Here is Chapter 34 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
I knew so little about lung cancer when we received the diagnosis, but I have been reading everything I can find about it. As with my research on strokes, I discover the data are not encouraging. Lung cancer, especially when it is diagnosed in a late stage, has a high mortality rate. Chemotherapy can prolong life, but only if the patient is strong enough to withstand the treatment. Even then, the quality of life is not always good. Without treatment, especially with a 10-centimeter mass that has spread to the liver, the survival rate can be measured in months, perhaps only weeks. The saddest statistic of all is that medical researchers estimate approximately 87% of all lung cancer cases are directly related to smoking. My mother smoked cigarettes for close to five decades.
Because her condition is deteriorating rapidly, the hospice case manager has ordered a hospital bed and portable oxygen tanks to be installed in mom’s apartment. They arrive with great fanfare. Two burly guys from Carmichael’s Drug Store in downtown Monroe assemble the bed and the tanks early one morning. We have cleared them a place in mom’s bedroom. Mister Buster zips around the yard, flying in and out of the doggie door, barking and thrashing about, to herald their arrival. Daisy barks, too, but we leave her upstairs in our house. The fellows are good sports about it, ignoring the noisy dogs’ plaintive wails.
Mom now spends most of her days in a stupor. It is not exactly a coma — she occasionally raises her head and mumbles, and she can respond to simple yes or no questions — but her situation might be described best as a “drug-induced fog.” She only comes alive when Paula or I enter the room and announce it is time for another dose of liquid morphine. She seems marginally alert as one of us slides a hand behind her neck and gently lifts her up so she can swallow the medication without choking.
At first, I was stingy with the morphine, but now I dip the stopper into the medicine bottle, fill it up, and squirt the liquid into her mouth with little regard for precise dosages. What does it matter? A sailor does not clean the deck on a sinking ship.
Mom no longer possesses the energy to propel herself from the bed into the wheelchair to undertake an arduous 40-foot journey to the bathroom. We must rely on the bedpan. Most of the time, it falls on Shirley to empty the pan and change the sheets. As usual, she performs these distasteful chores without complaint. In fact, she keeps up her running monologue and gently pokes fun at Miss Laura even though her companion can no longer respond. I marvel at our good fortune in hiring Shirley. She has become an honorary member of our family. No doubt mom’s death will affect her almost as deeply as it will affect us.
Despite her lethargy, Miss Laura will not go gentle into that good night. One Friday evening about a week after she returns home from Piedmont Hospital, I am sitting next to her bed. The television is turned on, but the sound is muted. No one else is home. As I listen to her raspy breathing and the hiss of the oxygen tanks, I start reading Art Buchwald’s memoir about his experiences in hospice care, Too Soon to Say Goodbye. Mom stirs and suddenly snaps awake.
I lean over her bed. “Hey, stranger. Fancy seeing you here. Is everything okay?”
She seems disoriented until I reach over and slip her eyeglasses onto the bridge of her nose. Blinking, she gestures wildly. Although I don’t catch onto things as quickly as Paula does, I get the message. For whatever reason, mom insists she must go to the bathroom and not use the bed pan.
I demur. “Look, mom. You’re too weak. Use the bed pan. I don’t mind.”
She mumbles and points to the bathroom, but her words are an incomprehensible jumble of sh-sounding gibberish.
“Mom, this is not a good idea.”
Despite her listlessness and gasping for air, she will not be dissuaded.
With a sigh, and against my better judgment, I fix the oxygen tubing onto the portable tank with wheels. Somehow, I transfer her safely into the wheelchair. Yet when I stand before the toilet, I can plainly recognize numerous obstacles to executing the maneuver.
“Mom, let’s just get you back to bed. This isn’t going to work.”
Ignoring me, she stands, turns, and plops down hard on the toilet. Using her good hand, she jerks her underwear to the floor. With her head bowed, she uses the bathroom with a series of grunts and groans.
This process disturbs me more than I can say. It is not so much the difficulty in navigating from the bed to the toilet — I expected that much — but it is mom’s failure to respond to my comments. Even worse, she has lost all semblance of modesty. The mother I knew, pre and post-stroke, would have been mortified to expose herself to me, no matter what the circumstances. This woman doesn’t think twice about it. I am a big boy; I can handle the sight of my half-naked mother sitting on the toilet. What I cannot handle is the idea that she is so far gone it doesn’t matter to her.
