Last month my two sisters and I met in Oxford, Mississippi, to see our mother’s gravestone for the first time since we had buried her just over a year ago. We’d all made sojourns to the cemetery before this particular April afternoon, but it had taken a while for us to get the ledger in place. So we walked from The Square over to St. Peter’s Cemetery, around the small grouping of trees I think are cedar but don’t know for sure. Then, just past the curve of the road, we veered right to the Wilson plot on the hill.
It looked beautiful, elegant and classic, just like Daddy’s. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” it read. Ann, Ginny, and I got her as close to Daddy as we could. It’s where she liked to be in life, right next to our father, and she told me more than once, “that’s it for me,” after he died, some sixteen years before she did. She would quickly add that she still loved being with her family, but I knew what she meant, I think, for something life-giving abandoned her the day he died.
We had a ritual when we got back to Ginny’s house, putting out some pictures, lighting a candle, and telling stories of our childhood. I read a poem entitled “We Remember Them,” by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer, sent to me by soul-friend Sheri Malman when I told her what I wanted to do. She also managed to have a bouquet of flowers waiting at the cemetery for us, which contained calla lilies and roses, my parents’ favorites. That’s a good friend, people.
The last line goes like this: “For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”
Let all those who miss their mothers on this day say Amen.
Somehow comforted by hearing Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” on WMOT, the fabulous Americana station I listen to daily in Nashville, as I write, and remember.
When I was about five, my family moved from one subdivision to another in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Soon after we arrived, a woman came from next door to welcome us to the neighborhood. Mother told me to go out back and play while they visited. So I did. After roaming around for a bit with my Labrador sidekick, Sloopy, I found the longest row of daffodils, all yellow and good smelling, lining one side of the yard. I picked a bunch of them, delighting in my discovery, and took them in to Mother, my chubby fingers wrapped around the stems.
“Here,” I said, offering up my bounty. “These are for you.”
“Oh no,” said my mother. “Those don’t belong to us. You shouldn’t have done that.”
Somehow she knew what I didn’t, that the flowers bloomed on the property next to ours, owned by the nice woman sitting on the couch. She was lovely about it, this new friend, but my mother was not amused.
The neighbor, Mrs. Wise, and I laughed about it when I was older, with her telling me I could pick those flowers anytime, that she just wanted people to enjoy them.
The last time I saw her she brought a card to my father in the hospital after he collapsed in a restaurant while eating lunch. Once again Mrs. Wise and I spoke of the daffodils, although she was well into her eighties then and said she had no memory of my indiscretion. Why would she?
Why do I? Because of the shame of it, perhaps, one of those early scoldings we think we didn’t deserve. An early embarrassment. Or maybe it was my first meaningful encounter with a daffodil.
“But I wouldn’t have minded if you picked those flowers whenever you wanted,” she said as we visited in the lobby of Baptist Hospital on North State Street.
“This is for Earl,” she continued, handing me the card. “Get well soon,” it read.
Daddy died the next day, Mrs. Wise several years later.
Every spring when I pick daffodils in my own yard in Tennessee, I think of them both, a neighbor and a father who made lasting impressions on me.
“The obituary pages tell us of the news that we are dying away while the birth announcements in finer print, off at the side of the page, inform us of our replacements…”—Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell
As my father drew his last breath, he did not rise up to confess the name of an unknown love child or reach out to my mother to proclaim his love one more time. He simply died.
“Is this it?” asked Mother. At 78, she looked like a child who had lost sight of her parents in a crowded shopping mall.
“I think so,” I told her, crying, searching the nurse’s face for a signpost of my own. She nodded.
“Yes,” I said to my mother. “I think this is it.” She climbed onto the hospital bed and lay down beside Daddy, cradling his head in her arms and whispering into his right ear. She was wedged between the side rails and her soulmate. My two sisters and I huddled around the other side of the bed, taking turns telling Daddy good-bye. Later we discovered that Ann and Mother were begging him to stay, while Ginny and I were telling him he could go, his work with us was done, he had done it well. We did not know if Daddy could hear us, and in light of the conflicting messages, maybe it’s best if he didn’t. It’s a good thing Daddy always knew his own mind.
