. Doesn't everyone, in some form, have a list of names and addresses and numbers of others that hold some importance to them? Alphabetical, penciled, updated or old and empty. Their web's center. And after they're gone, all that's left is a list of folks that keep them alive by the memories they possess, whether good, or bad, or distant.
I still have my mother's address book, now, over 5 years later. It is in storage, along with most of the rest of my belongings, in a box with her journals. I have about 10 of her notebooks ranging from when she was 15 to just before she died. I pick one up and read from it every once in awhile. But sometimes the mirror I find in her words is more than I can face. As Jung said
"Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent."
When I go through a phase of wanting to dig into who my mother was, and therefore, ultimately, who I am, I almost always start with the last journal she was writing when she died. I am most familiar with that one since I had to reference it a number of times to adhere to her "dying wishes" while making arrangements for her memorial service. I remember my aunt trying to get her to talk about it while she was ill. Reluctantly, all she would say is that it was in her journal, the entry the day before her mastectomy.
It was sweet; straight-forward. I am sure she wrote it more as a last minute prayer, appealing to god and his mercy, than as a well-thought-out plan. "A party" she requested, "laughter and music: Joan Baez, Louis Armstrong,
" Her body was "to be disposed of cheaply: cremated. With ashes spread on my father's grave, in Virginia where she was raised, and in California" where she loved to visit me and a handful of friends. I printed her last request in the program of the memorial service, accidentally misquoting her words. I smile, knowing she would find that humorous.
I barely remember the memorial service, aside from wailing through most of it. There was one moment of respite from the weight of the dread and despair I was experiencing: At one point, I became fixated on a single fallen tree leaf that had been tracked inside. It was odd to see it there, out of place, in the middle of the carpet, directly in front of the alter. I remember thinking how surprised I was to see such an obvious piece of refuse, not only inside the church, but
in the sanctuary
, and especially
how did it get there?
It caught the priest's eye, too. Right in the middle of his casual speech about how my mother was funny and had a sense of humor, Father Joe Ted knelt down, his long priest gowns buckling as he bent over, and picked the dried leaf up. Holding it up, he remarked how she would have loved the leaf there, something slightly out of place. The entire congregation laughed in agreement. It was touching to see him acknowledged that she was with us in that moment, say hello to her, and allow us all to truly feel her presence with us.
After the service, we were funneled into one of the event rooms at the church for a reception. Folks really come out of the woodwork for funerals (and weddings). I was shocked to see so many faces of people I hadn't seen in years: My miserable ex-boyfriend's parents, a boyfriend from 7 years prior, an old friend from high school that I hadn't spoken to since graduation when we went our separate ways. Most had read about her death in the newspaper. I didn't know people actually read the obituaries. Who thinks about who may have died when you're 25.
It was strange to mingle while my face was puffy and red from an hour of public wailing. Much like being the guest of honor, as the family of the deceased, you can't budge for everyone coming to offer their condolences. I don't remember much from that afternoon aside from visiting with my friend, Jerry, whom I hadn't spoken to in 8 years. He had become a forest ranger, staying in Oklahoma after marrying, by default, one of the chubby duo that had a persistent crush on him all through high school. He had brought photos of his two children.
Much of that day is a blur. Later we returned to my mother's house to host a wake, of sorts. (I don't really even know what a wake is, I have just always assumed that what we had was something close to what a wake is supposed to be). Music, plenty of food and milling about. People gathered around two large tri-fold poster-board displays we had assembled of photos of my mother and friends and family throughout various stages of her 53 years. We had spent the days before the funeral combing through snap-shots, reliving fond memories of good times.
In the evening, my brother dug a small hole under the tree in the backyard. I placed one funeral bouquet of white marigolds behind it, and sat the plastic box of her cremains beside it, along with a spoon. Everyone took a turn to say good bye to my mother privately, scooping a spoonful of her into the hole that we later covered along with the flowers. One of her friends confided that she wasn't comfortable digging in my mother's ashes; it was just too creepy. Everyone else seemed to appreciate the intimacy of having a part in her "burial".
