Feb 7 2012

Hundreds of Heavens

Two years ago today, my mother took her last breath and I began the process of putting my knowledge of her, and my love for her, into the folds of my memory. Ramping up to this anniversary, I’ve been thinking a lot about her last days, and how remarkably courageous she was, opening and closing that last door.

She was too pragmatic a woman to stir up any drama, and opted instead to put her life in order so that task wouldn’t be left to us. She marched stoically to her grave, much to the bewilderment of the undertaker, who confided in her when she insisted upon an appointment to discuss the details of her own funeral, that he “wasn’t accustomed to speaking with the deceased.”

Last night an email in my inbox, titled only Goodbye, linked me to Toddler Planet, a blog by Susan Niebur, astrophysicist and mother (among many other things, I’m sure) and cancer survivor – until yesterday, when her husband posted the news of her death. I never met Susan, but I read her blog, the posts of which elicited small gasps, sighs, and tears. You may have noticed the No Princess Fights Alone badge in my sidebar, placed there as gesture of quiet support, but also as a reminder of how life dishes out surprises, good and bad, and there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I and other such reality-checking sentiments.

I’m sad to learn that she’s gone. I wonder, where has she gone? And when she gets there, wherever it is she’s going, will she run into my mother? My college roommate’s father died within a few days of Freddie Mercury, and she had this fantasy about their encounter in purgatory’s green room, the two of them making small talk while waiting to be called in to meet their maker. She held a position of some influence in the music industry and imagined her father, upon learning of Mercury’s occupation, launching into a proud fatherly pitch, as he was prone to do. “Oh, you’re a rock star? You must have known my daughter, she works at MTV!”

I think we’ve all imagined – whether we believe or not – what an afterlife might look like. My heaven has the same dark-blue-and-pink-flowered wallpaper that hung my parent’s dining room. In fact, my ancestors are seated around the dining table; my mother is in her customary place and my father at the other end of the table with all my grandparents seated between them. There are a few empty chairs, waiting for my siblings and me, I presume, but sometimes they are taken by other friends who’ve passed on and who occasionally pass through my vision of the afterlife. Timmy, a childhood sweetheart who died in his mid-twenties, his silver-capped tooth in the center of his grin. Dilts, who died of a brain tumor six months before my daughter didn’t die of one, carries his old Smith Corona typewriter and offers a mischievous shrug to beg their pardon for placing it on the table. Even De-facto’s father makes an appearance from time to time, lamenting to my father that they never got to meet Short-pants and Buddy-roo.

My mother didn’t believe in an afterlife. I asked her point blank, “what do you think will happen to you when you die?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Life will just end.” Then, probably in response to the display of dismay on my face – because maybe I wanted her to believe in something – she’d rattle off all the good and interesting things that happened to her. “I’ve had a such a beautiful life. It doesn’t owe me anything.”

The renown atheist Christopher Hitchins wrote a number of essays on this subject, and gave interviews that were especially poignant when he was dying of cancer. He said that the hardest part, for him, was being told he had to leave the party knowing that it would go on without him. He also wondered – and I paraphrase, because I can’t find the link where I read or heard this during the flood of articles about him after he died – if heaven wouldn’t be someplace awfully dull, that the sustained condition of bliss over such a long time as eternity might be terribly tiresome.

It’s a valid point. Literature isn’t any good if there isn’t some tension. Wouldn’t it be the same for the afterlife?

As a devout pluralist, I’m open to any eventuality: a monotheistic-ruled paradise or an eternal dial tone. Or reincarnation. Do we come back in order to learn new lessons so our souls can evolve? Then we’d get a vacation from the boredom of a blissful heaven. But if you were an American, is your reincarnation shorter? Do the French demand a lifespan that’s the equivalent of all-of-August? Do you have to earn your vacation? Can you opt out?

I’d like to believe in something like a blissful afterlife. But I don’t know what happens to us after we die, and in the absence of knowledge, I feel that any guesses I make are fictional. But I’m not disturbed by believers. I respect their faith, and might even admit to envying it.

Maybe we need heaven because it’s hard to imagine that someone you love could simply cease to exist. Maybe there isn’t one heaven. Maybe each one of us has our very own heaven, mine with its ornate wallpaper, someone else’s rests on a cloud or it’s a long stretch of sand with waves lapping against the shore. Maybe heaven is for the living, a place for us to keep alive the memory of people that we don’t want to stop loving.

If that were the case, there’d be hundreds of heavens – or more – for Susan Niebur. It’d be like looking up at the night sky, every heaven like a star in her beloved universe, a twinkling remembrance of her and her courage. And there’d be just as many heavens for my roommate’s father, and for Freddie Mercury, too. And for my mother, yes, hundreds of heavens, each one fashioned in the faithful imagination of every friend and colleague, and everyone in her family, all the people who adored and admired her, and who still miss her so much. Thank heavens, we have a place to keep her.

