If you wonder, no, this is not a fictionalized account. It is wholly (and holy) what actually happened, as good as my memory can make it.—October 1st, 2012
October the first is an anniversary that brings on a familiar feeling that I can only describe as “ending-times”. The season certainly defines some of it, that smell of dying and drying plants, that crispness finally entering the air, the way the clouds look scudding across the sky, how the words “azure sky” become sacred in the purity of their manifestation. But these are just a backdrop, the props on the stage, to my mother’s illness and death; and learning about the modern fashion sense and business etiquette of the angel of death.
I must give you the prologue about the time before the call. My father, Clifford, had broken his hip just a few weeks earlier. I got a call about him at work and learned that my mother Joan (pronounced joe-ANN, thank you) and dad had closed up the fishing season and brought lots of things home from our trailer house by the lake to be re-oiled and refurbished during the cold winter months. Because of clotting in his legs, dad found it hard to walk down stairs so he would go down backwards. This time, as he was taking his tackle box down, he lost his balance, mom tried to grab him, but because he didn’t want her to get hurt too, he pushed her away and plunged down the stairs breaking his hip. His mother had broken her hip at the same home years earlier and never walked again so this was a very bleak outcome.
Three weeks later, and a week before the call, I was at my home in Hastings, the same home I grew up in. I was twenty-eight, married, and feeling good about life. On this trip we brought Doug, my best friend since the 1st grade. It was one of the grandest weekends of my life, all in vivid memory color. The trees were changing, the days were warm, the evenings chilly. We played Frisbee by Fisher Rainbow Fountain, leaves crunching underfoot. Dad was healing well and they thought he had a chance to walk again, and though mom seemed tired from taking care of him and making grape pies to put in the deep freeze, all seemed well and normal.
The first day
October the first, a few minutes before leaving for work, the call came. “Bob?! This is aunt Dot. Come home quick!”
Dorothy told me that the day before mom seemed very confused so they took her to the hospital where she sank into a coma. The doctors weren’t sure she’d make it even a few hours. Thinking it might be sleeping sickness they had her in isolation.
I’ll never forget the 100 mile drive. Indian summer was ending before my eyes as the wind roared out of the north as we hurried west down the interstate. The force of the wind was so strong, and the car so ill fitting, that the driver side window couldn’t be closed, it was sucked out of its track in the lee of the car. Tumble weeds and corn stalks were flying over the road. I resolved that we really had to get another car; maybe look at one of those Japanese models I was hearing such good things about.
Arriving at the house there was now an odd calm, no wind at all. Cars were parked in disarray on the street and in the driveway. I expected to hear the worst but when I saw dad he said they’d just come from the hospital, she was out of isolation because they didn’t think it was sleeping sickness, but she was still in a coma and I needed to hurry.
My wife and I rushed to the hospital, and walked into the room the receptionist had told us she was in. The morning sun barely penetrated around the curtains leaving a deep in the forest at dusk like lighting. And quiet. Words fail me here. The most stunning moment in my life? Shocking? Incomprehensible? Despair? Two old women laying in two beds. I looked at each one then asked my wife if this was the room number they gave us. And then asking if she could tell me who my mother was. In disbelief we found ourselves looking at the charts at the bottom of the beds to find one with the name Joan Losee. The woman who I was so familiar with, whom I’d kissed goodbye while promising to be back soon just the weekend before…how…how…how could I not even recognize her?
I looked down at her. Her head wasn’t swollen, but nevertheless with her head back and her mouth open, her head and face seemed elongated and stretched. The overwhelming impression I had was of a watermelon. It seemed wrong to even think it. And the breath! The smell of it was repulsive, and her lips were chapped and broken. Taking a swab of lemon glycerin on the table I applied it to the lips, told her I loved her, and in a moment of attempted humor told her I forgave her for all the piano lessons she forced me to take. With a deep sigh we left and returned home.
Now you have to understand, my father was a business man. Very practical. And always tapping his fingers if not active. “The only way your father can relax,” mom told me once, “was by going fishing. So I make sure we go fishing.” But she was a religious woman, and made sure the First Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church Sunday radio broadcast was listened to in the trailer house or in the boat. And we’d occasionally stop by the pastor’s house and drop walleye filets off to make amends. But my father’s closest religious connection were perfunctory graces before holiday meals, and supporting my mother in supporting Billy Graham with an occasional check.
