So today is my birthday and I will miss the phone call that my mother had made in recent years when she would sing like Marilyn Monroe did for President Kennedy (“Jack” to those of us in the know) or she would loudly and dramatically recite a random line from Molière’s “Tartuffe”: “What air for you the test?” (Or was that Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” (which has little to do with honesty) or was it … Good God, Mom… which play and why did you say it so often out of context? I’m going with Tartuffe and I’m QUITE sure I’m effed up the line. Now I’ll have to Google it. I know, good luck with that. I hope my cousins tell me what it was.)
Mom had a wonderful sense of humor when she was on. I
think know she’d enjoy this letter and ask me to read it again and again.
. . .
Forgive me some schmaltz early in this missive and allow me to thank you for birthing me 46 years ago today. I know you took a huge risk after Baby John was born, continuing to have children and I am grateful that you did.
You and I didn’t have the smoothest relationship, until just before God took you, as fate would have it. It’s just like us to figure things out and leave the restaurant with the staff yawning and the lights up, as our family and our cousins’ families often did.
I have to say though, that you and God lined things up for me exquisitely before you died, and after your death, I know you lined things up to make it as painless as possible; which wasn’t always very possible.
The details of those months are for another letter, maybe a book, and I’d be foolish to suggest that it was just the months that prepared me.
I know it was the decades of good times and bad times, sadnesses and happinesses, healed feelings and hurt feelings that forged my steel and honed my blade to be sharp, keen and precise when separating the wheat from the chaff.
In some circles, it is suggested that my soul chose you to bear me and be my mother; that there was a karmic exchange for past lives to learn lessons and that your passing, well, all of our passings, means that our souls have done all they can to teach or learn the intended lessons. I believe that stuff, I believe there had to be a greater purpose to our discord and to our mirth, right? Otherwise, it all seems such a waste.
I was talking to your only son-in-law this morning and he is so good, Mom. He’s charged the boys with making me a dark chocolate raspberry cake for dessert tonight. We talked about death, he and I. He is concerned naturally about his own parents and he mentioned death and my grieving as sort of an isolated case.
I couldn’t help but remind him, and anyone who dares chat with me about it, that this is part of life; our universal experience. It’s what we all go through. Every single one of us. I am not afraid of death; I hope that brings you comfort and I’m sure you already suspected that. I would be lying however if I didn’t say I get mad when people talk about their still-living mothers.
I love that your final words were “Yes, please” and that you were looking forward to ice cream as your next big move. You were so frail, Mom. But your heart, the one that bears your soul, was soft and kind in the end.
Your funeral. Mom. I think some people were totally taken by surprise by how much I resemble you. There were a couple friends of yours who literally stared into my eyes looking for you. You’ll get a kick out of this: one was getting all weepy and sad and telling me how awesome you were and staring into me, in a weird Star Trek sort of way and I got this feeling with a couple of them, “Oh no; I’m NOT taking care of you… it’s My Mom who went to God and is no longer around, you’re gonna have to deal…” and I would be whisked away by an observant family member.
Your death has brought me closer to estranged relations. Even in death, Mom, you manage to mend fences and bring us all together for a play of sorts. The nice thing about this play was though, that there was no acting. We were all very sincere. I guess that’s the best acting of all.
So the other day, Mom, I went for a walk/run/jog/walk thing. It was my first since you died. It was hard, but I thought of your heart, the physical one, and how if it were stronger that maybe you’d still be here; but then I thought again and said, “No. When God wants you home, when you’ve learned or taught your lesson, it doesn’t matter. Your number is up.” But when I was finished, I was in the cool-down mode and I decided to do some stretches and some yoga down dogs, etc., and a neighbor saw me. She was on a walk with her friend.
Here… we’ll do this the way you liked it:
The scene: Modern-day suburbia. The weather is beautiful; a crisp late fall morning. Molly, a middle-aged (gasp!) female returning from exercising outdoors without her dog, her buffer, for the first time after her mother died. She is in her quiet zone, feeling a little sacred and grateful that her legs, lungs and heart could sustain the effort. She is wearing her headphones. Music is on and she’s stretching, doing some yoga poses that she hasn’t done in a while.
Up comes a neighbor, a lively southern sort, who was walking with her friend. She sees Molly and she spazzes completely.
Neighbor: WAhahaha aha aha aahaaa ha MOLLLLAAAAY… ARE YOU SHOWING OFF YOUR ABS?? ARE YOU DOING YOGA TO SHOW OFF FOR ALL THE WORLD??? she gesticulates and speaks in a humorous friendly way … sorta show-offy for her friend who is likely dying inside.
Molly is still in her headphones and is literally making the “cut throat” sign and the “time out” sign and the “hands up, please stop” sign …
Neighbor: BLAH WAAH BLAAHAA HAAA YOGA ABS OF STEEL!!! RUNNING!!! WHERE’S THE DOG?? I CAN’T RUN TO SAVE MY LIFE…BLAH BLAH WAAH BLAAHAA HAAA AND SHE’S IN PEARLS! WHO WEARS PEARLS WHEN THEY WORKOUT?? MOLLLLLYYYYY…. BLLAHAAAHA HAAAAA….LALALALAAAA.