As difficult as it was to maneuver into the bathroom, it is infinitely worse to lift mom up from the toilet. It sits low to the ground, and she is a large woman. She has at least 100 pounds on me. I reach over the wheelchair to help pull her onto her feet, but it requires all of my strength to lift her up. Once on her feet, her legs are wobbly. Fearing the inevitable, I lean behind me in a vain effort to pull the wheelchair around before she can collapse.
I am too late. Down she goes. In one sense, it seems to happen in slow motion. In another sense, it happens so quickly I can barely react. As she begins to topple, I grab the neck of her nightgown, but her momentum is too much for me. Her trajectory will not be denied. I rip the gown even as I fall on top of my mother.
I am up in an instant, my heart in my throat. Dear God, dear God, dear God! Please don’t let her break her hip!
We are lucky; nothing appears to be broken.
The only thing that has saved her from cracking her head on the tile or fracturing her pelvis is a large plastic vat that can be placed inside her three-in-one potty chair. It resembles an oversized cup and is used as a large bedpan when the patient cannot get to the toilet. Fortunately, when mom fell, she struck the vat and it cushioned her fall.
I am troubled by the way she fell. Most people who are falling show a physical reaction: They gasp, throw out their arms to blunt the impact, or scream when they strike an immovable object. Mom does none of these things. She topples like a tree cut with a chainsaw — dead weight, inanimate, unconcerned.
She lies on the floor, naked from the waist down. Much to my dismay, I see she had not finished going to the bathroom when she stood, so she continues to defecate while she lies on the cold bathroom tile. Behind me, Mister Buster jumps and yips. This is more excitement than he has experienced in weeks.
“Oh, my God. Mom, are you all right? Are you all right?”
She looks up at me, mumbles something, and closes her eyes.
Oh, my God, she’s dead! Oh, Jesus, God!
No, she is not dead. She is asleep. The drugs coursing through her veins are so powerful they keep her in a deep sleep for most of the day. Her excursion to the bathroom has tired her beyond measure. She is catching up on much-needed rest.
I swing my foot at the little dog. “Get back, Mister. Get back.”
I will never be able to clean her up, get her out of the bathroom, and back into bed without assistance. Paula is attending a work function for the evening and Shelby is spending the night with a friend. I wouldn’t want Shelby to see her Nana in this sad state, in any case. I suppose I could call Shirley, but I hate to bother her after her shift ends. Pulling my cell phone from my pocket, I dial 9-1-1.
I explain the situation and the dispatcher tells me not to worry. She will send a crew to assist.
To their credit, the paramedics arrive in less than 10 minutes. I use the time between my call and their arrival to clean mom’s bottom and most of the bathroom floor. It is a challenge with Mister Buster barking and jumping around behind me, but somehow I manage. I even slip some clean underwear over most of mom’s legs, although her bottom is still exposed because I cannot lift her torso.
If the two burly paramedics are shocked by what they see, they hide it. They are extremely professional and probably have seen a great deal worse than this.
Gripping mom under her armpits, they hoist her up as though she were a stuffed animal weighing almost nothing. I direct them to her bed. Rather than place her in the wheelchair and take her out again, they half-carry, half-drag her while I follow behind with the portable oxygen tank. After she is tucked under the covers and I have adjusted the oxygen tank and pulled the metal rails up on the sides of the bed, I thank them profusely. They appear almost embarrassed by my gratitude.
After the paramedics depart, I am too keyed up to read. I stroke Mister’s fur until he calms down, and I watch my sleeping mother. The hospice nurse recommended she install a catheter so we don’t have to worry about the bedpan and the bathroom, but I resisted. A catheter seems to be another step toward a dark void, and I want mom to remain vertical and self-sufficient as long as possible. After this episode, though, I realize a catheter is the only viable option.
I stay in the chair beside mom until I am too sleepy to sit up. Quickly slipping through the door that leads to our basement and kicking at Mister so he won’t follow me, I head to my computer. For the last couple of nights, I have written a brief update and e-mailed it to our friends and relatives. This is a typical entry:
There's nothing good to report tonight. Laura is still hanging on, but just barely. The hospice nurse came this afternoon and said it could be at any time. Mom has had nothing much to eat in four days, and she has had almost nothing to drink. If I had to guess, I would say tomorrow or Wednesday will be the day.
As I complete my email and hit the "send" command, Uncle Bobby calls to ask for a status report. For a change, he does not say he is “near perfect.” No one around here is near perfect these days — far from it.