So it wasn’t a surprise to me that dad wanted to leave the house and drop some checks off at the bank and see his friends at a company he once started, Hastings Battery and Electric. It was his way to relieve some of the pressure, to grasp at something more certain than comas, illness, and possible death. I got him and his walker out the door, into the car and off we went. These were short errands and soon we were driving home again.
Memory is a funny thing. Some memories loom large of unimportant moments, like having Stewart as a toddler on my shoulders while he was trying to reach out for a tree at the dog run. Or we can remember the oddest things of the most important moments like this one. The sound of the fans as we drove past the back end of Safeway, the clink of a rock in the hubcap as the car was slowing to a stop, the brilliant azure sky and the warmth of the sun as it fell upon my left arm, my father in the passenger seat, my wife in back. The whole world seemed to be coming to a stop for the stop sign in front of me. “I could swear it wasn’t a dream,” he said.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“I could swear it wasn’t a dream. I was laying in bed a while back. Your mother was in the bathroom doing her hair. I looked up and saw him there.”
From the bed he could look right at the bathroom door but couldn’t see down the hallway it faced. “Saw who?” I asked.
“He was dressed in a business suit, but had a hood on. His hands were skeletons and his face was a skull. He said, ‘I am the Angel of Death. I’m leaving you now and taking the other.’ Joan came out of the bathroom then, and he turned and walked down the hallway with her. I was so upset I got up and used the walker to get to the kitchen.” There was a pause, “She seemed fine, so I went back to bed. But I could swear I wasn’t dreaming.”
I was trying to feel my way through this. A moment of silence and then I asked, “Did his mouth move? What kind of suit?”
“It was a black business suit and hood. His mouth didn’t seem to move but I heard him.”
I started moving again, crossing the intersection to go north up to the top of the hill on Lexington street before the street ended and I had to turn left.
One incredulity piled on another. My father, the biggest rationalist in the family was saying this! If it was from my hippie sister who did renaissance faires, astrology, and got tarot readings (and please understand I love her, she’s without a doubt the happiest person I know) would have said this, I could have easily brushed this aside. But this was my father!
And what of the image? Not a figure in a monk’s robe waving around a scythe, but a modern “man” going about a business transaction. Why would he have picked that image? And the words, so short, so brief, not the way my father says things. It didn’t seem that dad picked this image and words out, but that they picked him. I was left speechless; nor would this be the last time I would wonder about events.
Seven years earlier I had taken the three hour trip on the Continental Bus home from college to be greeted by my father at Hastings bus stop, barely larger than a small house. Mom had not been feeling well. She seemed to be having heart problems. And please forgive me if I have some of the details wrong here. I now marvel at how oblivious I was to all this at the time and can only mount a defense of being a young college student being bedazzled by this vastly expanding adult world I was entering. In any case they had operated on her gall bladder thinking it might be causing issues. I came home to see her after the surgery. As I entered the car I asked how she was doing. “She has cancer,” he said. “The doctors noticed swollen lymph nodes inside her during surgery and cut a couple out for biopsy.”
There was a flurry of medical procedures following this. The University of Nebraska’s Medical Center was a leader in treating this form of lymphatic cancer, perhaps because it was very common in our area. They told us that this form can be kept at bay about seven years, and then becomes much more aggressive. By then we hoped better treatments would be in store, especially with Nixon’s War on Cancer campaign. I put it aside in my head and all of us lived our lives well.
All this swirled in those two blocks to the top of the hill, where my father had so often dropped me off to walk to Longfellow Elementary school, where I used to smell irises announcing school would soon be over. I didn’t know if this was cancer but it felt like when one figures out how a drama is going to end, now I just had to see it through. We would do what we could, we would make sure she was well cared for, but I felt certain we would not be able to stop this.
