Here is Chapter 35 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
It happens around 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 10, 2007. (My mother, the old civil rights aficionado, would be pleased at a strange coincidence. This is the day Barack Obama kicked off his presidential campaign.) Paula and I are standing next to mom’s bed. Polly, Loren, and Shelby are sitting at the kitchen table. Everyone is subdued, almost morose. An hour earlier, we had choked down our evening meal. Polly was gracious enough to cook, but no one tasted the food.
The moment of death is more horrible than I could have imagined.
Maybe I have seen too many movies with too many happy endings, but I imagined I would say, “There she goes. She slipped away peacefully in the night, a pure spirit escaping a withered, worn-out body. It was as though she went to sleep and simply never awoke.” What did Edwin Stanton say when Lincoln died? “Now he belongs to the ages.”
It does not happen that way.
We have become acclimated to the sounds of approaching death echoing throughout mom’s apartment. The oxygen tanks are indescribably loud; they remind me of the movie villain Darth Vader’s mechanical breathing. As for mom, her breathing is ragged, tortured, gasping, almost physically painful to hear.
The place is a madhouse. Mister Buster and Daisy incessantly bark at the numerous hospice nurses and relatives who trek in and out of the apartment. The television is occasionally turned on, the volume blaring. Cacophonous voices hold multiple conversations that stretch long into the night.
The sounds are nothing compared to the struggles mom’s body endures as it collapses in on itself. At the hour of her death, like much of her life, she refuses to conform to expectations. Not only does she moan so loudly that it sounds like the wind whipping through the eaves of an old house — the death rattle grows louder during the last day of her life — but as her lungs collapse and the capillaries burst, the blood must go somewhere. It bubbles up through her nose and mouth, not to mention other places. Blood is everywhere; it drains down the sides of her cheeks, pooling in the folds of her neck, and drenching her nightgown. Paula and I wipe it away with old towels for what seems an eternity but is probably only a few hours. We must make haste if we are to keep up with the torrent that covers most of her nose and jaw.
I find myself detaching from the scene lest I fall to pieces.
Before the bleeding commenced, mom’s illness was internal, something I could not see or experience directly. I realized the cancer was eating away at her, reducing her once robust body to a hollowed-out husk as the rogue cells consumed their host, but the damage was hidden away. It was theoretical. As blood gushes across her face, the damage is real. It becomes visceral. The point is driven home to me undeniably — death must soon follow. Under these circumstances, death will be a blessing, a relief from suffering and heartache, a welcome, overdue friend.
As a detached observer staring down at the unfolding horror, I think of all the young people who smoke cigarettes because they find it cool. In my mother’s generation, the brooding movie icon James Dean stared at the world with a Chesterfield King tucked into the corner of his mouth. What young person wouldn’t want to pose as a rebel flicking a cigarette away with a studied nonchalance that compensates for a lack of experience with the world? If only those young people could witness this obscene passing and grasp a fundamental fact, they might swear off tobacco: One day, this could be you. My mother was once young and felt immortal, and believed the world was hers to conquer. Would this realization alter their behavior? I wonder.
My mother as a young woman
Whatever else I can say about Paula, she never once turns away or weakens. Several times I am overwhelmed by grief and must flee the room to collect myself, but she never blinks. Her courage and commitment are beyond my poor power to describe.
We do not know when the exact moment will come, but we know it is close. Mom has eaten nothing for a week, has had nothing to drink for five days, and has not excreted waste in God-only-knows-how-many days. She no longer responds to verbal commands. Earlier in the day, the hospice nurse shone a light into her eyes and the pupils reacted, but we got no other response. Mom has retreated to a place where nothing can penetrate her crumbling exterior. We do not know if she hears us, but we speak as if she can. How she continues to live when her body has virtually ceased to function remains a mystery.
Around seven o’clock, after everyone has finished picking at dinner and Shelby has loaded the dishwasher with our cups and plates, Paula and I march into the bedroom to continue wiping up blood. Mom's gown is drenched. Our dinner break took far too long.
We attack our task with grim determination, too emotionally exhausted to speak. Back and forth we go; when one towel is soiled, we bring up another. We work as a precision team.
And then, in an instant, it happens. The moment is upon us: Mom opens her eyes one final time, gazes knowingly at Paula, smiles, and slips away. The death rattle is no more.
I am standing on the other side of the bed; mom’s face is turned away from me. Paula sees it, though. She sees the smile. That smile means a great deal to me. I like to think she knew it was okay to leave.
