The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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My mother’s death was one of the most beautiful and painful experiences of my life. She died of cancer and did not fight it. She rejected any heroic measures to prolong her life, accepting her situation with a quiet dignity that was, perhaps, her greatest gift to me.
I remember the last time I saw her. She looked eighty, though she was only fifty-three. I marveled that I saw her mother in her face. I had often thought she looked nothing like my grandmother; yet, on that day, the resemblance was uncanny. I wondered if I would look so much like my mother when I lay dying, too.
What do you say to your dying mother? As a child, I had rehearsed her death, or at least the pain of it, so that I would be prepared. I knew it would hurt unbearably, and I wanted to survive it. The memories of all those rehearsals flooded back.
I was afraid I would say the wrong things. But she was dying and there were things that had to be said; I wanted no regrets. I had to know if she was afraid. I did not want to think of my mother dying in fear. I don’t know why, but it took incredible courage for me to ask her.
She was not afraid, she told me. I breathed a sigh of relief because I could tell she was speaking the truth. Her God would be there for her. Her father, who had died years before and whom she loved so much, would be there waiting for her, too. Her vision of the afterlife, which was very real to her, comforted me as well. To this day, when a movie star she admired dies, I think, “Ah, now Mommy will get to meet him (or her) at last!”
My mother loved my children. Being a grandmother was, in her eyes, a great gift. When Jason, my first son, was born, she went to work wearing a large sandwich board that proclaimed, “It’s a boy!” It hurt to realize how much my children would lose by her death and that the child I was carrying (I was pregnant at the time) would never be able to know her.
When I expressed to her my regret that she would not know my unborn child, I added, “But who knows? Maybe, in your own way, you will.” She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and replied, “Yes, who knows? Maybe I will.” She died the following week.
Colin was born four months later, just before Christmas early in the morning. That night, around midnight, I nursed him in the living room. I still don’t know why I didn’t simply stay in bed with him. We both fell asleep on the couch. I awoke early in the morning, with the first light. Standing at the foot of the stairs, looking at Colin and me, was my mother. She smiled and I smiled back. I remembered our last time together as she lay dying. Indeed, she had found a way.
I have trouble just leaving the house. (This is embarrassing. I actually argued with myself, just now: “Should I turn on some music to get moving?” “No, I want to keep my buzz from meditating.”) Well, now I’m on the train. This is fun. The sun’s striping the Brooklyn sky on its way down. Traveling is fine — only leaving is tough.
“Good Christmas,” this drunk kid in a black leather jacket tells his friend who’s leaving.
When you leave, people say things to you — like “Ciao,” “See you soon.” If they’re worried about you, they say, “Take care of yourself,” and give you a soulful look; that means they’re your friend.
On Sunday, Ellen and I didn’t say anything; we nodded to each other like Clint Eastwood. Sort of “Here’s lookin’ at ya, kid!”
I’ll never quite forgive her for just walking onto that plane to Bombay — not turning back one more time.
The F Train
It was 1972, my second year of college in Atlanta. I was nineteen, the eldest of three, still living at home.
Deep rumblings of change had been going on inside me. I was like some sleeping volcano waking up. Pleasing my parents was becoming less sacred, and displeasing them more enticing. I had joined a fraternity of which they disapproved; I stayed in it long enough to get very drunk a couple of times, which horrified them. Most of my professors were as interesting as oatmeal, and my 3.9 grade point average from high school was slipping. But it was a girl named Anita who really set off the parental alarms.
I didn’t date much because I was shy. The few girls I did go out with were prim and Protestant. Anita was a freckled, flaming red-haired Jew from Delaware (“a Yankee, for God’s sake”), who wore outrageous billowy dresses that did nothing to hide her obviously unencumbered breasts. She walked with big, hip-swinging strides. Worst of all, she said exactly what she thought in a loud voice, with a distinctly northern accent. Anita lived in a house with a number of other people — a hippie commune.
I was intrigued by her, attracted to her, and undeniably in awe of her. In response to my parents’ inquiries about her, I phrased my replies carefully, so as not to lose both of them to heart attacks. Still, they were suspicious and wanted her to come to dinner. She came and thoroughly shocked my parents. That’s when my father gave me the ultimatum: “Either you stop seeing that hippie girl or you move out.”
I sat on my bed for a long time after Dad had delivered his speech and left the room. I felt terrible. My hands were sweating. Leaving home had never really occurred to me before, but staying now felt like suffocating. Inside me, one voice was shouting gleefully, “Here’s your chance!” while another screamed, “Stop! Are you crazy?”
Barely breathing, my heart aching, I packed a small suitcase. I called Anita, who said I could come stay at her house.