After I hang up with Bobby, I call and speak to mom's friend, Leila. She utters all the right things. She is a good, loyal adjunct to our family.
I understand that my cousin, Chris Mead, and my uncle, Billy Mellette, will arrive sometime this week.
We are all holding up okay for now, but I hope things end soon, for mom’s sake. She needs some peace.
Despite my predictions, mom hangs on. Each day I think she cannot hold out, but each day she does. The reports of her imminent demise are greatly exaggerated, it seems.
She utters her last clear, distinct, comprehensible words — at least insofar as anyone is present to hear them — four days after she falls onto the bathroom floor. I am sitting alone at her bedside when she raises her head, looks down at Mister Buster as he lies across her thighs, and smiles. In a raspy voice, she partially whispers, “Hey there, good looking!” With that, she collapses back into the bed and falls into a deep sleep.
I smile. I don’t know if she understood what she was saying or even if she meant to speak to her little Chihuahua, but I cannot help but feel good. I am pleased we bought Mister Buster from Shirley. He has enriched my mother’s life in its closing chapters.
As mom deteriorates more each day, many gut-wrenching decisions must be made, and a plan must be developed. I am a reasonably organized person, but I have never felt less like planning than I do right now. I want to crawl into my bed, pull the sheet up over my head, and ignore the world. Paula tells me to pull myself together and stop acting infantile. She is correct, of course, but the urge to run and hide remains with me. It is strong and unrelenting.
So here’s the plan we put together during those weeks: First, we are careful not to shield Shelby from the truth about Nana’s condition, but neither do we wallow in it. We are candid, but we limit her exposure by encouraging her to visit friends more often than she usually does. We relax our rules about homework and bedtime. I do not subscribe to permissive parenting, but I also don’t want to set up our family, which already is dealing with an abnormal level of stress, to erupt into bitter, emotion-induced arguments over relatively small matters such as a bedtime.
Second, we realize that mom’s affairs must be put in order. I retrieve a strongbox from her closet and leaf through her papers. In the process, I stumble across intriguing documents. Mom still keeps a copy of her divorce papers. The final decree was dated September 26, 1962--93 days before I was born. At the time, she and my father lived in New York City. Because no-fault divorce was not an option, mom moved to Reno, Nevada, and lived there for six weeks so she could qualify for what they described as a “quickie, Reno divorce.” In the modern era, where divorces soon may be available online while a person simultaneously downloads music onto an I-pod, this old-fashioned divorce hardly strikes me as quick.
I also find an old, stained, tattered photograph of my first grade class at Orange Grove Elementary School in Charleston, South Carolina. Lurking in the second row, third from the left, I grin as I sit with my classmates in front of a maroon curtain. My teacher, Miss Godfrey — she of the beehive hairdo, mini-skirt, and buckled patent-leather shoes— smiles at the camera. Mom used to tell me I was sweet on Miss Godfrey, although I have only a dim recollection of her knees. Gazing at her image, circa 1969, I see why I might have harbored fantasies about this teacher. She vaguely resembles a young Goldie Hawn on the television show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
Mom does not have a last will and testament. As a lawyer, I should have seen to it that she had a will, but I thought it was unnecessary. She owns no property and possesses few assets to speak of. I hold title to the car she drove at the time of the stroke as well as the house where she resides. As her only beneficiary, I cannot imagine probating her estate. The court fees probably would be larger than any monies I would inherit.
My search yields one especially valuable document: A life insurance policy from Kanawha Insurance Company. I find an 800 telephone number on the policy and resolve to call about the proceeds. I feel crass thinking about life insurance money as my mother gasps for air in the next room, but practical issues do not subside just because a family is in crisis.
Perhaps the worst chore Paula and I tackle is dealing with the funeral home. Even the thought of a funeral home sticks in my craw. I had a law school roommate who came from a family of morticians and lived in a gigantic Victorian mansion — a monstrosity, judging by the photographs — which contained the family’s funeral business on the lower floors. He used to entertain the guys on our hall with stories of the undertaker’s work. He probably fabricated most of the morbid, grotesque vignettes. Even so, the idea of visiting a funeral home leaves me feeling uneasy and vaguely nauseated.
Once again, Paula will not allow me to evade my responsibilities. “Let’s go, Mike. I spoke to Michelle -- she's a nurse, you know -- and she told me about a good funeral home in Monroe. I’ve already called, and they said we could stop by any time this afternoon.”