I am pleased beyond measure we are present at the precise instant when my mother dies.
In a trance, I shuffle into the kitchen and announce, in a soft, almost inaudible voice, “That’s it. She’s gone.”
Loren and Polly appear stunned. Shelby is crying.
The hospice nurse arrives at 7:30 to pronounce mom dead. The first thing she does is turn off the oxygen tank. I have grown so accustomed to the hypnotic hiss and fall of the tank, as though someone with emphysema is breathing into a microphone, the lack of sounds strikes me as eerily quiet. If anything made mom’s death real for me, it was when the nurse shut down the oxygen tank.
Paula helps the nurse undress and redress mom in clean clothes. They use rags to wipe up the excess blood that has spilled onto the nightgown and bed sheets. While this happens, Loren, Polly, Shelby, and I huddle in mom’s living room. Polly cries softly. Rarely have I glimpsed the vulnerability of a great matriarch. It is unsettling. For most of my life, Polly’s stoicism has reassured me that some fixtures are permanent and unyielding.
As for me, I do not shed tears, not now. I am numb. I collapse into a chair. Loren works the telephone, quietly informing our friends and family.
I am ashamed to say it, but while we wait for the Arthur Bowick hearse to arrive and take custody of the body, I feel a sense of relief — relief that mom is no longer suffering, relief that we do not have to worry about her condition, relief that our long nightmare has ended. On the heels of my relief, I feel guilt for experiencing relief. My mother is dead, and I am still thinking of myself. What in the hell is wrong with me?
After the hospice nurse and Paula clean up mom’s body and dress her in a fresh gown, we wait. The minutes tick by. No one speaks. I creep back into the bedroom and gaze down at what used to be my mother. Her eyes are closed, and she appears peaceful.
The hearse arrives around 8:15. Loren greets them in the driveway. The attendants wheel the gurney down our back sidewalk and enter the house. Mister Buster and Daisy erupt into barking, but we have closed them off temporarily in mom’s walk-in closet, so they can do no damage.
When the ugly business is concluded and the hearse has departed, the hospice nurse asks me to sign some forms. I act on automatic pilot. God knows what forms I am signing.
After uttering the appropriate condolences, the nurse also departs.
The remnants of our family sit at the kitchen table; we stare at each other. Everyone is emotionally drained, exhausted by the ordeal of watching a beloved family member struggle on her deathbed. I feel much needs to be said, but perhaps we should save it for her funeral and the wake.
Before I go to bed, I climb the stairs to my office, sit at my computer console, and type out an e-mail to friends and family. Paula has thought ahead and compiled information on local accommodations and directions to the funeral home, so I need only supply a short narrative.
As you probably know, Laura Martinez/mom/Nana passed away at approximately 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 10, 2007. She died at home in her own bedroom surrounded by loved ones.
Funeral services will be held at:
The Arthur Bowick Funeral Home
823 East Spring Street
Monroe, Georgia 30655
Telephone: (770) 267-2594
We have scheduled three events to remember Laura and celebrate her life:
(1) We will receive friends and family at the funeral home on Monday, February 12, 2007, from 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m.
(2) The funeral service will be held in the funeral home chapel on Tuesday, February 13, 2007, at 2:00 p.m.
(3) Following the funeral service and the graveside service at the nearby Rest Haven Cemetery in Monroe, Mike and Paula Martinez invite everyone to come to their house to celebrate Laura's life in the tradition of a good, old-fashioned Irish wake. We will share funny Laura stories and remember the good times of her life. Barbecue and an assortment of other foods and beverages will be provided.
Please Note: In lieu of sending flowers, we ask that donations be made to Shirley Hardrick. Shirley was Laura's caregiver and closest friend for the last two years of her life. They had more than an employment relationship. Shirley not only helped take care of Laura, but she ate with her, watched television with her, and kept her company even when Shirley was not technically at work. For her part, Laura wanted to make sure that Shirley was provided for after she no longer had a job caring for Laura.
Please forward this e-mail to anyone who might be interested in knowing about the plans for Laura.
For all of our planning, we have not mapped out the funeral service apart from reserving the chapel inside the funeral home. Loren has agreed to officiate, but we must decide on the nature of the service. Paula joins me in my office with pen and paper in hand.
