Personal History: "Writing a mother’s death"
03-03-2011, 05:29 PM
Personal History: "Writing a mother’s death"
Writing a mother’s death
My mother died on Christmas Day, at home, around three in the afternoon. In the first months afterward, I felt an intense desire to write down the story of her death, to tell it over and over to friends. I jotted down stray thoughts and memories in the middle of the night. Even during her last weeks, I found myself squirrelling away her words, all her distinctive expressions: “I love you to death” and “Is that our wind I hear?”
If I told the story of her death, I might understand it better, make sense of it—perhaps even change it. What had happened still seemed implausible. A person was present your entire life, and then one day she disappeared and never came back. It resisted belief. She had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer two and a half years earlier; I had known for months that she was going to die. But her death nonetheless seemed like the wrong outcome—an instant that could have gone differently, a story that could have unfolded otherwise. If I could find the right turning point in the narrative, then maybe, like Orpheus, I could bring the one I sought back from the dead. Aha: Here she is, walking behind me.
It was my mother who had long ago planted in me the habit of writing things down in order to understand them. When I was five, she gave me a red corduroy-covered notebook for Christmas. I sat in my floral nightgown turning the blank pages, puzzled.
“What do I do with it?” I wanted to know.
“You write down things that happened to you that day.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because maybe they’re interesting and you want to remember them.”
“What would I write?”
“Well, you’d write something like ‘Today I saw a woman with purple hair crossing Montague Street.’ ”
I still remember the way she said that sentence: Today I saw a woman with purple hair crossing Montague Street. It is one of those memories that I carry around, and always will, like the shard of a shell that falls out of a bag you took to the beach for a long summer.
I hadn’t seen a woman with purple hair crossing Montague Street, of course. But in that sentence was my mother’s sense that one might want to capture the extraordinary, her grasp of children’s love of the absurd, her striking physical presence—in my memory, she was leaning toward me, backlit, her black hair falling forward—and her intuition that my seriousness needed to be leavened with playfulness.
My brothers and I spent an inordinate amount of time with our mother when we were children, not only because we went to school where she worked, as the head of the middle school, but because she loved being with kids. She was a bit of a child herself. She had married when she was seventeen, and in some ways never lost the teen-ager inside her. Over the summer, she would study the names of Northeastern birds in her Audubon books and, with utter focus, write a list of the ones she’d seen. She had a vivid sense of what makes children feel safe, and she believed in a child’s experience of the world. Students trusted her, even when they’d been sent to her office and she was asking them why in the world they had done whatever it was they had done.
She spent hours with my brothers and me, making gingerbread houses or sledding or cutting out paper snowflakes. She taught us all to make apple pie, and read “The Black Stallion” out loud to us at night—though she also had a habit of promising to read a book out loud and then giving up partway through. The boxes of memorabilia she kept for each of us were always disorganized. One of the things I found there after she died was a card I had made for her birthday when I was about six. It began:
I LOVE YOU.
I LOVE THE STORIES
YOU MAKE WITH ME.
On a hazy October morning, after months of chemotherapy, my mother and I drove down to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in the near-dark, listening to traffic reports like all the other commuters. The cancer had spread to her lungs and her liver. This wasn’t likely to be a story that ended well. But, in a last-ditch effort, we had enrolled her in an experimental treatment program. I thought, darkly, that the creeping cars around us were like souls wandering in Hades. My mother was quiet. I worried that she resented my fussing about what she was eating and whether my father had given her the right pain medication.
I had often picked my mother up after her chemo treatments, but I had never seen one in progress. It is a brisk business. Needles and bags are efficiently hustled into place, as if it were not poison that is about to be put in the body. The nurses were funny and frank, though they’d just met my mother. As the drugs slid up the IV into her arm, we watched stolid barges plug up the Hudson like islands, the water silver in the haze. I read poems, and she asked me about poetry.
“I don’t really understand it,” she said. “I never have. Do you think you could teach me to read a poem?”
I said that I could.