I feel myself coming undone. “What exactly is a ‘good’ funeral home? Would somebody please answer me that question? What makes it good? Do they embalm bodies better at a good funeral home versus one that sucks?”
Paula wisely remains silent. She knows when I need to vent.
“I remember reading in Freakonomics that we can buy coffins online much cheaper than the funeral home sells them. We can charge it to American Express and have it delivered overnight. That’s comforting to know, isn’t it? We can get a real deal. And why not? Why the fuck not? Why pay a lot for a box we’re just going to stuff into the ground?”
When the storm passes, Paula gently touches me on the arm. “Let’s go. I’ll drive.”
The Arthur Bowick Funeral Home is located on Spring Street in Monroe, a main thoroughfare in the little town. I have passed the nondescript white brick building dozens of times and never thought about it. A small sign clearly indicates the nature of the business, but my eyes have passed over it as though it were invisible.
I feel a wave of depression wash over me as soon as Paula guides the car into the parking lot. She looks at my face, which probably appears ashen. “Are you okay? Do you need some water?”
I feel faint, but I shake my head and concentrate on breathing deeply.
We alight from the car and head for the front door. As soon as we step inside, a gust of cold air greets us. I am a hot-natured person; ordinarily, I would welcome the drop in temperature. Today it reminds me, perversely, of “Cool Air,” a macabre H.P. Lovecraft short story. I involuntarily shiver.
The foyer appears exactly as I would expect. It is as though a set dresser from central casting got there before our visit so he could outfit the set in “modern American funeral home décor.” The furnishings tend toward dark woods, ornate flourishes, and overstuffed flowery cushions on the couches and chairs. Off to the right, I see part of the chapel. The viewing room is visible down a short hallway. To the left is a bank of offices. Behind the offices is a large set of double doors. We are shortly to learn that this room houses a variety of caskets that are, in the parlance, “suitable for every taste and budget.”
Jeannie Bowick, the owner’s wife, greets us at the door. She is a petite, elegantly-tailored, older woman. Perhaps she has been trained in the ways of the funeral business; she knows just what to say, how to speak, when to gesture.
Paula shakes the woman’s hand and introduces me. I am too shell-shocked to do much more than nod hello.
Mrs. Bowick motions to a conference room behind her office. “Let’s step in here.” She leads the way.
We follow her into a room with a huge wooden table. The walls offer paintings and prints of pastoral scenes, presumably designed to produce a calming effect. Everything appears neat, orderly, antiseptic. It would not do to present a messy funeral home.
When we are seated and the obligatory offers of coffee, soda, or bottled water have been declined, Mrs. Bowick addresses me. “Now, then, I understand you are here about your mother.”
I nod. When neither Paula nor Mrs. Bowick speaks, I launch into a narrative about mom’s stroke and lung cancer. I know I am rambling — it is as though I have drifted out of my body and I am watching the words spew from my mouth, a nauseated patient determined to expel the vile contents of his stomach — but I cannot stop myself. When I am finished, we sit silently for a moment.
Mrs. Bowick slowly slides a folder in front of me. One thing about dealing with sickness and death — a lot of folders are involved. Whole forests have given their lives that health care facilities and mortuaries might share printed information about their services.
“Arthur is away at the moment, but he asked me to present this information to you about the services we provide. You can see that we offer traditional services, memorial services, cremation, and pre-planning.”
I nod. Pre-planning? I suppose we are pre-planning right now. Mom is not yet dead, and we are planning for her funeral and burial.
As Paula and I hunch over the folder, Mrs. Bowick speaks. I have little doubt it is a scripted spiel, but it is engagingly told. Her voice drips with sympathy and warmth. She does not give us the Look of Pity, for which I am grateful. I suspect her training has taught her to mask her true feelings. Either she hides her feelings or she has done this a long time and has become numb to yet another customer coping with grievous loss.
Her soft voice is soothing. If I were listening to her speak as I curled up in a rope hammock, I probably would fall asleep. “We are here to replace confusion with calm, doubts with certainty, and questions with answers. Here, one finds a quiet gentleness in an atmosphere of dignity and trust.”
It turns out this nice, somewhat generic offer to comfort us in our hour of need is a prelude to a nitty gritty discussion of pricing. Inside the folder Paula removes several thick sheets of paper labeled “General Price List.” We leaf through the pages.