One thing I know — mom detested too much pomp and ceremony. She was a plain woman, with plain tastes. I do not say this to denigrate her — a preference for plain tastes need not equate to tastelessness or provincialism — but to emphasize her affinity for life’s simple pleasures and its less ostentatious rites of passage. And so we plan a simple, no-frills funeral to celebrate the life of a simple, no-frills woman.
The ceremony will commence with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, the famous passage that begins in some versions, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” From there, we will read the Twenty-third Psalm, another instantly recognizable Bible verse, and one of mom’s favorites. The 139th Psalm will follow, along with a call for the audience to read responsively. Loren will provide a lesson from the Gospel according to John, which includes one of my favorite lines, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
The most important feature of the service, in my view, is when Loren will invite those present to share remembrances of Laura. Because this part of the funeral allows friends and family to tell stories, I believe mom would appreciate this section above all others. She enjoyed nothing better than a narrative, preferably a humorous one. A brief closing prayer and commendation will provide for an apt conclusion.
With our plans in place, our family receives visitors at the funeral home the evening before the ceremony. Paula, Polly, Loren, Shelby, and I arrive early to ensure that everything is in order for the viewing. To our surprise, we find Uncle Bobby standing over mom’s coffin.
“Hey there, chief.” He points. “She looks very life-like.”
Paula and I stand next to him and gaze at my mother’s body.
The undertaker has done fine work. Mom’s face, so heavily lined and puffy in her final days, is smooth. Her eyeglasses are perched on the bridge of her nose. She appears at least 10 years younger than she did when she died. She wears her finest dress, a flowery design, beige with some white.
Bobby grips me by the arm and leads me away from the casket. “Laura had a little smudge under her nose. It was blood, but I spoke to the mortician and he took care of it.”
As with most things involving Bobby, I am thrown off my rhythm by this unexpected information. I nod.
“Did you know I’m a mortician?”
“I thought you were a chiropractor. You made the chiropractic hand tool when you worked with Dr. Sid, right?”
“It’s a chiropractic mechanical tool, Mike. Remember that.”
“Before I went to Palmer to study chiropractic medicine, I studied mortuary science. I never got my license, but I could if I wanted to. I still keep up with mortuary science — reading the periodicals and whatnot. It’s useful to have such knowledge. I was the best in my class in embalming. I could probably tell these gentlemen a thing or two about preparing the body.”
I mutter under my breath. “Please don’t.”
“They did a pretty good job on Laura, all things considered, but I had to tell them about the blood under her nose.”
“Well, okay. Thanks again.”
He holds up an old-fashioned Polaroid camera, the type that produces a photograph of dubious quality, but it does so instantly. “Do you mind if I snap a picture? It’s one final shot of Laura.”
My eyes almost pop from my head. “What?”
“I want one final photo of Laura. Did I ever tell you I remember the day she was born? I was 10 years old and we lived in Orangeburg. Daddy made me go outside when she was born so I wouldn’t watch mama giving birth.”
“I thought she was born in a hospital.”
“Well, maybe. Anyway, I remember walking up and down our street telling people, our neighbors and whatnot, ‘hey there, did you know a little girl was born over there in that house?’”
“Bobby, I don’t want you to take a photograph of her lying in the coffin. That’s morbid. It’s too grotesque for words.”
“It’s just something to remember her by.”
“Bobby, if you want a photo of mom, I can get copies made of the ones we already have. I don’t want you to take pictures of her lying in the coffin. I hope you understand, but I think it’s a bad idea.”
He shrugs as if to say, oh, well, I tried. Easy come, easy go.
(I find out later he had already asked Shelby if he could snap a photo of mom lying in the coffin. She had looked at him in horror.)
Still fiddling with his Polaroid, Bobby wanders off, probably to mingle with the grieving visitors who will no doubt be enthralled to learn that he can say “near perfect” in 50 languages. Or is it up to 60 now? It is difficult to keep up with his progress.
While Bobby points his camera at people clustered in groups, I see the guests are arriving. They come first in a trickle, but traffic steadily picks up. My good friend from law school, Keith Smith, is here, as are many family and friends. Paula’s college friends Patricia and Wafa stop to offer hugs and condolences. I see cousins and aunts I have not spoken with in several years. They are appropriately solicitous and utter the proper pleasantries to mark my mother’s passing.
Shirley ventures into the viewing room timidly, an unusual reaction for her. When she sees mom’s body lying in the open casket, she becomes hysterical. Sobbing, she repeatedly mutters, “Oh, Lord, Miss Laura. Oh, Lord.” I fully expect her to throw herself over the coffin, prostrate in grief. Instead, she charges out of the funeral home after only five minutes. We do not see her again for a week.
