Generally speaking, I’m doing okay when I’m writing about some personal issue, even though it might not always seem that way. For instance, when I was writing about my father, my words were dripping with angst over my relationship with him. But as hard as that situation has been, I’ve been dealing with it in my own way, talking about it, writing about it, trying to externalize.
Looking back over my blog, my mother has barely had a mention, and that means trouble. Today would have been her 87th birthday if she hadn’t died 12 years ago from pancreatic cancer.
From the day I learned of her diagnosis until long after she died, the scenes would play through my mind like a slide show of horror, silent images cast upon a white projection screen.
Out of self-preservation, I moved the screen and projector to a dark room in the back of my mind, shut the door and twisted the lock. But there are two days every year — today, March 13, my mother’s birthday, and again on April 26, the anniversary of her death — when I tiptoe down the corridor, place my ear against the door, and listen to the click, click, click of the slides still slotting into place. Even standing outside that room, I can see the shifting pattern of light streaming from under the door as the projector cycles endlessly, and can vividly describe each picture as it splashes onto the screen.
Like when I visited my mother just a day or two after her diagnosis:Slide Number One:
Mama’s wearing white pants with a red gingham blouse. Her face and hands are the color of fresh lemons because an inoperable tumor is blocking her bile duct.
I try hard not to let the shock register on my face, but I know she sees it there anyway. We go out to eat and the other diners can’t help themselves, they stare at Mama then look away. They know she’s a goner, and so do I.
I return to New Jersey, then fly back to Texas a few weeks later, along with my wife and kids. I can’t bear what I’m seeing:Slide Number Two:
Mama puts on a happy face as she sits in her hospital bed and says goodbye to her grandchildren. It was I who moved them so far away from you. I’m so, so sorry.
Weeks pass, and then another urgent phone call from Texas. I’m out of money and know I’ll still have to fly myself and my family back to Texas for a funeral that is surely coming. I don’t know what to do. I pace the floor for an hour before deciding to jump in my truck and start driving. It’s snowing, and I call work from somewhere in Pennsylvania. I’m not coming in and don’t know when I’ll be back. After driving non-stop until collapsing for three hours of sleep at a motel just across the Texas border, I finally arrive back at the hospital.
Mama is visibly worse. Body fluids drain through a tube and into a collection container. She asks that I mix her oatmeal with cold, vanilla-flavored Ensure, a dietary supplement. She wants me to feed it to her:Slide Number Three:
I spoon the gloopy mess into my mother’s mouth as if she’s an infant. A little of the disgusting mixture dribbles down her chin. I dab at Mama’s face with a washcloth.
I’m out of days off and out of money. I’m feeling the pressure. I have a family of my own more than a thousand miles away, not to mention the responsibilities of a job where I’ve already missed too many days. This is why families are supposed to stay close! Why didn’t I think of this before deciding to move so far away? Now I face another long drive back to New Jersey. I have to work in two days. I have to go now.
Leaving my mother’s room, I take a wrong turn down the hallway and wind up at a dead end. I backtrack past Mama’s room, glancing inside as I walk by:Slide Number Four:
My mother is sitting in bed where I left her, crying into a towel. She doesn’t think she’ll ever see me again. I keep walking.
It’s the morning of April 23, 2003, and Mama wakes me with a phone call. She’s panicking, crying that she doesn’t want to die today because it’s my oldest daughter’s birthday, and she doesn’t want her death to forever mar Leah’s happy occasion. Somebody else gets on the line — maybe it was Daddy, I don’t remember — and tells me if I’m coming, I better come soon. I buy an airline ticket for the next day.
My mother has been moved to a nursing home, and against all odds, I make it back in time. Mama was wrong, she didn’t die on Leah’s birthday, and she does get to see me one last time. She gasps, “My baby …” when I enter the room, but lapses into a coma shortly thereafter. I spend the night alone with her, but she’s unconscious. Her arm is already as cold as bone. Daddy’s exhausted, so my sister, Susan, takes him home to get some rest.
The second night, my sister and I stay together in Mama’s room, on death watch. We can’t stay awake. I sleep in a chair, Susan’s on a pallet on the floor. We’re startled from our sleep when a nurse enters and can’t find Mama’s heartbeat. She died while her babies slept. We think she wanted it that way:Slide Number Five:
Susan and I leave Mama’s room and see the work crew that’s been laying new carpet in the hallway in the middle of the night. A worker looks into my eyes and she knows, and I know she knows. She’s so sorry. No words required.
Sometimes I wonder if my experience is any different from that of other sons or daughters who watched their mother die. Surely not. As great as my mother was, I know she’s not the only great mother who is deeply mourned.
I also think of my daughter, the girl whose birthday my mother didn’t want to spoil with her death. Leah is now a nurse who sees death regularly in her work at a big city hospital. Is death always so ugly, so haunting for doctors, nurses and hospice workers who see it all the time? Does it leave scars like the scars I bear? Do they have slide projectors of their own, locked away in little dark rooms?
Time passes, but grief never does. Usually I won’t allow myself to listen to the click, click, click of the slides as my mental slide projector plays endlessly. But at some point — I don’t know when — a stranger arrived with a handful of happier pictures.
When I think of my mother now, along with the hurt, I see the good. She really was a great woman, kind, loving, tender. I remember her laughter, her smile, how she loved me and supported me, and did the same for my wife and children.
My mother fought a long, hard battle against an incurable disease she never had any hope of defeating. Chemotherapy, surgeries, falls, a broken arm, endless pain … for what?
Well-meaning people asked why Mama didn’t give up sooner. I’m convinced it was because she loved her family so much that she wanted to spend every minute possible with us and prepare us for a time when she wouldn’t be there. My father barely knew how to cook, and had never done the laundry or run the vacuum. Mama used her time to teach him.
Where my father was a short man with an oversized personality, my mother was quietly strong, the backstage worker who kept everything running smoothly, but whose name never showed up in the credits.
I haven’t written much about her until now, but at the same time, she’s everywhere in my writing. The first draft of The Highway of Time was written for her during the time when she lay dying. The Thing About Peas was about picking peas at my grandfather’s farm, but my mother was right there alongside us, shelling peas, cooking them later, then cleaning up the mess while the rest of us were off watching TV. The whole Year in the Death series came about because of a practice I started in memory of her. She’s the invisible thread woven through so many of my stories.
I’m sure it was Mama who tiptoed into my dark room one night, just like she used to sneak in to check on me when I was small. She saw that I was hurting, and it was she who slipped a few happier pictures into my slide carousel.
I hope my parents are together today on some different cosmic plane. I hope my grandparents and great-grandparents are there, too, and I’m betting Mama will have already baked her own birthday cake. She’s busily serving Daddy and all the rest of them now, and I hope she’ll save a piece of cake for herself, which maybe she’ll get to enjoy after she washes up the dishes.
It was her way. It was how she showed us she loved us, and it’s the last slide in my projector.