My sister Dona, who’s eleven years older than me, had been called. This wasn’t a small challenge since she hadn’t had a phone in years, living a hippie lifestyle selling plaques with her husband Ken at the “TRF” (Texas Renaissance Festival). We did the usual fallback of calling her friends and the sheriff, to contact her. She arrived that night by plane just as mom was awaking from surgery. The doctors realized blood was pooling in mom’s brain, caused by the newly aggressive cancer attacking vessels there. With intensive care’s quotas my sister went in to see her while I waited. A few minutes later she came out telling me that mom said. “This ol’ goat ain’t dead yet!” It was so like mom.
Dona also said mom wanting to talk about a dream she had while in the coma. She was at an airport, with helicopters coming in and leaving all the time. Beside her sat a beautiful young woman. It was so sad. All mom could do was tell her, “Oh! You’re too young to go!”
Fall nights in moon light
So many things remembered. This was the year I finally remembered to be out and prepared to watch Hunter’s Moon rise. Leaving the hospital early, my wife and I positioned ourselves on a hill east of the city. In the dark of the night we eventually saw the horizon begin to glow orange, and soon the old man in the moon rose filling the countryside with orange reflections. It started a yearly tradition of watching Harvest Moon rises. I would come to learn over the years that this was the orient’s big festival like our Christmas. A few years later I’d be learning how to cook all sorts of Chinese food and learned mooncakes celebrate the holiday.
A Chinese friend of mine then told me that one year long ago they hid messages to the Chinese to rise up against their Mongol overlords and become a nation again. So I started making mooncakes. When this friend left to see her ailing father in Taiwan one year, she asked me if she could bring me anything when she came back. I asked for a mooncake mold. In Taiwan, she asked her father’s nurse about where to get one, and was told to go to the mooncake mold store. This turned into an adventure and a needed break for my friend. She had no idea such stores existed. Its walls were covered with mooncake molds of all sorts of patterns. Not knowing which one I’d like she bought me the rabbit one, for the rabbit in the moon that Chinese see.
So I ended up with a mooncake mold, one of the few in the Midwest I’m sure. But she told me she could not abide that a Caucasian might be the only one in the Midwest to have one, therefore she bought herself one too. It was hilarious! I knew she really didn’t cook or bake much but I could see the need to claim the culture. In the years that followed I’d occasionally make “White Man’s Mooncakes” filling them with the traditional sweet red bean paste, and sometimes I’d try to jazz them up with the filling more to my palate like almond paste or coconut and nut mixtures like I’d had from a Boston Chinese bakery. She’d tell me the red bean paste ones weren’t bad but the others where, hum, a little odd.
She and I had a space in our conversations like this. I’d once read about racial anatomical differences. The article said Asians in general could smell better. The same article said Caucasians had more apocrine sweat glands in their armpits, in other words we smelled more. It seemed like an unfortunate combination for the Chinese so I asked her if she and other Chinese noticed we Caucasians stank. Ah what a look! Sly, a slight smile, a twinkle in her eyes. I knew I’d discovered a secret of their conversation even if she didn’t say a word. I laughed and promised I’d continue to use deodorant.
Soon she had to leave again for her father’s funeral. When she returned she showed me the pictures of the funeral. People were wearing red so I commented, “Oh? Is red the color of morning in Chinese culture?”
“No, black is usually the color of morning. But if a person has lived a long life, and a good life then it changes to red, to celebrate that life. We call it a red funeral. My father had a long and good life so it was a red funeral.”
Praying for her To die
The tree was a fifty foot tall flaming red maple outside her cancer ward room window, the crown filling the view from this floor. We were back at the University Medical Center for more evaluation and care. We would come and go from there several times over the next three months, following an ambulance back and forth across the Nebraska countryside. The staff were wonderful, but the business was grim. Long tedious hours. Mom’s immune system was so weakened on her first arrival that she’d wince in pain merely swallowing water. Her mouth and throat were covered in yellow-brownish patches of bacteria taking advantage of her situation.
The room was usually filled with aunts, cousins, uncles, brothers, sisters, customers and friends. During this initial time we all wore hospital masks to protect her as much as we could from the bacteria our bodies just brush aside. Such an odd sight, a dozen people with masks in a small room. It reminded me of a zoo, so in the hallway I took mine off and drew lips and teeth on it. Putting it back on I looked like a chimpanzee and the whole room burst out laughing, including my mother who winced with each breath, tears streaming down her cheeks.