It became obvious rather quickly that my father was indeed dying. Numbers dropped on machines, glowing lines lost their arcs and veered toward flat. I know you’re not supposed to be able to hear hearts break, but I swear I heard something, loud and clear. After twenty-four hours of his head swaying back and forth, his face obscured by an oxygen mask, the first love of my live was gone.
The nurse moved to turn off the machines that accompanied my father from this life to the next. Despite her best efforts, she could not get one of them to stop beeping.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” More beeping.
My friend Mary said when her sister died of skin cancer—she was only 35—there was a death rattle, sort of a guttural sound. All I heard, besides the beeping, was absence. Ann, Ginny, and I helped Mother down from the hospital bed. We gathered ourselves one into the other and moved around the room as a single unit, a glob of grief, not knowing where to go or when to stop. Occasionally one of us reached for a tissue or glanced out the window at the skyline of the city that had served as our family’s backdrop for more than half a century. But mostly we drifted around Daddy’s bed, first one side, then the other.
When Mother sank to the floor in a heap, phrases that didn’t begin to do the scene justice came to mind: thought I might die; took my breath away; hit me like a ton of bricks; I was beside myself. I kept looking for the just-right cliché, but I did not find it. As a daughter, I was speechless. As a writer, I was at a loss for words.
When a doctor entered the room, my mother looked at him square in the face and wailed, “Why did this happen?”
“Blood vessels get weak over time,” he said. “There was nothing we could do.”
“She thinks she might have done something to save him,” I said, softly. “She thinks it’s her fault.”
I was pleading to a stranger for some remnant of reassurance. Anything. The last family member to arrive at the hospital, I wasn’t introduced to the doctors, wasn’t allowed to view X-rays my sisters saw, pictures that convinced them our father could not be saved.
“We’ve already told her it wasn’t her fault,” said Dr. Meany Pants, curtly, before leaving the room. “Your mother knows better.”
Note to self: After suitable mourning period, confront people who piss me off during the process.
The curtain that separated us from the rest of the world, the world of the living, made a slight shushing sound as it came together behind the doctor.
“Wow, the color sure goes out of you fast,” I said to the nurse, as my father faded to white from his head down.
“Yes, it does,” she replied.
Did I just use the word “wow”? Surely something more meaningful was in order.
“How long can we stay?”
“As long as you like.”
“We might be here a while, then,” I said, but I did not know how long would be long enough. I did not know anything.
I asked the nurse to remove Daddy’s oxygen mask and take out his mouthpiece. The minute she did, I was almost sorry, because then I could really see my precious father’s face. I was reminded this was not some sort of terrible mix-up, like when surgeons remove a kidney instead of a lung or amputate the wrong leg (you read about that all the time). Daddy is dead. Repeat after me.
I made my way toward him—it did not occur to me to say, “the body,” for even without breath, he was still my daddy—and smoothed his bushy eyebrows. In doing so I accidentally raised one of his eyelids and saw into the nothingness of his eyes, eyes that used to light up when he saw any one of his girls come into a room. Always a believer in another world beyond this one, I saw for myself, in that very instant, that something separate from our skin and bones, something apart from our organs and tissue, makes us who we are. Call it spirit, call it soul, call it whatever you wish. Whatever it is, it no longer resided inside my father. Just like that.
I’m wondering why parents would chastise their children in public, for all those in line to renew our license plates to hear. As soon as the words were out of the father’s mouth, I saw the girl’s face crumple. He was unhappy with her performance in a softball game, and he let her know it in no uncertain terms. I wanted to hug the girl, tell her I bet she did the best she could and that her sandals were cute. Instead, I started thinking about how we speak to one another–in public and at home. How words do hurt. And really, how many of us have had to worry about sticks and stones? Read more of my latest post for Her Spirit here…
When Maybelle goes to visit her mother in the retirement “community” where she lives, they usually undertake some kind of project. This time around, it was to clean out closets. As Maybelle diligently took each item of clothing to her mother for inspection, she came across two lovely formal gowns.
“I don’t guess I need to keep those,” said Maybelle’s mother, who is 88 and looks stunning in this picture with her first great-grandchild. “It’s not like I’ll ever go anywhere to wear something like that again.”
After the kind of pause than can be manipulated for maximum effect, she added, “You might want to hang on to them, though. You can always bury me in one.”