Robin Andrea and Roger lost their cat Bonsai. Condolences from Leah and Mark
“The only escape from the miseries of life are music and cats …”
Robin Andrea and Roger lost their cat Bonsai. Condolences from Leah and Mark
“The only escape from the miseries of life are music and cats …”
I go over to check on my mother’s house every so often now that no one’s living there and it’s up for sale. There is still some furniture there, and the power and water are still on. Sometimes I sit down on the living room sofa and look for ghosts.
So far I have not seen any. My mother is not stirring in the bedroom or in the kitchen. My father is not puttering around in the basement. I do not feel their presence, and I don’t expect to turn around and see either of them coming around the corner into the living room.
My father died 14 years ago. I felt his presence strongly for a long time after that. I was building our house then, and when I did something I was particularly proud of, I found myself thinking that I had to show it to him. That feeling faded over the years. I was used to having my father around for 50 years, and my internal model of the world still contained him after he died. But in the last 14 years, my internal world has changed to accommodate his death.
My mother’s case is different. She died only about a year ago, but her last years were not like the previous ones. She had serious balance problems, and thus falling problems. She had urinary tract infections and blood clots. Her world shrank to basically her bedroom, her bathroom and her living room. When we went to visit, we never knew whether we were going to find her lying on the bathroom floor, standing at the kitchen counter reading the paper, or snoozing in her recliner while NCIS reruns played on the television. She wasn’t the self-reliant, smart woman she had been, and her declining health lasted long enough that the old image faded. And then she spent nearly a year with my brother and sister in law in Virginia, and after that the last few months of her life at an assisted living facility. I didn’t get a chance to form a really strong new image of my mother in my world.
So by the time my mother died, my internal model of the world didn’t really have her or my father in their old roles. And so their presence doesn’t echo in their house.
What I do find is that various things evoke memories. My father kept his tools in a corner in the basement. Most of them are still there, and when I see them, I think of my father. My mother’s jewelry and art glass are gone, but there are still things in the kitchen and in the bookcase in the living room that make me think of her
I have a few of those things that make me think of them at our house. One of my favorite sets of memories is of going with them on a few long RV trips. They started traveling with an Airstream trailer in the early ‘70s before they retired. They started out towing their trailer with their 1966 Buick Wildcat coupe. They continued RVing until the late ‘90s, and for a time in the mid-90s I was able to go with them for a couple of months at a time.
They traded for various RVs, including other brands of trailer and a couple of motorhomes, but they always kept a pair of folding chairs that they bought early in their RVing lives. They were solid, high-quality chairs. They used them outside for sitting under the awning, and inside if they needed extra seating at the dinner table.
Now those chairs are in our garage. I see them every time I pull in, lying folded up against the wall. We have a travel trailer, but we don’t need or use the chairs, and, to tell the truth, they aren’t all that comfortable anyway. But there they sit.
The associations with my parents and with good experiences with them are so strong that it’s hard to think about disposing of them. But we don’t really need them, and we don’t need physical objects to remember my parents. I guess it’s time to let them go.
I went to the funeral of a former coworker’s mother today. I didn’t know her mother, and I hadn’t seen her in several years. But I have known her since I started to work in Huntsville in 1986, when she was a co-op and I had just finished grad school.
The funeral home chapel was full. Almost everyone seemed to be from the church her parents attended, which is a conservative Protestant denomination. Based on what I have read, and the little I remember from talking to my friend about it, they don’t use musical instruments in their services. All their singing in this service was a cappella. When I attended church, I got used to fairly pitiful, uncoordinated and scattered congregational singing during worship services, but these people could sing. They sounded like a well-trained choir and at times the voices blended and reverberated almost like an organ. I remember the hymns that were sung when I went to church, and I was surprised that I didn’t recognize any of the four songs that were sung in this service.
The pastor didn’t use the funeral as an opportunity to deliver a sermon, but there was obviously a lot of religion throughout. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church prior to that denomination’s decline into willful ignorance and bigoted fundamentalism. I have long since given up those and any other religious beliefs, but I know all about this stuff. And yet I felt like a visitor to a foreign country. It really is a world that I can’t feel at home in any more.