At other times during these stays, I’d go to the family waiting room. It was a squarish room in the middle of the ward with a door to a small restroom that I’d use occasionally, if only to cry. It was here that I overheard my sister talking with family as they were going through the room. They told her that I’d said something, to which she exclaimed, “Oh! Well if Bob says it I’m sure it’s right.” not in a sarcastic way, but like it must then be true. How odd to get this insight into what others thought of me in such a strange place. I felt like I was in some strange sort of confessional booth. I was too embarrassed to ever mention it to anyone, especially when I felt far from knowing anything that was really important.
But it was another time in there that changed my outlook on life. Another family was in the family room for a few moments. I heard what I knew was a strong powerful man’s voice, but now I heard it in pain. He was telling family, in a voice that left no doubt how incredulous he was about it, that he was praying for his young wife to die. She was just hurting too much and with no hope of recovery. He just wanted her to have peace even if it was misery for him. I sat there motionless thinking how could one get to that strange land where you pray for what you love to die?
Dona & Ken
My sister married Ken before I could drive. I remember coming home and hearing about it. A few years earlier she had gone from college to college before graduating at Sacramento State. She then took off with a girl friend in a powder-puff blue MGB convertible across the county, a female version of “Route 66”. After nearly a year she returned to California with a map of her route to Florida and back, and started working for California’s welfare system.
Sometime after that she met Ken, a guitar playing folk singer. I’m not sure we ever met him before the mail arrived that Ken and Dona were now husband and wife. My mother was devastated and it was the talk in her beauty shop for months to come. My sister, a beautiful cheerleader, a social butterfly, had married this person and instead of planning, white dresses, and fun, all my mother got was a packet of photographs of the wedding, taken at the Unitarian church (of all things!) where they were married.
Things went from bad to worse in my mother’s eyes. In the coming years Dona would quit the welfare department giving up her pension and benefits. Instead she and Ken would get a big school bus fixed up and start selling soaps. When that wasn’t very profitable they switched to selling plaques with everything from unicorns to Elvis music on one side, and a mirror on the other, wrapped in glass and copper. They also, much to my surprise, left the left leaning Golden State to settle around Austin Texas. From there they started selling at Renaissance fairs and Austin’s Armadillo Christmas show, things they do to this day.
Families each have their own ten commandments, written not from some hairy thundering god on a summit, but from the hard experiences each family has in their own ongoing journey through the wilderness. One of our family’s commandments that my parents would utter from time to time is that children have to live their own lives, and all you can do is love them. Ah but how hard that was with Dona. Mom knew that children were the greatest joy in life, and yet now could only mildly suggest that to Dona, and hope she accepted the advice all the while having to explain to her customers why she wasn’t a grandmother yet. And more than once mom would say that she’d never thought she would be “one of those mothers” who didn’t embrace their daughter’s choice in partner, and yet the surprise was in her voice that there she was, one of those mothers.
I enjoyed Ken. He was a fun brother-in-law and Dona and Ken’s lifestyle was attractive. Still I would take a different route. Perhaps seeing my mom’s unhappiness I staked out the good son role. I went to college, and got the job, and stayed in it getting those pension and benefits from the state as did my wife. This left us snatching a day here and there of sick time to be present to help with all this chaos.
After mom came out of the coma, my sister stayed for a few days and flew back to Texas. She and Ken found friends to sell their plaques, packed the bus, drove to Hastings, parked the bus like a monument in the driveway, and moved into the basement. In the coming months they’d take care of the house, and my father. Ken would even act as the de facto hospice nurse in the final weeks mom would have.
I couldn’t help but be relieved. I couldn’t help but notice that what so bothered mom and dad was now such an advantage to them both. Nor could others ignore it. Years later aunt Dorothy would tell me, “Bob, you know your mother didn’t like Ken very much. But he took such good care of her towards the end! She’d have been so surprised.”