Mother, father, sister, and brother were all in the living room, huddled around the television for solace. Everyone was choked with grief, working hard to hold it in. I could barely see through tears that wouldn’t fall; I could barely say goodbye.
When I closed the door behind me, it made a sound I’d never heard before — the sound of leaving home.
I get into the truck, start the engine, and begin to drive away. I am silent, regretting the leaving, anxious about the trip ahead.
The din of the children beside me in the front seat penetrates my heaviness. They shout to their animals, “Goodbye, Elsie! Goodbye, Fannie! Goodbye, kittens!” They shout to the plants, “Goodbye, corn! Goodbye, elm tree!” They shout to structures, “Goodbye, shop! Goodbye, beehives! Goodbye, mailbox!” They promise to return. They say, “We’ll miss you!” Then they turn their faces forward, excited over the journey we are beginning.
I see how my fear and clinging are unnecessary. I sense a rightness in my children’s simply expressed ambivalence — a passionate acknowledgement of what we leave behind coupled with an eager readiness for what we move toward.
My mother was always leaving us, having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis before I was born. One day, when I was five, my older brother listened at Mom’s door while she talked with the doctor. Then he came to where my younger brother and I were playing and said, “Mom’s going to die.”
I waited in terror throughout my childhood, knowing that my mother’s leaving — dying — was inevitable. There were mornings when I woke up with a feeling that she would die very soon. I’d watch for it in a near-panic until enough days passed to prove the “omen” had been wrong.
At the amusement park, I came out of the haunted house crying because the skeletons reminded me of something terrible that was happening to our family. Late night calls always frightened me. Saying goodbye to Mom after hospital visiting hours, I often wondered if it was for the last time.
She lived eighteen more years after I learned she was dying, leaving so slowly, wanting only to stay and to be whole, to be home taking care of her family, walking, living a life. Still, after years of deterioration, when everything had to be done for her, including breathing, she lay in the intensive care unit and mouthed, “I want to go home.” When my brother asked, “Do you mean to heaven?” she widened her eyes emphatically and said, “No.”
We were called to the hospital several times when she seemed about to die, but each time she pulled through. Finally, she died alone.
Now, years later, I’m beginning to forgive her.
We were dreaming of union, family, home: the warmth of a fire, laughter, children, animals. We wanted to live and work with a community of friends on land we held sacred and cherished.
Then cancer crippled my husband’s body and shriveled our dreams. First, we struggled through denial, trying to ignore the seriousness of the problem. Then, we grieved that we could never have children together. My husband felt trapped in a repeating history, his grandfather and father having had the same illness before him. He felt trapped in a cycle of fear and dependency in relating to doctors, and the alternatives they offered: the poison of chemotherapy, the slash of surgery, the burn of radiation.
He finally accepted poison, a bitter poison, which led to nausea, vomiting, and loss of hair. Separated from familiar surroundings, he became a “case,” tested and examined, hospital staff talking around or above but not to him. He endured tasteless food, intravenous needles, and drugged sleep. He became more and more emaciated, and drug fumes emanated from his skin and breath.
He struggled, craving love, wanting security. He was alone, trapped in his body and his fear. I was weakening, reeling in my own fears — of the pain of loving, the imminence of loss. I was struggling between duty and self-protection, and finally moved away too soon, before the end.
I could not prevent his death, and so I didn’t want to hear about it, prepare for it, accept it. I wanted to deny this unbelievable reality. I failed him — not totally, but I allowed my fear to keep me away from him when he needed me most. I pulled away because of the aching pain of the inevitable separation from him and our dreams.
I know we’re all trying. We’re doing the best we can to be perfectly loving; but we are human, imperfect. Fear rides us, every one.
State College, Pennsylvania
I grew up on a farm in England. When I was young I never thought of leaving it. I loved the animals, the trees, and the plants. When times were hard, as they often were, I found stability and continuity there.
As I got older, things became more difficult in the family. I was only too ready to leave when it was time to go to college. So I turned my back on the farm. I didn’t need it; I had a new life. I went back less and less often, especially after I moved to the United States.
Then my parents wrote to tell me they’d retired and left the farm; they said they’d sold “the cattle, the equipment, everything.” The word “everything” hit me, and I had tears in my eyes for the first time in years. I realized how much the farm still meant to me — and now it was gone. In some way it had always remained “home.” I guess I must still have had hopes of going back. Now it was impossible. A lot of memories came back; things undone and unsaid; things left behind yet still part of me.
I found myself going back home more often — not to the farm, but to my parents’ new home in town. Gradually the emotions associated with “going home” became less intense. It seemed the world was becoming home now.
One morning last summer, I happened to walk across a vacant lot filled with clover. The scent of the clover had a haunting, resonating familiarity. It was a scent I recognized from the farm, there in the present. In some way that I didn’t quite understand, I had left and returned.