UPDATE: I added a link in case anyone is not familiar with this song. It was one of the four that were sung at the funeral service, and I was not familiar with it.
My mother’s memorial service was held last Sunday. The thing that struck me most strongly was that it was not really very sad. The only time I came close to crying was when they started singing A Mighty Fortress is Our God. My mother told me long ago that she wanted that song at her funeral, and it was the first song in the service. So it was a close thing for me. But for the most part it was not sad, or solemn or melancholy. The best I can come up with is fond remembrance.
There was a little quiet laughter during the service when the minister retold some stories my brother and I had told him a few days earlier. In fact, we laughed quite a few times during the last three weeks of my mother’s life. When she arrived at the emergency room, she was responsive, if a little sleepy. Soon after they admitted her, however, she went into a sleep-like state. Her eyes were closed but she talked constantly. One afternoon she was mad at my late father, who died almost exactly 13 years ago. My father could walk up to a total stranger and talk for an hour, and he often did. In my mother’s dream, or whatever it was, she was complaining because my father was talking to his friend and didn’t he know she had a headache and needed to go home?
This dream probably did not unfairly represent my father, so we laughed about that.
After a few days she woke up. Then, after the doctor told her she was going to die, she went home. She was alert at first but soon began a slow decline. One day when she was in a semi-responsive state but very clearly on a downhill trend, my brother was talking to her and encouraging her to be open to the ending of her life. He told her that our father was waiting for her. She said, “Well, I’m not ready to go. He can just wait.”
We laughed again.
I think there were three times that the hospice nurse expected her to die within a short period, a day or even a few hours. But she held on. Everyone said she was going to do things her way. She wasn’t going to leave until she was ready. She was stubborn, and she didn’t bluff. We talked by phone to her sister in Arizona, and she told us that once when they were little girls, their grandfather scolded them for something and told them that the devil was right around the corner and was going to get them. My mother looked at her sister and said, “Let’s go see him.”
She had grit, and we laughed at that.
Her ashes were taken to the cemetery before the memorial service to be interred beside my father’s ashes. The family gathered around the gravesite, there was a prayer, and then the family was to leave and let a cemetery employee put the ash container into the receptacle. I guess that act is considered too disturbing for the family to witness. So Leah and I left. After the memorial service, someone from the funeral home apologized to us. Apparently they couldn’t get the ash container to fit into the receptacle. It was just a little bit too large. I pictured my mother sticking her elbows out as the cemetery worker tried to slip her container down into the receptacle, and saying one more time, “I’m not ready to go.”
And we laughed again.
The song that was my mother’s life ended Tuesday afternoon.
I thought of a lot of words for this post a couple of weeks ago when I woke up at about 3 am and couldn’t go back to sleep again. Then I was thinking about something I called “the story that was my mother’s life.” But a little while ago as I walked the dog down the driveway, I was thinking about this post and the words that I thought were “the song that was my mother’s life.” I don’t know where “song” came from, but I figured that must be the right word.
And really, it is the right word, because my mother loved singing. Many years ago when I was just a teenager I told her I felt like I was living in a musical comedy, because every time I asked her a question, she responded by singing words from a song she knew that were actually appropriate for the question.
When I was a boy it seemed like she was singing or humming all the time. To this day, any time I hear a woman singing or humming to herself, I get a flashback to my childhood, and I feel kind of like crying. My mother sang her whole life. She sang in her high school chorus. She was good enough that someone expected her to become an opera singer. But that was in the Great Depression, and not many girls in Akron went to college or sang in the opera. When she graduated from high school, after a visit to her Aunt Grace in Rome, Georgia, my mother went to business school.