The Holidays Approach and Mom Gives A Gift And Gets Her Wish
One of the greatest lessons I learned from this time was that life went on, even while dying went on too. My wife and I would go to malls to buy presents, but the world seemed grey, the ribbons and glitter dull, and the music off. I had no enthusiasm. My birthday came and went and I remember nothing about it.
Then one day in early December we had a family meeting in the cancer ward. Dad had been talking to the hospital staff wondering what else they could do. In the gentlest way possible told him they’d given mom and dad seven more years to see Lake Powell, Hawaii, Europe, and to just love each other. They told us we were one of the better family’s they had. It was good to hear and to feel the caring. What this also meant was that there were no more realistic options. We no-coded her and expected she won’t make it till morning.
Aunt Dorothy pulled me aside to tell me that she overheard mom and dad talking earlier. Now you need to understand that in my entire life I never heard my parents ever get upset with one another. Mom and dad would say that they got all their arguing done before they were married but never felt a need to afterwards. My dad told me the last argument he had with her was when he went to Chicago to propose.
They dated through high school, but mom, wanted an exciting life and Hastings wasn’t where she could get it. She packed her bags and followed some of her brothers and sisters to Chicago to have a good time. All she told me about it was that one of her jobs was in fact to have fun, to ride the rides with other cute girls at Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair and look like you’re having fun to get the paying boys on the rides too. And I think she must have done her beauty school there too though little was ever said. I’m not sure how long she lived in Chicago or any more about what happened but Chicago burned away any desire of hers to be away from Hastings. She wrote a letter to my dad asking him to come get her quick so they could get married and he could take her back home.
In the mean time my father decided he’ll give this woman he’d loved and cared about one more chance and then it was truly over. He hopped into his car and headed for Chicago, mom’s letter and my dad passing each other on the road to Chicago. He told me it was an interesting meeting, mom feeling warm and good that her white night has come to rescue her from this gang infested city, and dad coming to tell her off and give her the ultimatum. A few days later they got married with two acquaintances in front of a judge, no family invited.She’d tell me, “A lot of people got married like that in the Depression.” She bought beauty supplies, and they went home to Hastings to tell her father she was now a married woman. Mom and dad moved in with her father and set up her beauty shop and household living there for the next twenty years, another reason I’ve lately come to believe they never argued.
“Bob, I heard Joan talking to Clifford about how he needs someone in his life.” Dorothy said. “She was telling him who she thought would make a good wife for him because he can’t live alone.”
It made perfect sense to me that they’d do this.
Mom lived through the night. All she wished for now was to go back to Hastings. The doctors decided they’d do one last procedure and wash her lungs out. I watched as they wheeled her into the room, her looking resigned, they closing the door. Many minutes later they wheeled her out, white, seemingly barely alive. It was enough. I said a silent prayer asking for her to die soon. I had entered this strange land, feeling very much like a stranger.
Dad, Dona, and I followed the ambulance on a bright and sunny December day, back to Hastings and home. The living room was now set up for hospice care with a big hospital bed. After she was put on it she made a barely perceptible motion for me to come over. I leaned down and she whispered in a hoarse voice.
“What did you say?” I asked.
Again her lips moved and this hoarse sound came out. I couldn’t understand a word. “OK mom.” I said. “It’s OK.” It was the last time l would see her conscious.
Before all these events started, my wife and I had reserved a cabin near Aspen over Christmas break. Christmas was now nearly upon us and I was feeling empty inside. Three times I knew for sure she’d be dead by morning. Three times morning came and found her still alive. I gave up guessing about Death’s appointment calendar. After talking with my sister and father, my wife and I decided to go for a few days.
So the end found me a few days later in the entryway to a bar and grill in Aspen, Colorado one cold wintry late afternoon. There I found a pay phone and called home.
“Hi dad. How’s it going?” I said.
“It’s OK, how’s it going with you?”
“We’ve decided to drive home tomorrow so you should see us late,” I said.
“That’s good, we’ll look forward to seeing you.”
There was a pause. “Didn’t you get the message at the resort?”
“No, what message?”
“She passed away a couple hours ago.”