The following day, the remaining family drove out to my father's grave to spread her ashes, as she requested. My father had died in 1971, just 19 days after I was born, and was buried in the I.O.O.F cemetery on the edge of town. I hadn't been there in years. As a teenager, I had gone out there late at night, drunk with friends, looking for his grave and had never found it. Both my uncle and aunt, whom I had seen only a few times in my life, knew exactly where it was. We circled around it, holding hands.
My cousin, Frank (Jr.), a rugged fireman and Christian said a few words, as did my aunt and uncle. It was a surreal moment on that bright and crisp Oklahoma December day. My mother and father, finally joined together, in the spirit world. I still have most of my mothers ashes, aside from an envelope I sent to her friends in Virginia to spread in honor of her, and the handful I tossed off the Golden Gate bridge, on the 3rd anniversary of her death, respectfully and appropriately stoned, with my best friend Ingrid. I remember how the dust swirled...
It is hard to believe that it has been over 5 years now since watching my mother die, right before my eyes. Sometimes it feels like it was just days ago. I was watching a "Behind the Music" on VH1 one night about the Bangels. One of the members (I don't remember which one, maybe the bassist) had gone through personal hell the year they broke up. She lost her mother, then her father. She described it as "I remember sitting on the couch for 4 years, drinking tea." I understood too well the pain of those years blurred by.
The most significant thing my therapist told me during that time was "When a person dies, your relationship with them does not end, it merely changes. You carry your relationship with them internally, no longer interacting with them in the outside world. " I was a bit miffed she hadn't shared that pearl of wisdom with me earlier in my treatment. I mean, I was there to learn about coping with losing a significant person in my life. But perhaps she knew that I really wouldn't hear it until I was ready to hear some positive perspectives of losing family.
I don't mean to sound callous when I say that there really are some good things about losing one's mother. Consider: no more family holiday expectations, nor disappointments; no more feeling guilty for not being the appropriate offspring; a much wider range of possibilities open up, having been unleashed from the anchor to which you were festooned. Don't get me wrong, I miss my mother horribly, and I would never choose to NOT have her, over having her here to see my learnings about life unfold. But once the pain subsides, there is some relief in having been set free.
Maybe that only applies to having lost one's parents. Three months after my mother was gone, my best friend died. She had come to join me in the days after my mother's passing, arriving just half a day too late to visit with my mother one last time. We were childhood playmates that blossomed into the deepest and dearest friendship I possessed. Nikki was as close to my mother as a daughter. After 4th grade when her family moved to Little Rock, we would spend the summers together, alternating years between her house and mine. She was my soul sister.
The few days she was with me while my brother and I took care of the dreadful business of tidying my mother's affairs, she complained of being perpetually tired. She claimed to have had mono twice that year, as well as the flu and strep throat. She had lost some weight, and aside from the dark circles under her sullen eyes, she looked beautiful as ever: she had always been tragically beautiful. She had told me in the prior months of wild escapades with coworkers in the wee hours of morning, after getting off work from the hotel's second shift.
We had talked about having safe sex, but we both knew that safety made spontaneity difficult, and although we might fantasize about being strong and protective, we would cower in awkwardness of broaching the subject. Doesn't everyone have their ideas about how someone "looks like they wouldn't be HIV positive". Unfortunately for Nikki, the reality of the disease prevailing among straight twenty-something crowds in Dallas was not considered possible. She was already extremely ill when her father's colleague discovered that she had full blown AIDS. She cried, knowing she was breaking my heart at the thought of loosing her too.
I told her I would drop everything and go there. She asked that I come after she went back home. She had returned to Little Rock to live with her mother, and knew it would be difficult to adjust to being a woman in Arkansas battling AIDS. I told her "I'll come whenever you want, but you have to do this for me: you better call me if, you know, you won't be going home". That is the single most difficult thing I have ever had to say to anyone, ever: If you figure out you're dying, call me immediately.
Her father called two days later. She could no longer speak and had written a note instructing him to call me to tell me to come immediately. I arrived on a Thursday, she died on Saturday morning. Just three months after my mother died, I watched my best friend take her last breaths. I wrote her eulogy the evening after going to the morgue with her mother and sister to do her makeup and hair, to ensure the she looked "only lightly made-up, as Nikki would have wanted. By age 26, I had watched my mother and best friend die.
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