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Letters to My Mother III
I hope this letter finds you well, which sounds silly of course, considering you are dead. Because death and what comes next, if anything, is completely unknown to me, I have decided to write to you just in case you get this letter.
I think a question that haunts a lot of us in regards to death and dieing is the unknown of "how it all turned out". I also believe this to be more true for a dieing Mom who knows she is leaving young children behind. Parents are meant to die before their children, but not before they have finished raising their children. Not before those children's wings are strong enough to be kicked out of the nest and to soar on their own. How difficult that must have been for you to be forced to put your faith into God's hands that he would watch over Dad and guide him in the job of continuing to raise your children, a job that you must have felt helpless in being forced to abandon. Rest assured Mom, he did okay! I will get back to that in my next letter. For now, I wanted to talk with you about your death and the preceding days before it. These words are only my recollections, so keep in mind that Dad, Mike, Barb, Cathy or Alan may have a slightly different view from mine as to how it was.
I first would like to say how much later on after you had died, how helpless and guilty we kids felt in regards to not understanding your illness and how sick you were. We did not even imagine that death and your departure were soon coming. Although I can't speak for Dad, I truly believe that he too must have felt the same guilt and sorrow, in the blindness he had in not seeing the hand of death hovering amongst over you. If we had only known. If we had been older, less self-centered, and more informed, we could have been there for you. I mean, really been there. We could have listened to you; your worries and fears, and perhaps made you a bit more comfortable with regards to your aches and pains. We could have sat down and talked with you, comforted you, reminicsed with you, applauded you. We just didn't know. Mothers aren't ever supposed to die. At least not until they are old and gray, walking with a cane, and until they have had several grandchildren to spoil and love. No one else that we knew of had a Mother who actually died, so right up until the end, we didn't know. Now that we're older of course, we know that death can come in many ways: tragically, swiftly, torturously, loud and boisterous, and in your case quiet and sneakily sucking away your life in such a cowardly way, so that none of us were the wiser.
As kids, growing up in a small New England town where everyone knows everyone, I can count on one hand the town's residents who we knew were ill. There was Effie. You remember her Ma? Daughter of the owners of The Fruit Store down town. Effie was probably in her thirties, unmarried, and had an advanced case of MS. Whenever you drove us into town, us kids went to The Fruit Store to spend our Saturday allowance, and we'd always hoped that one of Effie's parents would wait on us instead of her. Careful not to actually touch her shaking and frightening hands, often times our pennies would miss her hand and inevitable fall into the shelf below the counter. You surely didn't want Effie to be the one at the counter when ordering a coveted ice cream cone, because more times than not, the task of placing and securing a scoop of ice cream on a delicate paper-like cone was too much for Effie's MS to accomplish. It sometimes took her three tries not to crush the cone with those shaking and defiant hands. Another "sick" person in town was one of the co-owners of Penniwitt's, the big ice cream stand out on the highway. Remember him Mum? This is that guy that had an electronic voicebox that sounded so scary to children when he talked and took your order. He had to hold some little box or tube up to his throat so that somehow the vibrations came out as speech. When you placed your order, you tried not to imagine the hole in his throat under that neck cloth and him wiping the spit away. The third person that I knew of as being ill was my friend Danny's Mom. She moved around in a wheelchair at home and I recall being intrigued with the car she drove, as it had levers to control the gas and brakes right there on the steering column! I had never seen anything like it! Danny's Mom had polio, just like you had as a child, Mum. There was also that old man Iber Holmes. He was bedridden and couldn't move or talk. I don't even know what was wrong with him, but as kids, us girls were on the call list when Iber's wife needed a "babysitter". I don't recall doing anything for him or what was expected of me by being there, but the job paid fifty cents an hour and even back then I had a hard time saying the word, "No." Therefore, Iber was a queer and spooky client for a kid. There was also some young man by the name of Gil. That's all I know, just his first name. I don't know if he was a townie or not, because as you know, we all knew everyone in town back then, but I didn't know Gil. Although I didn't know him, I will never forget him. A thin long-legged young man, probably in his early twenties with tight curly dirty blonde hair, and quiet. Remember Ma, how Gil just suddenly became a customer at Dad's restaurant? I will never forget that day when Gil just fell over out of the seemingly clear blue and had a seizure right there on the floor of the restaurant! There was foam coming out of his mouth and I thought it was puke. He was shaking and his body was flopping around; pretty scary stuff for a kid to witness. The ambulance came, Gil was taken away, and that's all I know about this guy - gone in a cloud of dust, just as mysteriously as he came. Do you remember when that happened Ma? It was certainly exciting, scary and gross...happening in a restaurant no less. Oh yeah, there was also that queer and really freaky family from the next town over. You know who I'm talking about Ma. They were all crippled and walked with pronounced limps. Everyone said that was from inbreeding. It's not that we were dumb enough to think that we would "catch" whatever they had, but it was foreign and disturbing to us as kids and back then you just looked the other way and hoped that they would soon be out of your vision. Ignorance isn't right, but it's what it is: ignorance, just not knowing any better. Anyway Ma, I named off a total six people, or groups of people, that I recall growing up as a kid, as being sick. So for my Mother to be sick with the possibility of actually dieing, it had never really sunk in, until it was too late.