As she grew even sicker, herclothes began to hang off her; her stomach sometimes showed because her pants were too big. One day when I came downstairs, she was in the kitchen, putting cups away in odd places with one hand and, with the other, holding a tape measure around her waist, as if it were a belt.
Every morning the hospice nurse came for two hours. Each visit started the same way: On a scale of one to ten, Barbara, with one being the lowest and ten being the highest, how bad is your pain? The nurses said it fast and singsong, like a prayer or a sales pitch. My mother took to holding up her fingers, not bothering to speak: seven fingers. Every time she went to the bathroom with her walker, it made a scratching sound against the kitchen’s stone floor. Scritch-scratch. Scritch-scratch. Her eyes had begun to go vacant. Her hair was a mess. Soon we needed a toilet adjuster, because we couldn’t lift her off the seat. Then she could no longer stand. The hospice nurse washed her with a warm cloth. Before long, she was asleep most of the time. Then we needed the diapers.
Her hospital bed was in the living room. We took turns sleeping on the couch beside it at night. I wrapped myself in blankets on the couch and read through the quiet hours of the morning, just as I used to in the summers we spent in Vermont, in a tiny mountainside cabin. Sometimes we would go canoe camping for a week or two on Moosehead Lake, in Maine, driving up from Brooklyn or from our cabin in a station wagon packed to the brim with boxes and bags and two canoes precariously strapped to the top of the car. My brother Liam and I were each allowed to bring a wooden wine box of books. “One crate,” my mother said firmly. I would line my crate with paperbacks, rearranging them to fit everything in. Once, after the long drive without air-conditioning—our cars, the castoffs of friends, never had such niceties—my puppy jumped out of an open window when my parents stopped to get our camping license. “Finn!” I cried in fright, thinking he’d finally had enough of us. But all he did was shoot down the hill to the dock and then leap straight out into the blue water. He had never seen a lake before.
The lake was huge, stretching lakily out to the horizon, and it changed you to see it, after the hours of asphalt and the car climbing huge hills and descending them, climbing again and descending, hemmed in by hundred-year-old oaks and maples. At our campsite, I would open the tent, insert the flexible metal wires that held it up, and hammer in the supporting pegs with a rock or a book, my brother doing the same, his blond head bent over a peg. He was young and slower than I was, and I’d shove him aside in the end to do it myself. Then we got inside and read.
I read “The Scarlet Pimpernel” by flashlight one night when I was ten. It seemed exciting and dastardly and terrifying; the ground was rotting under me as I read. How could these people want to murder lords and ladies? Lords and ladies were the heroines of my storybooks. Usually, the true-of-heart turned out to be a hidden princess. I didn’t understand. I especially didn’t understand how “The Scarlet Pimpernel” could take for granted these casual dealings in blood and terror. Whatever that reality, it had nothing to do with the lake or my dog or me—except I knew that on some level it did. And I knew, too, that I needed to understand. I remember the blanketing fear, my confusion, the night pressing against the tent, and the mahogany light cast by the flashlight against the yellowing book.
Now all those books have yellowed; they sit on the rec-room bookshelves in my dad’s house, some moth-eaten and mildewed, others brittle, the corners of the pages breaking as you turn them.
The summer I was eight, I became preoccupied with the thought that I was going to die. My mother noticed that something was wrong, and would pull me onto her lap and ask me if I was O.K., but I had no words to explain my fear; it seemed too enormous to talk about, or even to write down in my journal. One morning, curled up in my sleeping bag on the couch at our cabin, reading an Agatha Christie mystery, I listened as Liam, playing go fish with my mother, turned to her and said, “I don’t want to die. Do you not want to die? What happens to us when we die?”
And my mother put the cards down and said, slowly, “No, I don’t want to die. But I don’t know what happens to us when we die.”
“It’s scary,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” our mother said calmly. “But it’s not going to happen to you for a long time.”
I was both nauseated and riveted: these were the words I had wanted to say, and couldn’t. Perhaps that was because I knew already that any comfort she could offer would be false.
A week before my mother died, my father brought home a Christmas tree and decorated it with lights. It was five feet from my mother’s bed, and the warm glow of the colored lights made her look tan.