~ ~ ~

Susan Niebur spent five years battling inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that presents without a lump. I’m making a donation in her memory. If you’re inspired to do the same, you can donate here.


Dec 15 2010

Her Hands

Her hands were pale icicles, her skin became nearly translucent. The age spots, blemishes except they were handsome in some odd way, marks of a good life, well lived. Her hands, arched across the top of the comforter cover, the white one with the little flowers, a bedspread usually found on one of the twin beds upstairs, brought down to cover her in the hospital bed set up in the middle of our study. Our study, the family room, where we lived, where we spent all our time, when everyone was home, when her hands ran the household for the family. Those hands that changed my diaper, tended my wounds, drove me to piano lessons, rolled out the dough for Christmas cut-outs, braided my hair, signed my report cards. Those hands that did the dishes every evening, that carried the sheets out to the line, that ironed my father’s handkerchiefs until we were old enough to have the task thrust upon us. Through just about every stage of my life, she held my hand with those hands. They were soft and fine. She did little to care for them but they were always manicured. They were a pair of hands so familiar to me, I could recognize them effortlessly in a crowd of strangers. But they changed, they became different during those last days. It’s not how I want to remember them, and yet I will. As they became lifeless, they changed shape and color. It was as though her soul withdrew from her hands first and then gently slipped out of her body and danced away.

That’s all I could do in five minutes. But it’s enough.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Patti Digh: Prompt: 5 minutes. Imagine you will completely lose your memory of 2010 in five minutes. Set an alarm for five minutes and capture the things you most want to remember about 2010.


Dec 3 2010

Alive as I’ve ever been

Does it sound harsh to say that the moment when I felt most alive – this last year – was when my mother was about to die?

Maybe it was the contrast, life and death standing side-by-side. I’m sure that framed it. But that is not why.

During the weeks leading up to her death, I was home alone with her and very focused on the care she needed. Aside from a few moments to myself, to exercise, bathe or make a quick stop at the public library to go on-line, my days were focused on her. I helped her move around. I helped her get dressed. I made soup. I scratched her back. I answered her email. I wrote, as she dictated to me, two letters that she had wanted to write for weeks but hadn’t gotten to. I held her hand. I administered morphine, kept track of all her medications, noting the dosage, the time, the reaction. I told her stories about Short-pants and Buddy-roo.
I changed the channel. I rubbed her feet. I watched her sleep. I witnessed the end of her life. She did not have to do it alone. I accompanied her.

It’s remarkable, the singularity of purpose that comes at a time like this, when there is no question about what is priority and what is ancillary. There was no “should I do this or should I do that?” The day became a series of small moments of service. There were no distractions, no getting pulled off course because of a pretend client crisis or a drama at school. I was fully present.

When you are present like this, it is impossible not to feel alive.

I can think of other moments in my life, moments when I was present, not pulled into a future aspiration or tugged into nostalgia or remorse. The result, always: aliveness, palatable joy, delight and gratitude for my place on earth. This moment I write of, last year, rivaled those moments in its intensity and emotional alertness. The primary emotion was not joy or glee, but grief. Grief and sorrow.

But if you can step out of the judgment that insists alive must mean happy, then you can see that alive really means feeling. Feeling fully any and every emotion that washes over you and accepting it. Relinquishing control and living it and living through it, thoroughly. That is the alive moment.

Something I find curious this moment (it is not that exact moment she left us, by the way, but a moment at her bedside a few days before) is that my mother was severely hearing impaired, and the details I hold on to are almost all auditory. Silence except for a few distinct sounds: the ticking of the clock on the shelf; the furnace kicking in and vibrating the entire house, even the glassware in the cupboard; the snow-plow scraping the road as it passed in front of our house; the wind-chimes on the back porch, hanging amongst her sheets. The sound of her uneasy breathing. The sound of mine after a deep breath, taken when I realized my breathing had grown shallow. “Breathe,” I said out loud, to myself, not to her.

I knew my mother was readying herself to be no longer among the alive. I held her hand and in my heart, I could feel it hurt. It hurt so much, it hurt like my heart was being carved out of my chest with a sharp knife. I was present, all right, with the feeling, with the hurt. In pain, yes, but as alive as I’ve ever been.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Ali Edwards: Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail.


Jul 20 2010

Just as Much a Mom

She was probably a neighbor, a friend of your mother, or the mother of one of your friends. She could stand in, when necessary, for any maternal exercise: tending a boo-boo, offering up an afternoon snack, tucking you in during a sleepover. Occasionally she reprimanded you – and she had the right – you may have spent as much time at her house under her supervision as you did at your own. It’s hard to describe everyone’s childhood, and it’s tricky territory because not all of us had a pleasant one. But I’d wager that most of us have at least one memory that includes this formidable female role, one that deserves its own archetype: the woman who is just as much as a mom to you as your own mother.

