Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mom Passes On: Ruminations

It was indeed a dark and stormy night when the phone buzzed with the news. It was November 15, 2006, my brother’s birthday. That wasn’t what the news was about, though. Waves of cold chills dashed across my body. I steeled myself to see my Mother’s ghost. There wasn’t, however, anything remotely ghostly amid the crashing storm. In the darkness of pounding rain and gusty gales I wasn’t quite prepared to be scared out of my wits. After all, I wasn’t even properly dressed to greet Mom unless you considered a 47 year old birthday suit appropriate for such a passage.

Mom had been battling cancer since 2003. “Battling cancer” doesn’t even begin to describe the war itself. It is far more than the appearance of cancer cells and invasive tumors that seek to hijack and consume the body. The immune system degrades. Diet and nutrition suffers. Repeat secondary infections by bacteria, fungi, and viruses do tremendous damage and like squads of vicious hit men end up doing the killing. There’s the emotional, neurological, and psychological toll. There’s an enormous social toll and the rippling impact on family, friends, neighbors, businesses, essentially all of one’s relations.

Cancer itself is an umbrella term for a messy web of mysterious diseases with multiple causes that mutate into one monster after another. And though a lot of folks are not always comfortable with the curious topic of money, cancer extorts a staggering financial cost. Is it any wonder we apply military terms to“dis-ease?” And perhaps, as humanity comes through millennia of slaughter to finally confront the useless futility of war, it is time we too consider embracing cancer and its runaway cells with something other than mortal combat. But war is the approach my feisty old mother chose.

Long ago I moved out to Seattle, Washington. I loved the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest in particular. Nowhere else have I ever encountered such a unique combination of lush rain forests and rugged deserts, of wild ocean, inland seas and lakes, grand alpine mountains, mighty rivers, roaring creeks, empty canyons with ghost cataracts, magnificent islands both big and small, sprawling ranches, cool resort towns, massive snow-cloaked volcanoes, and a truly post-modern, progressive Pacific Rim city. And I was 3,000 miles away from the land and family of my origin. My parents were city folks who became farmers. After settling down on their Virginia dairy farm in the mid-1950s they rarely traveled anymore.

When they did, most of their travel was regional. The mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina and the beaches of South Carolina were as far as they went. Yes, a few times they went further, to Florida and Texas, once to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and my Mom even went to the British Isles. Before that my father was in the Navy for five years. He traveled all over the planet, but after he settled down on the farm he realized he was done with long-distance traveling. So Mom and Dad never made it out to the Northwest, and after a period of regular visits to Virginia I rarely made it back home.

Travel is such a big deal to me, however, and I feel sad my parents never traveled more. My mother loved to travel, and deep down I felt my Dad appreciated it. So I often felt I was traveling vicariously for them, especially for my mother, and took lots of photos for them to see. Slide photography of dynamic landscapes was my forte, and my slide shows sat organized in boxes for them to see. But they never visited me out West, it was too much for me to bring all those slide carousels back East, and as this was in the era before affordable, quality digitalization, Mom and Dad never got to see my slide shows after I moved West. This meant not only did they not see blown-up slide photos of all those national parks, urban monuments, historical sites, and wild scenic areas, but they didn’t get to see all the photographs of their eldest son entering middle age and their grandchildren growing up. I feel sad, and my parents felt sad I didn’t take “regular pictures.”

The last time I saw my mother really healthy was the Summer of 2001 toward the tail end of her 69th year. I didn’t see her again until the Summer of 2004, during the first of several “Mom-almost-died” crises. After not seeing her for three years, I was to see her four times over the next two. And now she was dead. Gone forever.

When I got the call that dark and stormy night, I was north of Seattle up on Whidbey Island, the longest island in the United States. I’d just come up the day before to rent a cottage on the South end of the island to get away and write. As much as I would miss my partner Kristina and my children, I so looked forward to being able to catch up on my sleep and to write without distraction. For just a few days. A couple of weeks earlier, during a busy trip into British Columbia, Mom had another and quite severe crisis where she seemed about to go any minute. It was thought she might even pass away a particular night. Twice that weekend I almost got on a plane to fly to Virginia. But, no, I chose to wait. And now a ferocious Pineapple Express storm was blasting the island with torrential downpours and explosive bursts of rain. Hot air from Hawaii slammed into cold air from the Arctic, and kaboom!, you got the horizontal hurricane Northwesterners call the Pineapple Express.