We left, walking what seemed like miles to the car, started it and started driving back to the cabin. After 15 minutes, and much fiddling around, I was absolutely certain the heater wasn’t working. The hottest temperature we could get required us to wear our parkas. I couldn’t help but marvel at the coincidence. I have wondered my entire life if this was but a gentle nudge from my mother. At the cabin we packed and I sank into a steaming bathtub to cry.
It’s a twelve hour drive from Aspen to Hastings. Longer with stops in Denver for lunch and Ogallala NE to see my wife’s family, close the eyes for a moment, and have supper. In the evening as we drove the interstate along the Platte River valley, parkas on the whole way, we encountered fog like I’ve never seen it before. It seemed to be laying near the road looking like a giant curved and glowing snake. POOF and we’d be in it, so thick headlights emerged into view only 300 feet ahead, but so thin you could see the stars above. POOF and out of it again for a few miles, then POOF again, vapor streaming out the already cool air vents. We arrived near midnight and in the quiet candle lite dark of the living room we talked in hushed voices. It seemed almost empty now without the bed and medical equipment.
My sister knowingly told of lights in the house flashing near the end while animated conversations were around the kitchen table and mom was in the living room. Dad told me he was in a chair near her, listening to her breathing coming fast and hard followed by periods where he wondered if she had finally died, only to hear her start breathing again. Then he said it was quiet for a long time and she was gone. I looked at the clock and saw it was midnight now, and the beginning of a new year.
The Fourth wise man
First Saint Paul’s Lutheran church is a big church built in the 1950’s. It seats hundreds of people. The day of my mom’s funeral it was filled. All I remember was the song, “Turn Turn Turn” sung by a soloist. Certainly one of the most surprising things of my life was waiting in the funeral limousine for the fifteen minutes it took for the church to empty into their cars, longer than many Sunday services. I realized at that moment, how many lives this woman had touched. Church circle, hair dressers, customers, family, and friends. I realized then that this was true value, more than bank accounts.
I have come to love funerals. Weddings are frivolity and fun, but funerals and wakes carry a depth to them. The wake after the funeral found the house completely full again. Ken made his guacamole and made sure we had the chips, tequila and mezcal; Dona made the Irish coffee with whipped cream that mom so loved with Jameson Irish Whiskey (we lacked the best Irish whiskey for the coffee, Tullamore Dew). The younger crowd retired to the basement to sit on the carpet and leave chairs for the older ones. We ate, and drank, and laughed, and told stories, and enjoyed it all immensely.
My two best friends, Doug and Craig, had been pallbearers for the funeral. It was not the first time we had performed this nor the last. Doug’s mother had died eight years earlier of cancer. She’d been a good friend of the family as long as I could remember so Craig and I acted as pall bearers. Over the next three decades we would take turns burying six parents. But tonight Doug would need my help and thus I would get the best gift I’ve ever gotten.
With the conversation, caring, and love in the basement I watched Doug with some surprise through the evening. Doug was a teetotaler, or nearly so. While I had gotten tipsy a few times I’d never seen him in the slightest way drunk. Like me he had played the good son in the family. But now, in this place. he was drinking down spirits like it was water. About 10pm that evening he said he was noticing that perhaps he needed some fresh air. Craig and I were only too happy to agree and the three of us put on parkas and went out in my backyard to help him walk it off. Each minute he seemed a little less capable of doing it, at one point falling over, hitting our concrete bird bath and knocking a piece of it off, with little apparent effect on him.
At this point Craig and I got on either side thinking this could take a while and required more care. We all headed arm in arm towards the park three blocks away. The city’s museum was there with its 10 Commandments stone near the entryway and the city’s Nativity Scene on the other side of the parking lot. It was a wonderful thing in my memory and this was the last time I’d see it before the city, thinking of court decisions ahead, removed it. It was the usual display. A small building not any bigger than a one car garage, with the manger, shepherds on bended knee, sheep, cattle, camels, and of course the wise men. By now the lights were off so it was a very dark scene indeed. It was here, among wise men and camels that Doug at last collapsed, not to be awakened again, at least for a very long time. We tried to make him look like a part of the scene, and I got a car while Craig watched over him like an angel.