Mine lived across the road. Mary was a mother to five handsome, thoughtful boys (who’ve grown into handsome, thoughtful men) and, by default, just as much as a mom to my brother, sister and me while we were growing up. It was on her cement porch that I fell chin first, and I’m not sure who took me to the hospital for stitches, my mother or Mary. It was in her kitchen that her youngest boys and I removed all the bowls and dishes from the corner cupboard with the lazy-susan inside so we could spin around until we were dizzy. It was in the old boat-building workshop behind her house that I learned to ride a 2-wheel bicycle without training wheels, and it was in the abandoned chicken coop within her view that I stole my first kiss.

It was the aroma of her brownies that drew us in from the fields beyond her yard to wash and rest a moment, the only thing worthy of interrupting the hours of imaginary battles we fought and the stories we played out. When I decided to experiment as a coiffeur – unfortunately on one of her sons – Mary threatened, in the nicest way, to chop off my hair, too. When I called him nicknames that displeased her, she knew exactly which diminutive of my name to call out to cease the teasing.

In high school, when I hosted unapproved parties while my parents were away, she said nothing. But on every other occasion, she had the perfect words to offer: I still have the card she mailed to me as a freshman in college, the letter she sent when I moved abroad, the note from her when my father died. I’ve saved her poignant emails, usually a short message of only a few lines but every single word well used. She wrote to me just after my mother’s memorial service: “Sometimes when the tasks fall away, grief increases.” One short sentence that drew from me a stream of tears pent-up, her words apparently the exact key to fit that lock.

I learned last week that Mary has passed away. A memorial service held for her over the weekend, which I could not attend, was described as original and beautiful. She had chosen passages for each of her sons and their wives to read, and selected the music that should pace the event. I wept that I could not organize my schedule to be there.

There was another woman who was as much a mom to me as my mother, during my high school years. We called her by her first name, Kitty, and we called her husband Mr. Hunk (he was salt-n-pepper handsome). She deftly guided our teenaged souls through the travails of adolescence, permitting enough wildness so that we could test our mettle, but reeling us in before we embarrassed ourselves. She knew things about me that my mom didn’t, and made it her business to help me rather than tell on me – all of this, somehow, enacted without any disrespect for my mother. That’s the trick, what makes this role so important: the woman who’s as much as a mom to you is a quiet, wise advisor, a guide on the side who relates to you in ways your own mom cannot. She’s a mother without baggage. I can still picture Kitty: salt-n-pepper classy and sharper than nails. She’d hold court at her kitchen table, letting us know that she knew exactly what mischief we were up to. Her memorial service was years ago; I regret that I missed it, too.

In February when my mother died, I walked across the road to share the news with Mary. Her house was like something out of a fairy tale, cozy with crocheted blankets, elegantly cluttered with handcrafted objects d’art and pictures of grandchildren. We sat at her table. The sun streamed in the window highlighting the distinctive line of her jaw. She must have known the purpose of the visit, but waited to let me spill the words. “Well there it is,” she said, when I told her.

It meant everything to us that all five of her boys and their families came home last May to attend my mother’s memorial service. I hadn’t seen them all together in one place at one time in nearly thirty years. After the service, I stood on our porch and looked across the road at their familiar lawn, alive with people: not only the boys, as we called them, but their wives and their children – Mary’s grandchildren – running about, engaged in every kind of game. The occasion that collected them was sad, but I remember thinking how lovely for Mary to have her entire family around her. Maybe that was my mother’s last gift to her, to bring them all home together for her, one last time.

How stunning is a lifelong friendship? Mary lived across the road for all of the fifty-plus years that my mother lived in our old Victorian farmhouse on the hill overlooking the lake you can’t see anymore because the trees have grown tall and broad. She and my mother were pregnant together, they reared toddlers at the same time, they readied children for school, standing across the street with their youngsters, pushing them on to the bus with metal lunch boxes and kisses. They took turns keeping an eye on eight children running amok in the fields beyond our two homesteads, or jumping on rooftops or playing spy-ring in a dank basement. Each with her distinctive call beckoning her own children home, together a duet of discipline and encouragement that crossed the road back and forth – unlike the rest of us – without having to look both ways.

Two women raised their children together, sent them off to college at the same time, buried their husbands but kept on living; worked, retired, became grandmothers, wizened women and family matriarchs. That they died within months of each other makes perfect sense, and yet the reality of it is still a shock.

The recent process of clearing out memories of my mother produces questions, and I was hoping, on my next trip home, to cross the road, walk up the long lawn to knock on Mary’s door and sit at her table with the sun streaming in and ask her those questions that now must be answered in my imagination. Instead I’ll walk up to the tree where her ashes are resting to place a stone there to thank her for her tenderness toward our whole family, to thank her for the caring eye she kept on my mother during the last year of her life, and mostly to thank her for being just as much a mom to me.


May 12 2010

Overlapping Moments

It was sometime last summer that my ex-husband called me to tell me of the latest coincidence in his life. He’d been driving around with his daughter – who I knew best, actually, when she was the same age as Buddy-roo or Short-pants – looking at places to host her wedding. A sobering piece of news: that someone you knew when she still believed in Santa Claus is now getting married. Just another marker of how time halts for no one.

