T.S. Eliot may have April down as the cruelest month, but given my track record, it’s got to be December. Having lost Dad during the winter of 2004, Mom’s time to go came a few weeks back in early December.
She had been cheating the grim reaper for a long time. Smoking since she was a teenager circa 1950. Granted, not heavily, but for a smoker to breach into her 80’s, this was a minor miracle. As it was, an aneurysm took her down with only a few-minute warning, luckily at home with my brother and sister right there to help her on the way out. She didn’t know this was it, but surely must have pondered this as a dizzy spell came over her that morning. My sister seemed to sense the finality of what was happening, whispered her goodbyes, to which Mom snapped, “I’m still here!”
But not for long. Her final repost mirrored the sort of irritable jab I’ve been giving her for years, when she tried to be too motherly, generally right before I was going to get on a bus to go back to New York after visiting. She’d try to pawn off free samples of cold medicine on me that she had picked up at The Dollar Store, or was still trying to tell me about food in the refrigerator that she thought I might need to know about. And feeling like a snotty, 15-year-old prick, I’d snap at her, not harshly, but a tone of mild annoyance in my voice. And she’d say, “No need to get upset, I’m just saying.” Only adding to the guilty “what a dick I’m being” feeling already growing in my heart.
A few minutes later, we’d hug – a practice she began in earnest after Dad passed, making sure we touched one last time before I got on the bus and wouldn’t be back again for another month and a half. Thank God she did this, as I can look back to my trip at Thanksgiving, which was a perfectly normal visit with Mom in seemingly good health and spirits, only the usual aches and pains she always complained about. I’ll see you again in just about a month, I said, understanding that Thanksgiving was late this year and Christmas was right around the corner. In that moment, all was forgotten and forgiven, I was her wayward son, leaving again, but always to return, something I’ll always be glad I did for both her and Dad (and myself), as I made a point to see them as much as possible in their old age. I felt fine, knowing I’d see her again soon.
Too soon, only days later, and this time in a coffin at the funeral parlor, rushing home in the daze that surrounds the cloudy days before a wake, but then the wake. As I learned with Dad’s passing, a wake for someone that age is a good time, or as good a time as you’re going to get in those few brutal days of adapting to a new way of life. Mom’s was no different, relatives and family friends showing up, paying respects, laughing over old memories and stories they had of Mom’s generosity and way with stray dogs and random people she’d be her usual warm self with.
What really got me through was seeing my namesake, Uncle Bill, well into his 90s, blind in both eyes but otherwise getting by physically. Due to his advanced years and need for assistance, I gather it hasn’t made much sense to go the “seeing eye dog and cane” route. As it turns out, my Cousin John, who lives in the same town, has stepped up to serve as his eyes when he needs to get around in public. If you’ve ever seen a boxer enter a ring at a large public match, this is how John and Bill get around: with John leading the way while Bill puts his hands on John’s shoulders and shuffles in place behind him, matching his steps. John will quietly announce, “slight incline on your left” or “three small steps coming up followed by a hard right” … and they have it down enough at this point that they don’t skip a beat.
I can’t tell you how good it felt to sit and talk with him all these years on, with him still as sharp as ever beyond the blindness and old age. How good it made me feel to know I was named after him, and this guy was still kicking around, not giving up despite taking an ass-kicking from life, as we all will if we hang around long enough. And of course, John, being a good son, stepping up and making sure that his father could have some kind of life, honoring him on the other end for the years he raised him. You see these kind of things, it reminds you how things should be done, and are, quietly in so many cases, so that your life is filled with these unassuming people doing selfless things as a matter of course with no reward, save the returning of a huge favor.
Afterwards, a lot of the relatives came back to the house, and we had such a good time, having a few beers in the kitchen, laughing, warming our hands around that glow I’ll feel the rest of my days when I remember her and what she meant to me and so many others.
I guess I should feel like dogshit these days, but I really don’t. Knowing she didn’t suffer, like Dad did through months of radiation and chemo, really goes a long way towards easing that sort of horrible pain you get when you see one of your parents decimated by disease and harsh medical treatment. I want to die like that one day, too, and I don’t say that facetiously, as I’ve witnessed the long, hard flipside of a momentary passing after a long life.
The strangest thing, and I wouldn’t even call it the hardest, has been seeing Mom’s chair empty when I’m back there. All these insistent little reminders of this newly empty space. The first thing I did when I got home the evening after Mom died was get in her car so I could get some groceries for the next few days. I checked the trunk. Before I left after Thanksgiving, she had asked me to put a clear garbage bag of aluminum cans in there for her to donate to her friend from the animal shelter, who could sell the aluminum for scrap. Something she had done for years, the same way she held on to plastic bags from shopping excursions to give to the local Goodwill store.