In the rec room, I found an old copy of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which she’d given me for Christmas when I was in the fourth grade. I read it as I lay next to her, remembering those days when I would get up before she did, make a bowl of cereal, and zip myself into a sleeping bag. She would eventually wake and come out to the kitchen in her nightshirt and call out, “Hi, Meg.” Trying to let her go, I found that I was only hungry for more of her. A mother is a story with no beginning. That is what defines her.
One night, I woke in the dark and saw that my father had come downstairs and was looking at her, fists punched into his sweatshirt pocket, shoulders hunched. He stood for minutes, gazing down on her sleeping face.
In those last few days, she began to look very young. Her face had lost so much weight that the bones showed through, like a child’s. Her eyebrows and eyelashes were very black. I held her hand. I smoothed her face. Her skin had begun to feel waxy, but was also covered with little grains, as if she were in the process of exfoliating.
When she died that Christmas, we were all beside her. Her breath slowed and then she opened her eyes to look at us and we told her the things we had to say, and then she slipped away.
We had no rules about what to do right after my mother died; in fact, we were clueless—
“What do we do now?”
“Call the nurse.”
“The nurse says to stay here.”
—and so we sat with her body, holding her hands. I kept touching the skin on her face, which was rubbery but still hers, feeling morbid as I did it, but feeling, too, that it was strange that I should think so. This was my mother. In the old days, the days I read about in fantasy tales as a child, didn’t the bereaved wash the body as they said their goodbyes? I was ransacking the moment for understanding. Finally, when the funeral-home workers came to take her away, I went to my room and called some friends, saying, “My mother has died.” I had the floating sensation that I was acting out a part in a movie, trying on the words, trying on the story.
The previous May, around the time my mother was coming to see that the cancer was the thing that would kill her, I picked her up from chemo and she asked me to take her to the Cloisters before going home. I had a hard time looking at her, because her skin was gray. We walked through the dark gallery below the colonnaded garden and studied the art. “This has been in the world for so long,” she said, pointing to one image. As we emerged into the sunlight, she bent stiffly to read the names of the planted herbs and flowers just coming up—lily of the valley, myrtle, columbine. “Here comes the spring,” she said thoughtfully, as if she knew that she would never see it again.
She told me that she wanted to die in our living room, where she could look at old things. A great blue heron had begun coming to our lawn and perching on a rock by the small pond at its foot, and she liked to keep an eye out for it. In her last weeks, I would sit next to her, rubbing her feet, watching her gaze out the window—she looked past us, like an X-ray machine. Already left behind, I wanted to call out, like Orpheus, “Come back! Come back!”
Yet the story of Orpheus, it occurs to me, is not just about the desire of the living to resuscitate the dead but about the ways in which the dead drag us along into their shadowy realm because we cannot let them go. So we follow them into the Underworld, descending, descending, until one day we turn and make our way back.
Now and then, you think you discern glimpses of that other life. Running along a quiet road four months after her death, I thought I felt my mother near me, just to the side. I turned, and saw nothing except a brown bird with a gray ruff and strangely tufted feathers. I did not know its name. She would have.
The poem I would have taught her how to read was Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent,” one long sentence strewn across fourteen lines, like an exhale, or a breeze. It compares a woman to a tent swaying in the wind, a tent that “is loosely bound / By countless silken ties of love and thought / To every thing on earth the compass round.”
I thought of that poem one wintry night nearly a year after her death. Walking through the West Village, I saw on a sidewalk bookseller’s table a cheap paperback copy of a novel my mom had given me when I was a teen-ager—a novel that, she told me, had meant a lot to her. I bought it and read it that night, feeling that I was learning something new about both myself and her, since she had loved that novel, with its story of a young Irish-Catholic woman struggling to understand herself. I would always look for clues to her in books and poems, I realized. I would always search for the echoes of the lost person, the scraps of words and breath, the silken ties that say, Look: she existed.
04-25-2011, 06:52 PM
RE: Personal History: "Writing a mother’s death"
"the lesson of the falling leaves"
the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves
— Lucille Clifton
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