A wedding. Mazeltov and all that, I thought. My ex (let’s call him Ex-facto) went on to say that while driving to one of the venues on her list, he recognized a landmark red-and-white-striped ice-cream parlor and realized how close he was (a mile) to my childhood home. Of the half-dozen places she was considering, this one was actually right in my little hometown. The venue in question was a ruin when I was growing up, but has since been restored to a majestic mansion with picturesque views, a perfect spot for weddings and other celebratory occasions.

A disclosure is in order: Yes, there was a man and some vows, many years ago. Our divorce was relatively elegant, as divorces go, and we remain not only cordial but compassionate toward each other. Our correspondence, though not regular, is frequent enough and always slightly nostalgic. He kept in closer contact with me when Short-pants was in the hospital, and also called me this winter when I was taking care of my mother. When Ex-facto’s daughter, the bride in question, was a student abroad, he encouraged her to come visit me in Paris. I was nearly 9-months pregnant, but I wanted her to experience French café society so I urged De-facto to take her out to some of our favorite bars in the neighborhood. I think what she enjoyed most about that night was running into our friends and answering the question, “so how do you know each other?”

Between De-facto and Ex-facto there is a striking sense of mutual respect. Ex-facto’s regard for De-facto, he tells me, is enhanced because of the things I write on this blog. For De-facto, it is the result of two precious tickets that Ex-facto once secured for him to see the New England Patriots play in the Superbowl. I suppose that could make a friend for life.

“If we choose this place for the wedding,” Ex-facto told me, “we’ll want your mother to be there.”

If she lives that long, I thought. By then, my mother had already outlived her doctor’s estimates; she was living month by month. On borrowed time, as she liked to say.

When my mother died, it was her wish to be interred quickly and quietly, and also her suggestion that we take our time organizing a memorial service, without the stress or urgency to make it coincide with her burial. Given the inclement weather last February, her wishes were more than sensible. After the private burial, we selected a Saturday in mid-May for her memorial service, dreaming of a sunny spring afternoon that would create hopeful dispositions and easier transportation.

Once the date was chosen, I called around to local inns and hotels to reserve a block of rooms for the extended family we expected to attend, and found it problematic. I managed to secure the very last rooms at one B&B, but I was surprised to find that otherwise, there was, literally, no room at the inn – or the hotel, or anywhere. My hometown is known for its summer tourism; it’s on a beautiful lake with lots of sailing and water sporting. But sold-out in the middle of May?

“There’s a wedding,” one of the hotel clerks told me.

What are the chances that Ex-facto’s entire family (and his first ex-wife and current wife) would descend on my hometown at the same weekend as my entire family will assemble there for my mother’s memorial service? Is this some sort of cosmic joke? Some strange vertigo-inducing vortex uniting our two families, again, par hazard, on this auspicious date?

I mean, you couldn’t make this up.

Do you think we’ll bump into them? I can imagine my aunt encountering my ex-mother-in-law in an elevator and wondering why the other seems vaguely familiar. Or Ex-facto’s cousin, studying my Uncle Buddy (who’s pretty memorable) in the breakfast room, puzzling about where she’s seen him before. Ghosts of the past inhabiting the present.

I suppose this is how life works. A tiny baby, like my new nephew, born last week, slips out into a waiting, welcoming world. A poised bride steps in a purposeful gait down the aisle toward her groom. A beloved woman, laid to rest, is remembered with words of tribute, gratitude and affection. For each one of us, there are significant moments marking our passage through life. And sometimes these moments overlap in rather extraordinary – if slightly awkward – ways.


Feb 26 2010

Other Stages

We climbed the four flights of stairs to the olive green door of our apartment. Short-pants was ahead of me. She stopped at the landing, just before the door, and turned toward me. “Grammy’s happy now,” she said, “It’s just the rest of us who are sad, the ones left behind.” The edge of her mouth spread into a wide-open smile, her oversized chalky teeth in full view. She beamed awkward and proud at once, fully aware that she could console me with her wisdom. Where does she come up with these things? As if she could read my mind, she went on, “I read that in my Molly McIntire book, but it makes sense.”

Funny what our mourning minds construct to soften the blow of our loss. She’s happy now, we say. Is she? Happy lying in a polished box under the frozen soil? My mother, a card-carrying member of Republicans for Choice, now buried a mere stone’s throw away from a newly placed memorial that I’d never seen before, a marker engraved with prayers for the lives of unborn children “in hopes that our nation will stop the abortion that kills them.” Is she happy about that?

She’s with Daddy now. Is she? Although my last post was engineered around this idea, I have no evidence to prove it. He’s been dead for 23 years. Did he wait for her in some celestial green room with a monitor, watching the rest of her life before she came to join him? What if he reincarnated? What if right now he’s some pimply teenager fumbling his way to second base in his parents’ suburban basement?