I had made my peace with Mom’s death when I last visited her earlier that Summer of 2006. During that late June and early July I visited her every day where she rested at an eldercare/rehab facility. Sat down there next to her for hours while I showed her hundreds of relatively recent photos and video clips stored on my laptop. Although I felt sad I was absent during her actual moment of death I also feel solid I made the right decision to stay put in Seattle rather than jump up to fly home every time there was a crisis 3,000 miles away. I had the responsibilities of young children and getting a handle on a new business that was rocketing off. And while I missed her and felt guilty I wasn’t there on the scene helping out on a daily basis as my siblings were, I was clear that I felt as complete as I ever could be for living so far away.

Apparently during her last weeks my Mom worked on herself to get complete. Her home health care workers would tell me over the phone she had been doing a lot of praying and talking “with the Lord.” They’d never seen her do that before. Like she was getting ready to meet her Maker. Mom’s team of home health care providers was amazing. They kept me updated as they worked around the clock to serve her in her final months. Apparently they watched Mom move through various phases. They witnessed her rage, her tears, her bitterness, her railings, her whining and moaning, her resignation and apathy, her sorrows and joys, her battles to live, her preparations to die, and finally, her acceptance of what is. A couple of the home care workers swore they saw my daddy’s ghost standing there next to Momma. He’s been dead a couple of years.

She died while that storm raged on Whidbey Island. The power was out. I had to pack up in a hurry by flashlight. My cell phone had rung in the wee hours of the morning. Intuition had me go to sleep gripping the phone in my hand. I don’t sleep with my hearing aids on, so I depend on the phone to vibrate to notify me of incoming calls. And the vibration awoke me to the news. Branches were crashing down all around me as I drove away from the cottage toward the main road down to catch the ferry back to the mainland. I felt fear as a thick trunk sheared off the side of a nearby tree. All the chaos seemed a blur, however, of long-connected relationships that crystallized during Mom’s wake and funeral. Death felt heavy and mournful. The Grim Reaper had blown in on a storm and was sweeping a giant scythe across the land.

Back among the living, however, I had to restrain my glee and joy at seeing old friends and family members at Momma’s wake and funeral. While Momma lay dead in an open coffin, the rest of us live folks hugged and shook hands and caught up with one another. Stories flowed from one to another. Even my old principal was there, the terror of Prince Edward Academy from my first all the way through twelfth grades. The grown-ups called him Bobby Redd, but we kids called him Mr. Redd, and I still do.

And there was Marjory, granddaughter of stalwart members of my parents’ Sharon Baptist Church. Long ago we were in the same elementary school and in the same church groups. I had a crush on her from first through second or third grades, but was way too shy to ever, ever let her know. I thought back then she was the prettiest and most fun girl around. She was too busy playing with all the other kids to ever notice as far as I could tell. Heck, we were just little squirts. Then she moved away and I didn’t see her for many years. Once in college I ran into her quite by accident, asked her out, and away we went for pizza and conversation. That was it.

Now, decades later, she looked marvelous. We flirted. Just a little bit. I felt the old crush come back strong. Amazing. She was friendly and asked me lots of questions and I’m embarrassing her just writing this I’m sure as I never told her how I used to feel about so her long ago. I felt myself perk up when she gave me the impression she was now single. Well, I am in a committed partnership with Kristina, of course. I knew nothing would ever come of revisiting old school crushes again, so I caught myself. Marjory sure looked great, though, had me turning my head, oh just turning my head a little itty bit. She was just delightful to talk with. Funny how the mind can become obsessed with what-ifs and what-might-have-beens, but I took a deep breath and let it all go. And said good-bye. My boundaries are clear. And she said good-bye.

And in the midst of it all my mother laid dead in a coffin. Waxlike. Surrounded by flowers. Her outfit was beautiful. But it didn’t look like her. Personally I don’t like open-casket funerals. I think they’re bizarre and weird and an invasion of privacy. My momma all laid out in public like that. Alas, sigh, that was what folks seem to want, and I decided I was OK with it. And I did not realize that for some people it would the last chance to see her after hardly ever seeing her, such as my daughters.

The last time Morgan and Kate saw their grandmother was over the Christmas holidays of 2005. She had pulled through yet another strenuous knocked-down, dragged out battle in her war with cancer. Mom looked surprisingly good for a woman in her early to mid 70s struggling with cancer. It was a wonderful reunion, stressful in some ways, joyful in others. And she got to meet my fiancé and domestic partner Kristina and Kristina’s daughter Talia. My mother and Talia bonded over that week.