Mrs. Bowick sees us perusing the price lists. “If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
The figures mostly blur together, but a few prices jump out at me. Caskets range from $1,195.00 to $7,285.00. Preparation and care of the remains run $595.00, but this does not include “dressing, cosmetizing and casketing of deceased,” which costs an additional $125.00. Use of the staff, facilities, and equipment for visitation prior to the day of the funeral is $295.00. The use of the staff, facilities, and equipment for a funeral service is $410.00.
I look away from the folder. I am normally a frugal shopper, but this strikes me as no time to haggle over price. We should decide the best way to honor mom, and it costs what it costs. No doubt this thinking — and the ultimate necessity of funereal services — has driven the funeral industry to new heights of profitability throughout the years.
After we mull over pricing, Mrs. Bowick leads us back to the casket showroom. It features a large selection of styles and prices from which to choose. Some caskets are metal, gleaming black or blue or chocolate brown. Others are wooden, in various shades of brown and black. Some caskets feature the praying hands of Jesus and others allow for a customized emblem to be added: a hunting scene, a mountain setting, or Uga, the bulldog mascot for the University of Georgia football team. Even in eternity, from the depths of the grave, a rabid sports fan can urge the team on to ever greater heights of glory.
Mrs. Bowick bows slightly. “I will leave you to confer. Let me know what you decide.”
Paula and I wander through the showroom — so many selections, so much money. I have no doubt I could find a cheaper casket at an online outlet, but I do not succumb to the allure. I can envision their advertisements: “A tisket, a tasket, come buy yourself a casket. These prices are so low you can’t afford NOT to die. These prices are simply to die for!”
With such silliness rolling through my head, I stop in front of a wooden casket. It is dark brown, polished to a high gloss. I like the look. Kneeling, I read the price tag: $4,200. It is a middle of the road price. Mom would appreciate that: Not too cheap, not too expensive.
Paula rubs my back. “Yeah, I like that one, too.”
“Good. Then it’s done. Let’s tell her which one we want and get outta here.”
“Are you okay?”
“I feel like I’m gonna vomit, but it would leave a permanent stain on the light brown carpeting.”
With the funeral home and casket selected, we have one more chore to complete. Arthur Bowick can prepare mom’s body for its final resting place, but the place itself must be selected.
Will the horror never end? I know about as much about picking a burial plot as I do about selecting a funeral home. Fortunately, Mrs. Bowick directs us to the nearby Rest Haven Cemetery, which is owned and operated by the city of Monroe.
I call city hall and they refer me to Danny Smith, assistant public works director. He agrees to meet me in the cemetery at 10:30 the following morning. Paula has a meeting to attend at work, so I must fly solo again. At least choosing a cemetery plot is not quite as daunting as choosing a funeral home, although it is by no means a pleasant interlude.
Danny Smith turns out to be an older black gentleman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Rest Haven Cemetery. He tells me to hop into his yellow “City of Monroe” pickup truck and he drives me around on the single lane, slightly crumbling asphalt of the graveyard road. Pointing to vacant sections, he provides a running commentary on the desirability, or lack thereof, of various plots.
“This one is quite nice. It’s partially in the shade of the old oak. Of course, the roots of those other trees there are starting to come up, and they could cause problems later on.”
“This one is very nice. The gentle slope — see it there — leads down to the older section. That’s where the Confederate soldiers are buried.”
“Of course, if it was me, I’d want this one.”
This comment strikes me as a variant of the used car salesman’s famous remark, “I drive one just like this myself.” Nonetheless, I feel compelled to take the bait. “Why is that?”
“Well, first off, it’s in the newer part of the cemetery, so it’s kept up better. Second, it’s on flat ground, so it drains better. Also, the ground’s a little smoother, so roots and rocks won’t be a problem. You got that little concrete bench there to sit on when you visit. See it?”
I nod. “Is the price the same for this one as for the others?”
“Yep. They’re the same. You get two plots for $800.00. They don’t sell single plots.”
“Okay. Do I pay you?” I reach for my checkbook.
“You pay at city hall. You know where that is, right?” When I nod, he smiles. “Good. They’ll send you a deed in a few weeks. You then own the plots in fee simple. You can do whatever you want with ‘em.”
I feel my natural sarcasm rising up in my throat. I can do whatever I want with my cemetery plots? What exactly am I going to do with a plot besides bury my mother? I don’t see myself opening a little hot dog stand in the middle of the Rest Haven Cemetery.
He drops me near my car and hands me a slip of paper. “Tell ‘em it’s Section C, Lot 34B.”