At the age of fifteen, soon to be sixteen, I was in my own little school-girl world. I remember you crying the day you told Dad and the rest of us that you had cancer. I remember you received radiation treatments on your throat; so many in fact, that they eventually burnt out your esophagus, resulting in your needing that feeding tube put into your stomach. I recall watching you as you, with syringe in hand and through that tube in your stomach, you squeezed the the thick wallpaper-paste textured protein shake that sustained your life. And I recall asking you one day if I could try it, and you said, "yes". I had squeezed the rubber bulb of the syringe in one powerful clutch, and you hollered, in so much as a frail dieing woman of under one hundred pounds with throat cancer can muster up a holler, "not so fast! it's too cold!" I never tried that again. I recall days that I would get out of school to ride beside you in the car as you drove to your doctor appointments. You could drive, but you did not have the strength to move the clutch that was situated on the car's column; that's where I came in. Not yet having a driver's license and certainly not able to drive or understand a car's standard transmission; whenever told, I would move the gear shift in whichever direction you instructed. And as ridiculous as that sounds, I still believe that know one fully realized how absolutely ludicrous this was. Dad worked, Barb was in college, Mike was in the Navy stationed in Meridian, Mississippi, and Catherine and Alan must have been in school. At the age of thirteen, Alan was too young to go with you and I can only now guess that perhaps Catherine might have taken turns with me in accompanying you on these doctor's visits.
It was on a day mid-week, that you went to your last doctor appointment. I was in the car with you, along with one of your friends, David Neilson, who drove this time. At this appointment, Dr. Hill insisted that you must check into the hospital immediately. He said that you were really doing poorly. You fought the doctor's recommendation, so the doctor turned to David and I for supportin his decision. We tried. It was three against one, and there you were, just a tiny, sad, bag of bones; pleading with the doctor, "Just this weekend. Just this weekend," and he relented. We didn't know then what was so obviously transparent. This was going to be your last weekend. I can't speak for the others, because I don't recall where they were at, at the time.
Do you remember how Alan and I were in the Avengers Drum and Bugle Corp. Ma? Alan had started out on the bugle and moved on to the snare drum, a much cooler instrument. I had started out being the American Flag Bearer and had moved up to Colorguard Captain. That Sunday, we had had one of several Colorguard Competitions. The bus had dropped us off late, as was usually the case. We had school in the morning. As I entered the reasonably dark house, I tip-toed past your little room, next to the bathroom. That room never had a door attached, ever. Instead of tip-toeing, and fresh from a victory, it's more likely that I had floated into the kitchen, looking for a snack before bed. I was busting inside with excitement and pride in a night time quiet way. For a long time there, although you were in bed and sleeping off and on in a drug-induced haze, we could still talk to you and you would hear us and either answer or mumble a response, depending on how deep your sleep was at the time, how much pain you were in, or how the meds were affecting you. We always gave you and Dad kisses good-night, right Ma? I was so euphoric from just having won, that I decided to venture into your room to see if you were "present", and to share my great news! With soft-voiced excitement, I spoke to your still form in that darkened room, to see if by chance you could hear me. I whispered, "Ma! I just won First Place for Colorguard Captain!" and ever so softly you answered back....."ya, ya ya." It was barely audible, but in a kid's eyes, what I had heard loud and clear, was a Mom totally dismissing "my moment". I slowly and softly turned around and walked away from your room. I was really angry with you for seemingly not caring and felt deeply hurt. As I opened the door heading upstairs towards my bed, I think that I took one, maybe two stairs tops, before turning around and quietly headed towards your bedroom once again. Just standing outside the entrance to, without actually entering your room, and still feeling devastated by your seemingly lack of interest, I softly said, "Goodnite Ma," and then turned back again up the stairs to bed.