Nothing in the trunk. Meaning she had gone out over the weekend and dropped them off … her life had been normal right up to the very last moment. I sat down in the front seat and found the ghost of her touch again: the rear-view and side mirrors turned down. She did this so she wouldn’t have to see cars behind her. Don’t get me wrong: Mom wasn’t doing 20 mph on the road; she was doing the speed limit. From what I gather driving back there, doing the speed limit, even in a rural area like that, will generally find you with one or two angry drivers riding your ass, wondering why you’re not doing 60 mph in a 45 mph zone. A few years ago I’d noticed the mirrors would always be turned down in her car when I got in for a drive.
So, I turned them back up for the last time. I now own this car, and it’s staying right where it’s at. Insurance agent got me an entirely reasonable rate to drive locally, and I have no need for a car in New York. Once upon a time, I dreamed about having a car here, but now that I know the loathsome reality of owning and driving one here, and the liberating realization that I can live without it, I feel fine with this.
The hardest thing is time, because I know a parent’s death is like a slow-motion neutron bomb going off. Everything around me will seem unaffected, besides that initial shock, but over the course of time, it becomes clear and obvious what’s gone missing. Maybe it’s a mental issue, that acknowledging something like this full-on would be too much of a shock to the system, so to protect myself I let it sink in over time, in increments, memories and moments. And it surely does, like wind or rain. But I learned with Dad’s passing, I just can’t grasp what has happened in a day, or a week, or a month, or a year. I’m still grasping that one, as I’ll be grasping Mom’s passing for the rest of my days.
“Grasping” might be the wrong word. “Absorbing” could be better. I’m also absorbing how they raised me, the goal of which, bluntly stated, was to survive without them. At first that implied simply going off on my own in my early 20s and figuring out how to support myself financially and work my way into adulthood. That’s one kind of departure and compared to this, pretty easy stuff, although it didn’t seem that way at the time. I was leaving them, and this new reality, this much harder one, is them leaving me. Not by choice. I gather with both of them, the hardest part about dying was knowing that they could no longer watch out for their children.
But they should have known, they didn’t raise a bunch of pussies. All those hard lessons they imparted from World War II and The Depression, they weren’t lost on us, much as we chafed at hearing that shit at the time. Being raised in a house with our grandmother dying … all these things let us know that life would be hard at times. I would have thought that feeling of being “alone” in the world would overwhelm me when Mom passed on. While I surely do feel it, I’m not overwhelmed by it. If anything, Dad passing on woke me up to this concept, that one day I’d be orphaned, and there would be no safety net, no one person who would give his or her life for me, who doted on me and would do anything to ensure that I got through life.
It’s not such a terrible feeling. It’s different, without a doubt, and represents one of those seismic shifts where the earth moves a few millimeters and everything changes. But they prepared me for this all along, knowingly or not, and it’s my legacy to honor them by moving forward, to take whatever good they taught me and use it. This is the sort of head I find myself now, as opposed to weeping and wailing. I don’t weep and wail … just not my style. Used to think there was something wrong with this, but I’m just taking after Dad. I feel it, for sure, but I will go feeling it the rest of my days, the same way we all go on after injuries and feel them sometimes on cold, rainy days.
The hard part is sensing that vacated space of someone who would have given her life for mine. Maybe you have a whole slew of people like that in your life. But it’s been my experience that when you get down to it, there are only two people in the world who will completely fulfill that obligation … and some people aren’t lucky enough to have even their parents feel that way towards them. This is the sort of thing I want to underline for anyone reading this who hasn’t lost a parent. It’s something that takes time to grasp, and in that time you’ll also grasp some good things about yourself, learned traits, the knowledge that they made you strong for a good reason, and that this is the way the world works in its very hard order.
For now, I’m left with that empty space. Vestiges of how she lived. The weird tube socks that she’d cut the feet out of and use the elastic as wrist and elbow supports when her aches and pains acted up. I’d tell her, Mom, you can buy Ace supports in the drug store that are made specifically for this reason and will last the rest of your days. But I already knew her Depression-era answer: why spend money when I can make the same thing for free at home?
Just like the cheap windbreaker with my name emblazoned on the left breast that I gave her back in the 90s, from that shitty outdoor advertising company I worked at for a few years. The elastic-band polyester pants that she’d wear until the elastic was frayed. The cheap sun visor she must have bought some time in the 80s and really took a liking to. The cool keychain for her car with her name on it that one of us bought as a gift for her back in the 70s … that I still touch every time I grab the keys for the car.
Old lady things. The kind of things that haunt and comfort me as time crawls on here. Those rare moments when I feel completely lost and unable to handle this, sooner or later, I think about how they’d do it: just pick the god-damned thing up and get on with it. People keep telling me how much I look like Dad now that I’ve dropped all this weight. They have no idea how much more I resemble my parents in far deeper ways that only reveal themselves in the lack of their presence.