I nod. “Thank you, sir.”
He drives away down the single lane, turns left, and disappears over a ridge. When he is gone, I walk back into the cemetery to inspect the ground I have purchased.
So this is where my mother will spend eternity. It's a pretty place. Of course, I recognize the view is more for the family members who will visit rather than the deceased.
Mr. Smith is correct; it seems to be an ideal piece of land. On two sides, it faces a multitude of graves of all shapes and sizes. On another side, about a hundred yards away, lies a chain length fence that serves as the boundary line of a homeowner’s property. On another side, across a street, lies a public housing project. Mom would like that. As a young lady, she participated in civil rights marches and demonstrations on behalf of people of color and the poor. It is fitting she will rest near a low-income housing complex.
After a minute or so of reflection, I leave the cemetery and slide behind the wheel of my car. Rubbing my eyes, I start the engine and head down the road. I stop at city hall to pay for my plots, and my preparatory chores are over.
Still, Miss Laura hangs on. On Sunday evening, I ask Annie, one of the hospice nurses, how much time mom has left so I can tell relatives who want to schedule a visit.
The nurse looks me in the eye. “When are they planning to come?”
“Sometime this week.”
Her lips press together firmly. She seems to be debating an appropriate way to sugarcoat her comments. “Tell them not to wait until the end of the week.”
But mom defies the odds again; she makes it through that week, and into the next.
We develop a new routine. Each evening before bedtime, Paula and I listen to mom’s breathing. Annie tells us we will know the end is near when we hear an unmistakable death rattle. Mom’s airway is becoming more restricted as the muscles collapse and the capillaries burst. I can hear a deeper, mournful sound emanating from her chest, but it doesn’t sound like a death rattle. I expect it any day, though.
We have moved a mattress on the floor next to the hospital bed. As usual, Paula is a model of pragmatism. “I think we should take turns sleeping down here. I don’t want Laura to die in the night with no one nearby.”
“Won’t Mister Buster jump on us?”
Paula points. The little rat dog is lying next to mom in her hospital bed. He blinks back at us sleepily.
I fight the tears edging into my eyes. “He’s loyal, all right — staying next to mom to the bitter end.”
“So what do you say? Should we take turns staying with her?”
“Yeah. I’ll take a turn tonight.”
The night passes fitfully. Mom’s moans and snores, if they can be called that, are so loud it is almost impossible to fall asleep. The sound of the oxygen tank reminds me of a leaking bicycle tire after it has run over a nail, except the hissing never stops in this case.
Even when I do somehow lose consciousness, I am instantly awake when mom takes a breath or the sound of her tortured breathing changes. Several times, I stand up from the mattress and look down at her lying in the hospital bed. I can barely see her face in the darkness. I try to imagine what she must be thinking or dreaming. Is she frightened? Has she made her peace with God? Does she think about an afterlife? Does she worry about me? Does she have any brain function at all?
Paula creeps into the apartment at first light. Mister Buster hops off the bed and greets her playfully while Daisy trails behind. While Paula feeds the dogs, I stand and look at mom. Sometime during the night her indoor-outdoor cat, Lucky, has curled up on her legs. Mom’s eyeglasses are still folded on the end table next to her hospital bed. The oxygen tank emits its eerie hissing.
I fold back the blanket on mom’s bed to look at the plastic bag attached to her catheter. It is mostly empty.
Paula is suddenly standing beside me. “She hasn’t put out anything in days and days.”
Her stealth startles me, and I jump.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to scare you, Mike.”
Clutching my heart, I nod. “I’m just jumpy. Everything scares me.”
She hands me a mug. “I just made a pot of coffee. It’s fresh.”
“Thanks. You’re a lifesaver.”
We stand sipping our coffee while we look on the unconscious form that is no longer my mother. Gazing at her eyes, I see the lids are caked with sleep. I feel as though I am watching her body slowly wind down like an old-fashioned wristwatch that has not been wound.
Paula touches my arm. “I don’t know if she can hear you, but maybe she can. If you want to say goodbye, I would do it now.”
Paula snaps her fingers. “Oh, yeah. This came through e-mail. It’s from Elizabeth Wise. I think she wants you to read it to Nana.” She hands me a folded piece of paper.
I open the note and read it silently. Elizabeth is a young lady, soon to be twenty-four years old. She is Polly’s granddaughter and Barbara’s daughter. Mom is Elizabeth’s godmother. Barbara and her husband Jim frequently brought Elizabeth and her younger brother Ben to visit mom when the children were young.