The evening passes quickly. I derive some comfort from well-wishers, but I remain numb. I know it will hit me later — when the crowds have thinned, Paula is off at work, and Shelby is attending school. I will be sitting in the empty house, playing with Daisy and Mister Buster. Perhaps I will trundle downstairs and find myself standing in the doorway of the empty apartment. I will look at her wheelchair or her favorite bib or her Porkchesters, a group of figurines — little ceramic pigs from the Danbury Mint dressed in different clothing — and I will realize finally, irrevocably, deep in my gut, what I have lost.
For now, I operate on automatic pilot.
Fast forward to the following afternoon at two o’clock. Decked out in his ministerial robes, Uncle Loren appears majestic as he stands tall in the funeral home chapel. He calls the assemblage to order and the ceremony begins. He reminds us why we have come together and leads the participants through the litany of biblical passages. Soon enough, he asks if anyone wishes to say a few words about Laura.
I am the first to stand and head to the podium. Surveying the faces of men, women, and children I have known for much of my life, I feel a huge lump lodge in my throat. Swallowing, I lean into the microphone. At Paula’s suggestion, I open with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71:
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell.
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
I do not remember much of what I say during my time in front of the microphone, except for the ending. Most of my comments are extemporaneous, from the heart, no doubt rambling and mawkishly sentimental. The ending is something I have thought about, carefully scripted. It, too, is offered from the heart, but I want to ensure that however much I babble in the middle, I have a strong closing.
Fighting not to cry, I conclude my spiel. “I can only hope that one day, many years from now, when I look back on my own life, I can honestly say I lived it with as much integrity as my mother lived her life. And I can only hope that one day, many years from now, when it is my turn to face death, I can face it with as much courage and dignity as my mother faced hers.”
With that, I step down to the front pew, rejoin Paula and Shelby, and bow my head.
Other friends and family stand and offer their assessments of mom. My cousin Walter, surprisingly warm and emotive, says that mom was “real.” She was not phony or pretentious; she did not try to impress people. What you saw was what you got, and what you got was pretty good.
Charles DuBose, married to mom’s friend, Glenda, fondly recalls an old hunting dog that my grandfather owned back in the days when mom was young and high school was the center of her universe. Someone else talks about mom’s ability to deal with young people, especially adolescents, in a way that was both sensitive and firm.
All the stories capture her unique ability to touch people by accepting them as they are, not as she would like them to be.
Eventually, the funeral ends and people drift to their cars. We follow the hearse as it snakes through the parking lot, turns right on Spring Street, and heads to the Rest Haven Cemetery. It is a journey of less than a mile. A green canopy with “Arthur Bowick” stenciled on the front is stretched over an open grave. The pall bearers carry the coffin to the graveside.
The service is brief; we have said most of what we had to say. Loren reads a passage about the short life of mankind. His remarks are punctuated by a torrential rain storm that seemingly erupts out of nowhere and dissipates as soon as the service ends.
I think about the rain as we dash to our car. How appropriate; it is as though we experience a final outburst from mom before she falls silent.
My mother toward the end of her life
We return home to prepare for the wake. We will eat pork barbecue — one of her favorite foods — and share stories, most of them humorous, about her life and times. Jim Wise intends to show a videotape of mom telling a story during a visit to Pawleys Island when she was sober and willing to play the part of a raconteur. To see her young again — she was not much older at the time than I am now — will be a treat.
As Paula, Shelby, and I enter the house, we find our answering machine light blinking. We have received almost a score of telephone messages as well as a fax.
The office of James Clyburn, Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, has faxed over a note offering condolences. Congressman Clyburn knew mom well in their younger days when they both worked with the Neighborhood Youth Corps in Charleston. It was the late Sixties, a time when young people such as my mother thought they could change the world.
Mom’s friend Bob Williamson, too ill from a heart condition to make the trip, has called from Florida to share warm words about his old friend.
My friend Darin Murphy has called to express his condolences and tell me how much my mother meant to him when we were growing up together in South Carolina.
Lucille Whipper has called to say how much she will miss mom’s exuberance and her humorous escapades.
Lucy Thrower has called to say how sorry she is that she missed the funeral, but she is thinking of our family at this difficult time.
John Wise of Associated Recovery Systems has called to demand that Laura Martinez submit payment on her overdue Chase MasterCard account or “face the dire consequences.”