My Mother passes away
There was a note from my father in the mailbox at 96 LaVerne early one July morning in 1969. It said: Your mother died this morning. He didn’t knock on the door or call. I stood there holding it my hand. It wasn’t like I didn’t know it was coming, but I didn’t know it would be so soon. My parents weren’t in the business of leveling with us about life’s big issues. It was always more like, if you don’t know, then I’m not going to tell you; if you do know, then I don’t need to tell you.
She had been fighting cancer for eleven years and had finally passed away at home. I had seen her just a few days before. I was on foot, carless as I was in those days. My sisters were driving her someplace. She was sitting in the back of the car wearing a print dress which was bright and cheerful, but she was skin and bones; her once graceful arms looked like pipes draped with loose, gray skin. They stopped and she rolled down the window and told me that her mother, my Grandma Nonie, had just died. I said, gee, I’m so sorry, mom. I felt a stab of guilt. I never had anything helpful to say to her in her illness, and I felt equally ineffective at that moment as well. I didn’t know that would be the last time I would ever talk to her.
She’d been sick for so long, it seemed like she would just go on. I didn’t think about her death being imminent. At least when my father died I got to tell him I loved him before he went. I have the memory of those last words to hold inside of me. But not with my mom; she hung on for only one more week. I think she willed herself to live until her mother was gone. I have now come to see the way she, and later my father, carried themselves as they approached death as having a lot of dignity, for which I am today grateful as an unspoken life-lesson. Teaching by example. That’s really the way of the parent, since kids, especially teenagers, don’t listen to advice. But we absorb the way our parents handle themselves as human beings.
But right then, I didn’t think about dignity. I was in shock. I quickly walked the mile across Homestead Valley to my parent’s house. I was afraid her body would still be there, but they had taken her away earlier. I couldn’t even bear to look into her room. I was spooked. There was a floor to ceiling mirror right at the foot of her bed, and I thought that if I looked in it, I might see her propped up on her pillows in the bed, the way she had been for almost two years. I was two months shy of my twenty-first birthday. My mother would have been fifty-two in November.
Though I had been saying to my friends for some time that it would be better when her suffering ended, when it actually came to pass, I was hit harder than I could imagine. I learned in a dizzying moment that blood is much thicker and deeper than intellectual thought. Death is visceral and ethereal at the same time, but it’s only peripherally intellectual. In the inscrutable, hard way that life works, her death pushed me into the beginning of my spiritual life-journey.
As I look back on my life, I know I’ve always been a seeker. Even as a child I would look up at the sky and wonder why I couldn’t just spread my wings, in fact where were my wings?, and leap through it into some glorious, pearly somewhere, free of all the crapola of life: hard guys, cold girls, homework, and terror of H-bombs. LSD dropped-kicked me sideways beyond the edge of reason and gave me a glimpse of a vision of great potential. But then I would come down from that high and after a while, the vision would blur, even seem ridiculous and downright frightening. But my mom’s death inexorably pulled me down the steep trail into that lonesome valley we have to walk by ourselves. I didn’t know that I was descending into that labyrinthine maze yet. I just knew that, while I got through most of the service and memorial alright, I felt suddenly a little more like an adult; one half an orphan.
My older brother Lew came down from far northern California, where he had stayed on after college, and we drove around together, even wearing sport coats and ties some of the time for the funeral and the beginning of the wake. We talked as equals for the first time. He and I had always been of almost separate generations in our house. He was a big kid and I was a little kid, because we were five years apart. Five years. It makes a difference when you’re a kid. We little kids would be up at dawn on Christmas while the big kids annoyingly slept in until seven, no longer hungering for the wish-fulfilling BB gun or box of toy soldiers under the tree. We had had all been sent off to boarding schools during high school, in the tradition of my highly educated dad and mom, so we sibs barely knew each other. But I had always looked up to Lew. He would stand up to my father’s blustery posturing at times, even having a bit of a slapping match with the old man in the TV room during dinner once when I was home from school on vacation. My poor dad, he just didn’t have his heart into being a disciplinarian, so he made a lousy, non-credible one. He failed at it in the same way he failed at many things.
Thank God, my mother’s wake was anything but a dreary affair. There must have been over a hundred people at our house, drinking, laughing, reminiscing, and playing piano and singing, just like a big cast party for one of their light opera shows. It was a grand send-off. Mom would not have looked well on a dour, whiney event. In fact, there was one person there being maudlin and she was actually shown the door by one of my mom’s friends. My parents were part of a lively crew; educated, funny, and talented, with a taste for life that has left a glamorous picture in my mind. I drank a pitcher of something with one of the grown-ups, a man who boozily confided that he had been the only one really understood my mother. I guess I didn’t know much about her myself.