So it was heart wrenching to stand in line at the Seattle airport with Morgan and Kate as Talia’s cries, heavy with grief and disappointment carried through the airport. Money was tight. For financial reasons Kristina and Talia would not be joining me on this trip home for my Mom’s funeral. So Kristina dropped us off at the airport and held Talia wailing in her arms while she waved goodbye. It was sobering. I felt intense sadness that I went through an extended period of financial difficulty that made it challenging to afford flying my kids to Virginia.

As the wake came to an end that Friday night before Momma’s funeral, visitors said their goodbyes and drifted home. My brother Joe and I stood talking at the opposite end of the room from our mother’s casket. I turned around to look for Morgan and Kate. Morgan was about 12 and a half years old at the time, and Kate was two weeks away from turning eight. Talia, who stayed behind, was 4 and a half.

The four oldest of Momma’s granddaughters stood side by side at the side of her coffin. Left to right stood Joe and Sally’s daughters Lydia and Jessie. Next to them, also left to right, were mine and Gwen’s, Morgan and Kate. All four stood there peering over into the open casket at their grandmother’s embalmed body. She was dressed up so pretty, although it didn’t quite look like her either but it did. In her prime my mother had been a beautiful woman. She just enchanted my father. Now in her death she lay before four of her grandchildren.

A ripple shuddered across their shoulders. And in a moment they heaved with tears. Big, heavy, wailing sobs. Shuddering and letting go, grief and surrender and goodbye forever and sadness and regret and wishing there was more time to get to know one another all rolled up and exploded in waves of tears. I started to move toward them. My brother reached out and stopped me.

“Let’em all have a little time to themselves there,” Joe said.

He was right. It would be the last time before her casket was sealed forever. I felt my heart heavy with grief as I suppressed an empathic urge to cry with my daughters and nieces. It was an image of grief and farewell seared into my memory. After a few minutes, Joe and I walked on over to comfort our girls. That night we gave Kate her Grandma’s Furby, a talking, chirping, cooing fuzzy robot that looked like a cross between an owl and a lemur. It was still in the box.

“This is for you, Kate,” I said. “Grandma’s last Christmas present.”

“Yes,” beamed Kate. “This is my Grandmommie’s last Christmas present to me.” And she hugged it.

The funeral was the next day. All a blurred kaleidoscope of crisp memories. I read a Robert Frost poem from the altar. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It was one of Mom’s favorites. The minister spoke at length in a good way, full of jocular recollections and serious reflections. To my surprise, Hoc and Nancy Hughes, the parents of my ex-wife Gwen, arrived for the funeral. After all, my parents were the other grandparents of their grandchildren, too. I was honored and so moved when Nancy, whom I had grown quite fond of, hugged me I burst out in tears and bawled on her shoulder like a little boy. I sure missed my Momma, and she wasn’t coming back either.

There were awkward moments at the graveside service, too, like whether or not to throw these flowers we were given to hold into the hole in the ground. One lady slipped near the edge and for a moment I dreaded the possibility she would slide beneath the casket into the grave and break her neck. Or a leg. But strong arms assisted her to a chair.

The weather was sunny and cold. Red Virginia clay lay exposed around the graveyard. People gathered in little clumps to exchange greetings and catch up. The women in high heel shoes staggered carefully to keep their points from sinking into red dirt. A slight breeze blew across the Piedmont landscape, that rich Virginia mix of rolling hills and gullies, of woods and fields, of cultivated land edged with wildness. Homesick country.

Mom was buried next to Dad. They lay on a hillside overlooking a small pond below. A large willow grew at one end of the pond, and oak woods mixed with cedar beyond. It was a peaceful cemetery, Trinity Memorial Gardens, on the edges of Sandy River outside the village of Rice. An occasional roar from a semi barreling down Rt. 460 on the other side of the hill would thunder over the boxwoods and through the bare branches of November trees.

Back in my parents’ home, after all the cakes and pies and casseroles were brought over and devoured by so many good people from so many states across the nation, my Uncle Larry broke out the rum. Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum. Good stuff. He and I and my Uncle Al downed a few shot glasses. Uncle Al then brought out a bottle of merlot, filled a glass, and lifted it in the air. A sunbeam shining through the kitchen window caught the glass and made it sparkle.

“Drinking a glass of red wine is like drinking a glass of sunshine,” Uncle Al said, still holding up the glass. And then he took a drink. Yes, a glass of wine is like a glass of sunshine.

William Dudley Bass
2006 – 2008
November 18, 2008

© by William Dudley Bass



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