I suppose this is would be the anger that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross referred to in her five stages of grief. Anger being the stage that follows denial, which is what I guess I was doing for the last year because my mother didn’t look or act like somebody with a terminal illness. My anger rises from the dust and residue of all the clichéd things we say about a good death, and how she didn’t suffer and how her family was with her, and she died on her own terms.

They weren’t my terms.

I wanted to be able to ask her advice about how to manage my girls when they are rotten and unruly teenagers. She had some experience in this domain, having survived my adolescence. I wanted my mother to watch my daughters grow into young women, to see them graduate from college. I wanted her to be around. I wasn’t done yet.

I keep wondering what do I have to do to wake up and be in a different reality where she’s still with us. Is that bargaining? Check the box for the Kübler-Ross’s third stage, too.

Right away, Buddy-roo noticed the ring on my right-hand ring-finger, a narrow gold band with two rectangular blue amethysts set with two miniature diamonds. I told her how my mother bought the ring from a jeweler in the Russian market in Phnom Penh. My sister was living in Southeast Asia at the time – hard to believe it was 10 years ago – and organized for us a Christmas trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was a trip filled with indelible images: two sisters sunbathing on an island beach on Koh Samui; my mother, tired and proud after climbing the steep and treacherous stairs to the very top tower of the Temple of Angkor Wat; we three lined up in a row, each in our own single-seated cyclo, complete with toothless drivers and the backdrop of Hanoi’s chaotic traffic.

The jeweler – his name was Sarat, my sister’s most favored vendor in the market – was charmed by my mother, like everyone we introduced her to.
He spent nearly an hour showing her all the rings he’d designed, telling her about his gems and precious stones and where he found them in Cambodia. I remember how, after my mother went to bed, my sister and I would sit at the hotel bar and shake our heads. Everyone was always so enamored with mom. If they only knew what we knew, we’d mutter to each other, knowing that what we knew was a daughter’s privilege, and that despite all her motherly flaws, we, too, admired her fiercely.

Buddy-roo wanted to try on the ring. I twisted it off my finger and handed it over. She held the band, turning it back and forth to make the stones sparkle under the light. It was too large for her ring finger, even too big as she pulled it down over her thumb. “Can I have it someday?” she asked. “Sure,” I told her, “someday you can have it all.”

I’m haunted by that someday, that future moment when I will leave Short-pants and Buddy-roo to their grief, when they will rifle through my earliest love letters to
De-facto, making fun of my copiously worded and disclaimer-ridden proclamations of affection, or when they read the letters in that shoe-box that I should probably destroy now while I can, the syrupy ones I wrote to my parents when I was an introspective, awe-struck student seeing Europe for the first time. Or when they go to write my obituary and realize that I used to be somebody, somebody who was a competent professional before becoming their quirky, forgetful, imperfect mother.

As I begin to sort through the relics that belonged to my mother, I see her anew. I study her photographs a different way. A college friend of hers writes a note about some mischief they stirred up on campus; I am surprised to think of my mother involved in such antics. Now comes a new view, I suppose, to see her as someone beyond my mother, to frame her in larger context, as a woman coming of age and living a range of life experiences. A regular person – just like me.

It makes me look at the girls and think this: by the time you can possibly understand who I really am, it will probably be too late to know me. Then you, too, will know this hollow, cheated, bereaved anger.

This isn’t a pretty post. It’s agitated and discomforting. It doesn’t resolve and tie up in a pithy bow at the end. You were a bit too whiney in that one, someone will say, after reading it. Why, I wonder, when a woman speaks the truth about anger or frustration, this is called whining. Were I man, I’d be allowed to punch holes in the plaster wall. Which is what my words are meant to do right now, because I have been on an airplane all night and I am tired and honest and angry that my mother has been taken from us.

Everything else I’ve written about her death has been well-behaved. Why can’t the poignant be joined by the raw and unrefined? I want to write it as it is: real, rough, full-bodied grief, something that’s messy, mad and just a little bit selfish, something that will be diluted if there are too many drafts and edits, something that’s ugly and maybe hard to read. Something that screams at me to just press publish.


Feb 21 2010

So We’ll Never Forget

I have always been the documenter of our family’s history. As a child I would stack together multiple pages of paper, folding and cutting them to create pocket-sized books. I’d write about our family rituals or offer how-to advice. These books were a source of great entertainment to my family and good fodder for teasing me, still, to this day.

My most famous title, The U.D.T. Rool Book, a palm-sized field guide I wrote when I was 7-years old, described, step-by-step, our family’s summertime swim-in-the-lake ritual, as practiced by the Underwater Demolition Team (U.D.T.), a club invented by my father to get us out of bed and in the lake every July morning. Another family favorite: the handy pamphlet titled
The Key to Popularity, my very first (circa 4th grade) effort at parody, a tongue-in-cheek embellishment of my mother’s theory that if she just made sure we all learned how to ice-skate and water-ski, we’d be popular.

