Monday, October 7, 2013
A Dreary Fall Morning's Writing Exercise
A vivid memory of my childhood sees me talking with my grandmother in the old cellar of her house one afternoon. She was my caretaker. My mother worked full time so it was my grandmother who answered many of my questions about life. A neighbor had died and I was curious about death, perhaps for the first time. I could not have been older than five at that moment. I asked her how you would know if you were dead. Her answer was simple. "You can't smell anymore". Was she trying to explain respiration to a little girl or had she said "breathe"? It did the trick. For years, I carried an old jar of Vicks Vaporub in my purse.
What happens when someone dies?
Everything, every detail, every piece of life, gets remembered, recalled instantly, for better or for worse. In the quiet hours of the night. In the waking hours of the day. I recall.
My grandmother was only seventy four when she died. She had surgery after having told my brother and his future wife, weeks before that, that she was afraid she would never see them again. She was in the hospital, recovering from what was supposed to be simple and routine. My mother and I were going tomorrow. My mother arrived at our house, to spend the night, ready for an early departure by car the next day. The phone rang. It was my cousin’s husband. I had to turn and deliver the news to my mother. Her first response was “but I was knitting her a pocketbook” It broke my heart. Our trip to New York was very different from the one we had planned. My grandfather was alone now. I wrote to him every day, just a short note, but I wrote to him and told him I loved him, perhaps the first time he ever heard that from any of his grandchildren.
My grandfather was eighty four when his turn came. My mother, totally unequipped for the role, went to his home to help him. She told us of one of their conversations. She said that even in death there is humor sometimes. His words to her, “I knew it would come one day, but I never expected it this soon”. In those days, eighty four was very old. His suffering and his death made my mother scared. Her belief in the power of prayer was affirmed during her watch. She got down on her knees and prayed for help and moments later, it arrived in the form of a family friend. He died in the hospital after he made sure my cousin Lenny promised to vote for Ronald Reagan. His political beliefs were strong to the bitter end.
My sister in law Patricia C. Guardino developed bad headaches, bought a birthday card for my son, her nephew that said “Happy Birthday to my Cousin”, plopped down a bottle of Excedrin on our coffee table when she came for the party, never allowing it to be too far away. Not long after, she was admitted to the hospital, an IV hanging with the name of a medication that I knew was not for anything simple or uncomplicated. The nurses asked if I were immediate family, was I a sister perhaps. “No, but I am as good as one”. Patty and I were best friends.
“Here’s a quarter, there’s a pay phone, this is her doctor’s number”
“Yes, doctor, I am ready to hear some very bad news”…. I was a nurse. I understood.
It was I who was expected to deliver the blows. First to my husband, her brother who adored her, then to her parents….but I could not do that so her doctor laid out the entire story about the next three short months. She told me I could have her air conditioner. She knew she would not need it. That woman had the greatest sense of humor. Her younger sister and I were at her bedside on that last day and it was then that I told her that it was okay, that she could leave us. We would be fine. She died and I know she went to Heaven, and the order was changed in an instant. Joe and I became the oldest of the children and nothing was ever the same.
My mother, well, she fought and she fought and she fought. Cancer after cancer after cancer. Until that December.
The warrior became weakened.
Ever so slowly, she became who she was going to be for the rest of her life, an old woman. Looked like one. Talked like one. Sent me on countless missions. Wore me down. Nearly killed my then ninety year old father. He grew tired. She got sicker and feared the pain, the pain she had seen when her own father died. The days grew more stressful. The time was coming. As time passed and her final days approached, an intimacy that I had never in my life had with my mother grew. Ever since I can remember, my mother was private and modest. As a young girl, I remember so vividly, the intrigue of the box, wrapped in plain paper which stood on the floor of her closet. It was there, I knew it was something very private and never once did I violate her trust. They called the product “Modess” in those days. Hard to believe that tampons and pads would eventually make their very own appearance on prime time T.V., totally unabashed. A cruel turn of fate that a woman who guarded her intimate life so carefully would have it all out in the open, no holds barred, no details spared. Over and over I was dispatched on yet another shopping trip, asked to make yet another phone call. I spoke to strangers, emptied the trash, gave care directives for the most private parts of her anatomy. It was I who emptied the underwear drawer, carefully and reverently disposing of the unused remnants of her most current life. The removal of her underwear and her shoes, the two most difficult self-imposed assignments I have ever had to undertake. I wept in the driveway. I stopped at the dumpster and did not turn around.
My mother’s passing has changed our family order. The happiness has been sucked out of my father’s ancient bones and he is vacant. He’s ornery most of the time without my mother there to put his fires out. Death has once again juxtaposed us. Who’s the parent? Who’s the child? Am I obligated first to my father and then to my husband? What about his own very aged mother? Am I allowed to think of my children, their needs? What about my grandchildren? Who comes first? I’m confused, resentful, angry that my mother did not give me any directives for the care of her “child” and that my brother is allowed to live so far away with that as an acceptable excuse for his not participating in this new order.
And, all the while, I am aging.
And everything has changed.