My eyes fill with tears. “I don’t know if I can read it aloud without breaking down, Paula.”
Paula is crying, too. “You have to try.” She pauses to blow her nose on a tissue. “I’ll be back in half an hour.”
With that, she steps through the back door and heads upstairs. Daisy follows her while Mister noisily finishes his breakfast.
I walk into the kitchen and take a chair from the table. The clock on the stove reads 7:34 in the morning. Shirley will arrive at nine, so I have plenty of time to say what must be said.
Pulling the chair close to mom’s face, I lean down as far as I can. Reaching next to the bed, I flip a switch and the lamp comes on. Beneath her eyelids, mom’s eyes react to the lamp, but she does not change her pattern of moaning. It sounds the same as it always has — with one exception.
I now know what a death rattle sounds like.
It is unmistakable. The moaning has become far more guttural than I remember it sounding last night. It seems to be emanating from deep within her chest. With each breath, it sounds like a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike.
Paula is right: I must say what needs to be said now, or it will be too late.
I sip my coffee and gently place the mug on the end table next to mom’s glasses. Sucking in as much air as I can, and clearing my throat, I hold the letter up so I can see the words under the lamplight.
“Mom, Elizabeth Wise — I’m sorry, it’s Duncan now that she’s married — wrote you a letter. I’ll try to read it to you, if I can.”
I have been wondering how to say good-bye to Nana for the last week or so, and wish that I could come visit, but I can’t. So I was hoping you or Paula could read her a letter from me. Mom is keeping us updated and we’re thinking about y’all. These are the times when living far away from family is hard, but please know that we wish we could be there and that if there’s anything we can do, we would be more than happy to.
I just wanted to write you a quick note to let you know that I’m thinking about you. Lately, I’ve been remembering some of the visits Mom, Dad and Ben and I made to Georgia when I was a teenager.
Remember the time we went to the Cabbage Patch Kid “Adoption Center”? Last week, I told Marlee (the little girl I nanny for) about the cabbages and such — she’s too young to really understand, but I got a kick out of remembering our time there. Ben was so embarrassed to be there and then he almost died when Dad wrote the article about it! I think that was also the trip that he got to take a kitten home — I wonder if the two had anything to do with each other! Remember sharing a room at Pawleys Island? It never made much sense to pair the two of us up, but we always had a good time.
Beyond all the good food and day trips and whatnot, what I remember most about our time together — either at Pawleys when we shared a room, or in DC where it always seemed we were on dish duty or in Georgia with the cats — is how supportive you have always been of me. I was telling Mom the other day that our extended family is really horrible with teenagers, but that you were always the one who seemed to understand and was there for me. You knew when family was a bit too overwhelming and when I needed to escape, and I am forever grateful to you for that. I hope that I can give that to the kids to come. My grandparents, uncles etc. mean well, but as you know, it doesn’t always come across. Thank you for loving me and for never judging my choices. I’m hoping that after Jonathan finishes seminary in May of 2008, I will be able to go back to school and get my master’s degree. At this point, I think that I will be going and getting a degree in school counseling or social work so I can help other kids with things like college searches, family problems, issues with drugs and alcohol and just generally navigating middle and high school. You’re the first family member I’ve told besides Jonathan — I hope you think it’s a good idea and that I do half as good a job as you did with me!
I wish in the last few years we could have spent more time together and that you could have gotten to know Jonathan better before we moved so far away. I promise he is exactly who I need and he is someone that you would not only approve of, but would love. He’s funny and down-to-earth and a true southern boy — I mean, he’s from Arkansas, after all! He even knows how to make fried chicken — almost as good as yours!
Nana, thank you for being you. I don’t know too many other people who know their great-aunts, much less who feel as close to them as I do to you. Maybe it’s because you’re my godmother too, but I think it’s more because you made such an effort to be a real positive part of my life when I was young. I love you and I’m thinking about you. Don’t feel that you have to write back. Just knowing that Mike or Paula reads this to you is enough. I hope that some of the memories put a smile on your face and that you know how much you mean to me.
Somehow, I read the entire letter aloud, although I must stop several times. About halfway through the reading, I stand up, scurry into the kitchen and grab a fistful of paper towels to blow my nose and wipe my eyes.
Now it is my turn. I must say goodbye. Oh Lord, oh Jesus, oh heaven help me. I never knew this would be so hard.