Molly sighs and just stops. She removes her headphones, puts up her hands: PLEASE. PLEASE STOP. TALKING.
Neighbor, taken aback a bit: What’s the matter?
Molly thinking “I barely know you so shut the eff up”: I’m just in a different place, I’m sort of low these days, not depressed, just grieving a bit…
Neighbor, throws her hands up to her mouth and gasps like Frances McDormand in “Raising Arizona” upon her first sight of the abducted quintuplet… : HUH??!… OMIGAAAD. GRIEVING!? ! WHAT’S WRONG??
Molly explains what she’s dealing with and it being her first day out; no running since and out and about, no dog to buffer her, just going for it… and the neighbor’s friend sighs and touches Molly’s shoulder but the neighbor is now upset.
Neighbor: OH! OH! MOLLY!!!! MOLLLLLLLYYYY!!!!! I’M SO SORRY! WELL ISN’T THAT JUST LIKE ME… I’M GREAT UNTIL YOU GET TO KNOW ME THEN I CAN’T SHUT MY MOUTH….
Neighbor starts tearing up and Molly is clearly vexed: “No. not another one… please don’t make me take care of YOU now… ” but she managed to recover the situation and talked rationally a bit about it all… when in her heart, Molly just wanted to say, “I can’t really do this right now,” and then turn her music back on and go running away. AWAY. Super fast.
It’s that kind of shit, Mom, that makes me nuts. And it’s not her fault, I mean, how was she to know? As I said to a friend in an email today about it all,
there is no way to know what i’m going through; there’s no mantilla to wear or sackcloth. for modern American living, those days are over, but grieving is not antiquated, it just feels that way because of the pace of this world, but i find solace that i’m not alone, ever in this sensation and that people the world over are doing EXACTLY what i’m doing right now — be it fresh news or ancient news. there is always someone dying and someone else doing what they can to process and not get lost in it all. at least that’s what i’m trying to do.
But really, I’m not here to take care of her.
Me? I’m largely OK these days. I go up and down. I became really anxious for a few days last week; jumping and jittery. I got very sad last night because I knew you wouldn’t be calling me. I dreamed about the Buffalo house again. Really, Mom?!
I asked Dad if he wanted to go to lunch today, but he emailed me and told me he couldn’t because he had plans. So I’m good with that. But then he called because he realized it was my birthday so he switches plans around and invited me to go to lunch with him and a colleague I’ve never met at the Occidental Grill downtown and I’m imMEDIATely saying “No” to that. I can’t do that. I gently declined. He pressed. He said my going would help him with parking and driving in and I just can’t so then my gentle decline became a firm decline. I want to stay in my jeans or yoga pants and no contacts and not drive to the city and so… sorry Dad.
But then the wheels start turning and I begin to think that in the total space of harsh reality when dealing with life and grief and the brutality of death, that no matter HOW much we think we’re going to transform into self-actualized, stellar people who all of a sudden have achieved a new sense of authenticity, vulnerability, empathy, altruism and kindness, that at the end of the day: we don’t. It’s not that we’re evil or complacent or afraid — it’s just that we’re being real with ourselves, I think.
Maybe our souls aren’t ready or done. I think we’re allowing ourselves to evolve as much as is comfortable or planned. I’m no Buddha or Jesus. I’m just me: flawed, insecure, a little panicky these days truth be told, but I’m alive and taking notes and adjusting.
I’ve been reading a book, In the Midst of Winter, which is an anthology on grief and it’s been terribly helpful. I laughed a little when I saw that one of my favorite excerpts is by James Agee, one of your favorite modern (20th century) writers and playwrights. The excerpt is from A Death in the Family which published posthumously. In it, the widow of her recently deceased spouse is getting dressed for her late husband’s funeral. I piqued at reading it because it reminded me of how I felt when I was doing the same for you almost three weeks ago. How that I was putting on a new dress on my body for your body’s “last day” above ground. I still have the tags from that dress. I couldn’t throw them away that day.
Agee writes how that through this experience this widow had somehow felt more a part of the human race, more evolved and that having children was just some sort of apprenticeship. And I think about that; how true it was and then I reflected on you: that you had literally almost done it all, but that God spared you from the final one. You buried your son, your parents, your grandparents, your favorite aunts and uncles, a nephew, and friends but not your husband; he will be the one who has now buried all the levels that life has blessed him with.
You had guts, Mom. I think about your woes, the God-awful stuff you experienced as a child with your unique parents, being a young woman in the 1950s, being a young mother in the 1960s and putting up with all that sexism and bullshit and yours and Dad’s weird friends in the 1970s. And how even in your own way, you were able to keep going. So then I think about your heart. Your heart was fine. It was just your time.
You have prepared me for this. I know it. Despite our biggest arguments and our worst moments you did the most amazing job: you mothered me. You got me here.
I wanted to tell you about the faceless chicken and how we selected your gravesite and the truly odd undertaker and his wife, but this letter is long.
Today is my birthday. The day you said I reminded you of a wrestler, a limbed tongue because I was so mighty and strong. The day you said “yes, please” to me.
Thanks, Mom. I’ll miss your phone call.