I don't recall how many hours I had been asleep, before I had heard the pre-dawn commotion downstairs. What I had so abruptly awaken to that early Monday morning was Dad, Catherine and Alan crying; with Dad wailing, "She's gone!"
I can forgive us all in our ignorance of death and of a life fading. Death is scary and it's mysterious. I think it's human nature to hide from and deny it. I know that we did better when Dad was gravely ill Mom, because we had gotten older and wiser and didn't wish to make the same mistakes we had made with you. So we all are reallly deeply sorry for having not understood death or talked with you about it. I just don't think that we can feel guilt ridden by it. We realize now however, how alone and scared you must have felt. If I have any feel good memories that I can take from such a dark period in my life, it would be the following two things. #1. I am ever so grateful and proud of how my tiny, ever so sick Mom, had kicked and fussed and pleaded to go home for that one last weekend. That you fought me and David and most especially that doctor from forcibly admitting you into the hospital that day. I can't even imagine how you had the strength to fight off the three of us. I wonder Mum, did you know or sense that this was the end and that you wanted to die at home? Well, you did it! You won Ma! #2. My second joy, that has given me great peace of mind, and a comfort to hold inside of me for all of these years, is the fact that this teenager who had just felt like she'd been totally dismissed and was a bother to her Mother, had decided to take that u-turn back downstairs to say, "Goodnite Ma." That has forever been My Win!
We had your wake and we had your funeral at St. Michael's down town. There were a lot of people there to say good-bye Mum. Of course, when someone dies young that's usually the way it is. When you pass before all of your siblings and friends, then they are all still around and they can attend your services. Afterwards, we had food and drink at the house and a lot of people stopped by. I remember that you were buried in a little plain pink dress. I'm not sure whose idea that was, because pink was never your color. You had so many lovely dresses in your closet. With that dark black hair, deep brown espresso colored skin, and the ruby red colored lipstick that you always wore, that pink dress seemed like such a queer choice. You was also buried with your wedding band, and Barbara got your diamond ring. I had heard from someone that you wanted your first born daughter to have that, and it was done. Some years later, she lost the stone and I believe the ring which held it was just abandoned. Dad picked out and bought the most beautiful headstone Ma! You would love it! Not the usual gray colored stone which was the norm at the time. He bought a beautiful coffee brown colored stone with flecks of black, brown, gray and white in it. Along with the names and dates of yours and Dad's dates of birth and dates of death, a Rosary is carved into the stone along with the words, "My Jesus Have Mercy". He did a good job Ma. And you are both situated right at the very beginning of the cemetary, just two or three plots from the Veteran's allotted area. This means that when the parade marches into the cemetary on Memorial Day to pay tribute to the Vets, and while "Taps" is being played, they have to walk right past your stone. Dad always made sure that the plot had fresh flowers and looked really nice for Memorial Day, and since Dad's passing, at least one or more of us kids has seen to that as well.
That's it I think. It's really late, I'm tired, and I have to get up early to watch my Grandson, so I'm going to close for now. Oh, I meant to tell you- St. Michael's in Raymond is not a church any more. I think some real estate business rents or owns the building now. They built a larger Catholic church in Epping. It's called St. Joseph's, and both town's parishioners go there. Epping has really grown in size and Raymond just stayed stagnant. Anyway, I hope this letter has brought you some peace in knowing that we did care about what you were going through Mum, we just didn't understand or involuntarily denied how grave the situation was and how advanced the illness was. Love you lots. Kisses and Hugs.
Yours Truly, Your Loving Daughter, Anita