How can I say goodbye to this larger-than-life character, this woman who has lived at the center of our family for so long, this one person who above all else has meant so much to me? She gave me life; she raised me from a child; she comforted me; she loved me no matter how horrible or flawed I was as a human being. What can I say in this desperate hour? How do I take all that she has done for me and reduce it to mere words? I pride myself on my verbal abilities, but at the zero hour I realize how inadequately I can convey what lives in my heart.
But I must try. If mom has taught me nothing else, it is that when the hour comes to be a man, I must step up and try.
“Mama, as terrible as it is, I have to say goodbye now.”
Tears stream down my face. I drop Elizabeth’s letter on the floor, and Mister immediately attacks, tearing it into tiny strips.
“Elizabeth told you she remembered the good times. I remember them, too, mama. I remember when we had that big half-Collie, half-German Shepherd, Lassie, and I was ten years old. I was going off to Camp Thunderbird for two weeks, and I was afraid I would be homesick. There was a huge thunderstorm the night before you drove me to camp. The electricity went out in our apartment. In those days, it seemed the electricity was always going out whenever there was a storm or even clouds in the sky.
“You got a flashlight from beneath the sink and turned it on, aiming the beam at the ceiling. We talked for what seemed like hours. And you made up stories about Lassie going to camp with me — what it would be like if Lassie was in the canoe with me trying to paddle on the lake. You made me laugh with the image of Lassie running into the cafeteria and stealing the biscuits. We thought it was hysterically funny imagining Lassie peeing on the floor of my cabin.
“Those stories helped me to get over my homesickness. Did you know that? Did I ever tell you? When I would lie awake in my cabin in the dark, I would think of Lassie and smile. ‘Lassie goes to camp’ saved me that summer, and it made camp a valuable experience for me.
“And I remember when you said I had done well on my report card, so I could have my favorite meal. Do you remember? You said you would cook anything I wanted for dinner. I wanted a Manwich Sloppy Joe. And you fixed it for me. It was delicious — or at least I thought so then. I bought Manwich Sloppy Joe mix a few years ago and tried to eat it. Talk about terrible — it was inedible. I don’t know how you choked it down, but you did.”
My voice cracks and I am forced to pause. Standing, I rub my neck and sip my coffee. If I continue in this vein, I will never say what I mean. I am rambling, dredging up vignettes from my childhood. I need to get to the point.
Collapsing back into the chair, I lean next to mom’s face again. “When you need to go, mama, you should go. Just let go. I will miss you terribly. Every day of my life, I will miss you. But you will always be a part of me, and I will remember the lessons you taught me. You will live in my heart.
“The best thing I can say is this: All your dreams for me came true — every one of them. I am not rich or famous, but I am happy. I love my life. I love the other people in my life, and they love me. I got an education, found a job, bought a house. I treasure my friends and family. I feel blessed every single day I am alive. There is nothing I want within reason that I don’t already have. There is nothing I wanted to achieve that I have not achieved. I wanted to be a lawyer, so I went to law school and became a lawyer. I wanted to write books, and so I wrote books and even got them published. I believe I am living up to my potential. I hope I will do these things better over time, but for now I am doing the best I can.
“I think this is what you wanted for me and my life. It’s what every parent wants. I am fulfilled. If I were to die today, at this moment, I would look back on my life fondly.
“And you are the reason for that, mama. You made it happen despite the long odds against you. You were a single mother with little education and no money. But you loved me fiercely. You genuinely took an interest in my interior life.
“You supported me, but you did not spoil me. You held me accountable. If I got a ‘D’ in algebra and blamed the teacher, saying she didn’t like me, you wouldn’t swallow my lie. You told me I got a ‘D’ because I was lazy and never did my homework. You were right.
“You made me realize I am not worthless, nor am I the king of the universe. I have a right to be here, but I am not entitled to special treatment. I am a valuable person, but all people are valuable, and I must earn my way through life. I must treat other people with dignity and respect along the way.
“I will miss you, mama, but I can let you go. I will survive. And one day, when I am over the pain of your death, I will thrive again.
“My life is a gift from God — and from you. I make you this promise here and now, mom. I promise never to take my life for granted. I promise to honor you the best way a child can honor a parent — by living the best life possible.”
With these words, I lean down and kiss my mama on the forehead. I can say no more. I have been sentimental, but that is who I am. I may not be the king of the universe, but I am the king of maudlin thoughts.