As happens with the artifacts of our childhood, these little books disappeared. And then, during renovations or severe spring cleanings, they re-appeared. When my mother recovered The Key to Popularity, probably in the back of some drawer, she put it in its rightful place on the kitchen counter, in that the space that is a magnet for all manner of junk – those old, chewed-on, unsharpened pencils, pens that no longer work, worn nail files, remnants of note pads, tchotchkes and campaign buttons – the miscellaneous counter in our kitchen (we all have one, don’t we?) where things just end up and somehow, stay there.

Every time I went to visit my mother, The Key to Popularity was still there, wedged in a square lucite box meant for Post-it notes that were used up over a decade ago. This little book, like many of the masterpieces I authored as a child, was a charming chapter of our family jokelore; she couldn’t bring herself to throw it out. But I cringed every time I saw it.

When my father died – twenty years ago – at the age of 59, we assembled in shock, unprepared and unbelieving. Things we’d meant to say had gone unspoken. Nothing so dramatic that he didn’t probably know already, but still, it felt as though he was plucked away from us; his life was interrupted. The painter who made a portrait of him, later, purposefully didn’t finish the canvas, in homage to his unfinished life.

On the day we buried him, prior to the mass, there was a small private service at the funeral home, the last viewing of his body before the casket was closed. We stood around him, shedding tears – and giggling. “What are you all chuckling about?” my mother asked, mildly perturbed as she approached us at the casket. She saw the little trinkets and photographs we’d placed beside him and she smiled. When I showed her The U.D.T. Rool Book tucked in the breast pocket of his blazer, she took my hand and squeezed it. She even chuckled with us when she saw what had been slipped under my father’s lifeless arm: the previous Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzle and a sharpened #2 pencil. “You kids,” she said.

How many times I heard her say that: You kids.

But the truth must come out: It was my mother who started the tradition of doing the Sunday Times crossword when my parents were dating in college. She was, by her own report, quite skilled at crosswords – more adept than my father. But she figured out quickly that if she didn’t answer all the clues she knew right away, it would take longer to finish the puzzle, elongating their afternoon date. This was a surprise to me; I’d always associated my Dad with the Sunday crossword. I asked her about this and she shrugged. “He got so good at working the puzzle, I let him take it over.”

My mother told us, knowing it was futile, not to put anything in her coffin with her. I teased her that I would bury her with the family carrot, but in the end I had a better idea. I tucked The Key To Popularity in beside her, next to the white satin interior of her casket, just a little helpful guidance for heavenly social interaction.

There was something else lying around on that kitchen counter: a hand-made origami oracle that Short-pants gave to my mother last year, to “help her with important decisions.” Constructed out of intricately folded paper, this device resembles an egg carton in which you insert your thumb and index finger and move the triangled peaks this way and that way. With a ritualized guess of numbers and colors, the correct answer to all-important questions can be divined, much like the famous 8-ball, with oracle-like responses under the folded flaps: Yes, of course or Maybe not.

Though I was not present during the days that my mother made her decision to stop treatment and enter hospice care, I have this fantasy that she stood, leaning against her kitchen island, moving her fingers back and forth within the folded paper, asking the question, “Is it time to go?” and that Short-pants’ oracle gave her the response that settled it once and for all.

This folded contraption was also placed in the casket with my mother, in case she needs to make any decisions in the afterlife.

My mother’s mother, my Grammy, used to tell us that she and Grandpa had a plan to meet up after death at the entrance to Macy’s on 34th street in New York. When she died, I imagined some purgatorial dimension where their fantasy was lived out, returning to the roaring twenties that belonged to them when they were roaring, in their twenties, and finding each other again.

So I imagine my mother, holding her edition of The Key to Popularity, meeting up with my father, with the original U.D.T. Rool Book in hand, comparing notes about the memories of their happy life together. “Sure glad she wrote it all down,” they’ll say, marveling at my little handbooks, “so we’ll never forget.”

And then Daddy will pull out his copy of the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, and they’ll work it together, for eternity.


Feb 16 2010

Advance to the Rear

There are times when life seems to take on its own momentum. Unlike the days where choice seems evident – debating the banal options of our routine lives, turn here or there, eat this or that – these are the eerily directed moments when events simply propel us forward and it feels that we have little say in any matter. My mother died and time hiccupped; seeming to pause momentarily as we stared at her still body, relieved for her, bereft for ourselves. Who do we call first? Let’s just wait a bit, take this in. We knew. It was a temporary stay of time, a last quiet moment before the rapid undertaking of after-death duties.

Once the call was made, however, a trigger was pulled and industrious activity ensued. The hospice nurse arrived and made an official pronouncement. The funeral director came, his head perpetually bowed. My mother wanted to donate the bones in her inner ears to science; this had to be orchestrated quickly, and on a weekend. Our immediate family was notified. Close friends were called. The obituary, previously drafted, required editing and (exhaustive) proofing. The laundering of sheets, the removal of the hospice furniture and putting my mother’s study back together. The calling of lawyers, reading of the will, signing of waivers, funeral arrangements, plane reservations for relatives flying in or not, depending on the inclement weather. The unfolding course of events urged us, relentlessly, onward.