While on that visit to Rome, she worked behind the candy counter at a five and dime store, probably S.S. Kresge. She met the Paris sisters, Francis and Alva Ruth, and also their brother, Grady Vaughan. One day Bo, as he was known to his family, screwed up his courage, circled the candy counter a couple of times, and asked her out. One thing led to another, and in November 1943, they were married. She followed him for a while during his Army training, and when he shipped overseas to Europe, she went back home to Akron. After the war, they lived in Ohio long enough to have their first child, Henry, and then moved back to my father’s home in Rome, where I was born.
When my brother and I were old enough to start school, my mother got a job as a secretary in the Celanese textile plant in Rome. She worked there for the next 20 years, until they closed the plant. She was one of the last employees to walk out the gate. During those 20 years, she worked all day, and when she got home, she did all the things for her family that she had done before she started working. Many time she came home with a head-splitting, nauseatingly-painful migraine headache. She did all the things she needed to do for a husband and two sons, went to bed, and woke up the next morning, still with a headache.
But during it all, she sang. She directed her church choir for a long time, and after they got a minister of music, she sang in the choir. She sang in the community chorus. She acted for the Rome Little Theatre. And she danced.
And they traveled. They got an Airstream trailer and went all over the country, from Florida to New England, from the Ohio River Valley to the West Coast. They went up into Canada and they spent a winter in Mexico.
And she had health problems. Once she thought she was going crazy, and all the doctors didn’t help, until she found one who diagnosed her hypothyroidism and prescribed the supplement which made her life livable again. She remained loyal to him as long as he practiced medicine. She had a hysterectomy, and gall bladder surgery, back when they opened up your entire abdomen so the doctor could reach in with his hands. She had a shoulder replacement, and had the cartilage scraped out of her knee. And then, about 14 years ago, she had an acoustic neuroma removed from behind her right ear, and the right side of her face was partially paralyzed, and she lost her sense of balance. She was plagued by falling for the rest of her life. She fell outside in the front yard. She fell in her bedroom. She fell in the bathroom, in the kitchen, and in the hall. She hit her back, her shoulder, and her head. We really don’t know how many times she fell, but it was a lot.
And then a few weeks ago, after her 90th birthday, she had a stroke and fell, or fell and had a stroke, or something. Anyway, she went into the hospital, where they found that not only had she had a stroke, but her bone marrow had also given up producing blood. There was nothing to do. The doctors sent her home with hospice care to die.
And Tuesday, with her family around her, she did just that.
The last three weeks of my mother’s life were not pleasant. In the hospital she became marginally responsive, spending most of the time sleeping and talking in her sleep. The food was not good, but at least she ate. When she came home after a week, she was bedridden, but responsive. She got to the point that the only way she could answer a question was to blink her eyes. And then she got to the point that she couldn’t do even that. She spent most of the last week or so with her eyes closed. I don’t know whether it was sleep or something deeper. She had not eaten or drunk anything for the last seven or eight days. The only time she reacted was when she was fairly strongly stimulated physically, like when they had to give her a bath. I had to listen to the moaning over the remote monitor. Later, towards the end, she started having bladder spasms. Her face and her body registered pain. I hope very deeply that she was not conscious of that pain. She was getting morphine regularly, so maybe she wsn’t. In any event, it did not last long. Her breathing became shallow and eventually simply stopped.
Before she died, and before she stopped responding, I told her that I loved her and that she was the best mother in the whole world. I think she understood that.
So it was a pretty ordinary life, full of the kinds of things that ordinary people who are lucky do and have. And it had an ending. It was not a “they lived happily ever after” kind of ending. That’s not an ending, that’s a middle, and I think her life was that kind of middle. The end is the point beyond which there is no more. And this is that point: The End.
I feel like a part of me is missing. It was like that when my father died 13 years ago. It’s hard to process. But at least when my father died, I still felt like I had a connection to him through my mother. Before she left the hospital, we were talking to a hospice nurse, and we mentioned that Mother had prescription coverage through my father’s America Postal Workers Union policy. I suddenly realized that when she was gone, I would never again see APWU in the mail; that connection would be gone. And now it is. And now I feel like I have lost my father again as well.
There is a connection that remains. It’s in my head. It’s not much, but it’s all I have, and as long as I can remember, I will.