We were all Eagle scouts from the same troop with good training, and Craig was now an emergency room nurse. We now put those skills to use. Positioning Doug at the back door of the care, I reached over from the other side, grabbed his arms and pulled while Craig pushed and guided on the other side. We then transported him to Craig’s house and with one well executed back carry down the stairs had him in position to recuperate.
I got home to a very quiet house now but the warmth of love from my friends, and their efforts, however unplanned they were, got me through the night and leave me to this day with gratitude that is difficult to express in words. At my funeral, I hope friends and family raise a glass of Tullamore Dew for a toast in my red funeral.
Our car’s radiator thermostat was fixed a couple days after the funeral for a few dollars by Ken. A few weeks later we bought a new Toyota Tercel, the best car I’ve ever had. Doug would recover in a couple days too, though I’m told the trip back to Lincoln was harrowing for his stomach.
It would be months before a day came where I could wonder if I’d gotten through it without thinking of these events. In my mom’s things I found a note she wrote, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” I wondered that too. I felt like a brittle hallowed out shell trying to slowly fill in what had been sucked out of me. It would take nearly a year to eat through her grape pies kept safe in the freezer. I lingered on and savored the last slice.
My aunt Clara told me she didn’t think Clifford would last a year. He was a man who needed a mate. I agreed. But he surprised us with his resiliency. After six months dad would start to date one of mom’s recommendations.This was the cue to Dona and Ken that it was time to pack up the bus and head back to Texas. Dona and I were thrilled he had found someone; perhaps he could make it after all. His hip was also healed and he was walking around like normal.
My dad and his girlfriend got along well and were married a few days after the first anniversary of mom’s death. It would be nearly four years before he found out my wife was having his first grandchild. He couldn’t have been happier and helped us move into our new home. That night he had a heart attack. He told me, as I rubbed his back in the hospital bed a few days later, that his heart was so damaged he couldn’t even use the stairs. Given his nervous energy I couldn’t imagine how he’d live like that. During the visit he gave me a get well gift from aunt Dorothy and family, a toy stuffed orangutan, saying his new grandson would have more fun with it. It’d be the only gift he ever gave a grandchild. Two weeks after moving I got the call at the start of work that he’d died.
My sister and I have occasionally talked about these events. In these talks she told me of tales she’d heard of Joan’s mother being a seer and a healer that people would bring their animals and children too, and who saw in the stars that she’d never get out of the hospital alive. She died in the hospital leaving behind a one year old girl named Joan, my mother. In the end Dona and I feel truly, and humbly blessed by the Angel of Death. He allowed us both to open our eyes and hearts to the experience. We are perplexed by it too, perhaps like the Jacob was when an angle or God ended wrestling with this questionable character, changed his name to Israel, and blessed him with a future history.1
Still a deep mystery remains. The words that resonate with me the most about this time are these:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.—Annie Dillard, in Teaching a Stone to Talk
Now when I sit in the pews I look for the seat belts.
Ten years after hearing those fans and dad’s words behind the Safeway I found myself looking for Halloween costumes for my two sons at the mall. I was brought up short on seeing a black hooded skull mask sitting on the shelves. I bought it immediately. That year and for many afterwards Halloween would find me putting on my black pinstripe business suit with the hood and mask, and reach for my stout English umbrella. I’d go to church Halloween parties, or follow my sons as they filled up bags of treats.
But always I was aware I was tapping into what some would call a Jungian archetype for the collective unconscious. I could see it on people’s faces, and with their actions, through the holes in the mask. The nervous glance of teenagers as they crossed the street to avoid me, the furtive glance of parents handing out candy at the door, little children reaching out for the comfort of their parent’s hand when I’d walk by. I’m not sure why I did it. Not to frighten. Not to bemuse. As I write this I think it was to pay homage to a favor given. To help be a reminder to live, and live well.
So it is that time once again, as I sit on my porch watching the sun set and feeling the chill, when I ponder these things. My mind goes back to those Halloweens, and once again I am walking down the cold misty streets, feeling the slippery leaves underfoot, and smelling the rain and decay. Once again I hear the drip of water off my umbrella and I ponder the infinite and the mortal.