Our mother was a woman who took much satisfaction from her own productivity. Even at the very end, she wanted a plan for the day. We are fallen apples, not far from that tree; our daily to-do list became suddenly daunting. The slow, quiet, waiting vigil of the aching days before her death gave way to a frenzy of tasks that were executed with an almost maniacal urgency while dodging the onslaught of casseroles and meat platters.

Looking in the mirror one tired morning, dark circles defining my eyes – the residue of a long vigil and stolen moments for private tears – I wondered exactly what fumes in my body were driving me forward.

Two weeks before my mother died, her sister sent her an email about a game they made up when they were kids, maybe 6 or 7 years old. They’d march around the back yard with sticks and curtain rods that they pretended were rifles and they’d shout out, “Advance to the rear!” My mother remembered the game; she instructed me to pull out her old photo album and she pointed to the picture of the house – the same house I saw in Havana – and showed me the route they followed, rifles in hand, out the side door and around to the back of the house. She said her father would get so frustrated with them; repeatedly explaining that it was not possible to advance to the rear.

But we were advancing, one step at a time, a last loving labor to finish what my mother had started by dying. Respects were paid; the ritualized calling hours sometimes awkward, often healing – the standing and greeting of her friends and admirers, the sharing of our grief. People came to console us but just as often we ended up consoling them. “Don’t be sorry she’s gone,” I told someone who would not stop crying, “just be grateful you knew her.” (But my sorrow remains, along with my gratitude.)

We put her in the ground beside my father, resting next to him the same way they used to sleep, side-by-side in their bed. We did this privately, without fanfare. Her friends and colleagues will be invited to a memorial service later, in the spring, when we will celebrate her life.

In retrospect, it was right to have this last private moment with her – with them. We stood there like kids stalling at the foot of our parents’ bed, saying an eternal goodnight.

We pressed ahead to finish the business of collecting important files and papers, cleaning out the refrigerator, coordinating with the caretaker who will stay with the house. We stood in the driveway to make our goodbyes, stunned by the list of sad errands we had completed in just one week’s time. I studied my sister and brother in the harsh winter sunlight. They looked tired, worn out – a reflection, no doubt, of how I looked and felt. Oh my god, I thought, she’s really gone. Oh my god, I thought, we’re old.

I’d phoned the airline nearly every day, searching for a return flight. With each call, I felt more like Dorothy asking anyone and everyone I came in contact with to please help me get home. I just wanted to get back home.
No amount of logic or emotion would solicit enough sympathy from a reservation agent to bend any rules. In the end, I broke down and bought a new airline ticket to take me home to Short-pants and Buddy-roo and the heroic De-facto, Nobel-worthy after his 3-week stint as a single parent.
I would not have been able to accompany my mother this way had he not been so willing and agile.

Now I am home, back in the fold of my life. Back to my cherubs crawling in bed for the morning cuddle, the rush through breakfast and out the door to school. Back to my work and my clients and conference calls. Back to the bustle of a cosmopolitan city and the every-day routine of my regular world. Back to normal, except nothing feels normal anymore.

It was a campaign, these last weeks, to help my mother die, wanting her to die well, pushing myself forward to do what must be done, all the while missing my man and my little girls. It was a privilege to be there, to hold my mother’s hand and help her move through the last days of her life. It was a relief to come home to the hold-you-forever embrace of my vibrant little girls. And now that I have been there and back, I think I know exactly what it means to advance to the rear.


Feb 7 2010

Solemn Fold

I pinched the frozen clothespins to liberate the sheet from the line of rope that spans the back porch. The sheet was ice-cold; it’d been hanging outside on the porch all afternoon. I wrapped the yards of damp cotton over my shoulder, trying not to drag anything on the floor as I pulled the rest of the laundry – pillowcases and a few dishtowels – off the line and made my way back inside. I draped the sheet over the three chairs evenly placed beside the dining room table. It will hang there overnight, to shed the last of the dampness and to get warm and fully dry before it is ready to be folded.

This is a ritual that has been enacted in this house, on this porch and in this dining room, for more than fifty years. The tumble-dryer in the laundry room is not unused, but the sheets in this house have never seen the inside of it. No matter what season, my mother’s sheets are always line-dried.

“I need your help with the sheets,” my mother would say, a habitual plea generating the big eye roll from any one of her three children. This might be our Sisyphean task – second only to ironing my father’s handkerchiefs – a pesky chore we were commanded to do and our mother would not tolerate a half-hearted execution. We were guided step by step. “Put your finger in the dart. Pull it, tight. Stretch the sheet first. Flip it and fold. Now walk toward me…”

We found explicit sheet-folding instructions from a mid-twentieth century woman’s magazine, tucked in the back of some drawer. Was this how she learned her special way to fold fitted sheets? Or did she clip it because it matched the technique she’d acquired or invented herself? She would never say. But her systematic laundering and folding of sheets is part of our family lore.

Just picture the linen closet: towels on one shelf, sheets on the other – all squared, fluffed and folded, even towers of perfectly creased cotton. And when you go to make a bed – any bed in the house – the fitted bottom sheet opens itself for the bed, effortlessly, without a single wrinkle.

And the smell, the perfume of all the things that fly in the country air: cut grass, morning dew, apple blossoms in the orchard, summer rain, fecund grapes before the harvest, an icy winter storm. I need only to throw one of those freshly aired sheets over my shoulder or to slip myself into a just-made bed, to re-live my entire childhood with one inhale. Those sheets are an olfactory map of my earliest years.

During the last months of her life, when she was weakening, my mother’s friends admonished her to stop. She should save her energy. It was too easy to fall on the porch, too cold to be out hanging the sheets on the line. She should use the dryer. But my mother persisted. She has always preferred the feel and scent of her line-dried sheets.

This last week, my sister and brother and I washed her sheets every other day, taking turns pulling them from the washer and hanging them outside on the line and bringing them in to warm before folding. We all have the intuition – inherited, no doubt – about when they have been on the line long enough, or when, after hanging inside, they are ready to fold. One of us would call the other into the dining room and in tandem we’d lift the sheet and stand, facing each other, following the steps as though our mother was whispering them to us from the middle of her steady, uninterrupted slumber in the other room.

It is unspoken, but we all know why we’ve done this. This is still her house. We honor her with every load of laundry. Each time the nurse’s assistant came to give a sponge-bath and change the bed, we knew that my mother, even in a semi-conscious state, would be comforted by the familiar perfume of her porch-dried sheets. It was part of our vigil.

Then, this morning, my mother took her last breath.

My brother – her son, the doctor – checked her vital signs. I reached for my iPhone to note the official time of death. My sister wrapped her arms around me as I began to cry. We waited for a long stretch of time, watching to be sure that she would not take another breath, that this wasn’t just some irregularity, that this was the end. When we were certain, we kissed her goodbye, one at a time, and pulled up the sheet to cover her motionless
chest, a sheet that, once they came to take my mother’s body away, was washed and hung on the line to dry. A sheet that, tonight, before bed, we brought in and draped over the backs of the dining room chairs to get warm and fully dry. A sheet that, tomorrow, we will pull and stretch tight, folding it solemnly, like a prayer.


Jan 30 2010

Accompaniment

I’ve been sleeping on the loveseat in my mother’s study. You would not think it comfortable, but curled into a fetal position within its square arms and rounded pillows I manage to find restorative sleep. Not that it is uninterrupted sleep, but at least there is plenty of it. I cannot help but compare the rhythm of these nights to those first ones just after bringing my babies home from the hospital. There is something satisfying about the tender caretaking that is administered in the quietest part of the night.

We are spun in the cocoon of Hospice. A cold and white winter waits outside. We are warm and attentive within the walls of this old, noisy house. When my mother sleeps, I hear the sounds of ticking clocks and shutters knocking in the wind. The furnace kicks in and rocks the whole house, just like it always has. I like all these odd, familiar noises, even in the night. They keep me company when my mother is asleep.

A social worker called and asked to come see my mother, who is not that interested in visitors, but we realized this is all part of the Hospice checklist. As it should be; aside from the furniture, the physical care and the advice about administering pain-relief, it is entirely appropriate to assess the dying patient’s need for psychological and emotional support. It’s not like everyone knows how to die.

She arrived with a notepad, an over-compassionate expression and a gift, a hand-knit shawl. She asked all the questions my poor mother has answered already a half-dozen times in the last week as each Hospice staffer has come to meet her and familiarize themselves with her case. And then more questions: Are you ready to die? How do you feel about dying? My mother has done much thinking about this topic, evident from that natural language she used to convey her state of mind. She graciously indulged the long string of questions, though it taxed her to talk for so long. And then finally, she’d had enough.

“You know,” she said, “I remember something Elisabeth Kübler-Ross once told me…” (I wish I could repeat the rest of what my mother said, I’m sure it was wise. But I didn’t hear it because of the extra-loud Ch-Ching that went off in the back of my brain.)

A personal affiliation with the Guru of death and dying obviously trumps an inquisitive social worker. My mother has always known how to gently move things along. Some final small talk, appreciative goodbyes and call if you change your mind about the Chaplain. Yes, of course, and thanks for the shawl.

(Kübler-Ross, it turns out, was a commencement speaker at a college where my mother worked. Mom really did have occasion to speak with her, at length. Who knew?)

After the social worker left, my mother eyed the shawl. “Make sure it ends up in one of the boxes upstairs, for the yard sale.” For years she’s been putting stuff aside for this heralded event. Even in the last days of her life, she is still anticipating the moment when her home will be free of the clutter she’s collected. I told her that in heaven there are effortless yard sales, managed by angels, where everything sells.