“A process is said to be aleatoric … if its course is determined in general but depends on chance in detail.“ Werner Meyer-Eppler, 1957
Weeks after my seventy-three-year-old mother dies of lung cancer in her Mississippi cabin, cardinals build a nest in the lilac tree outside the bedroom window of our turn-of-the-century New Englander home. It has been years since we hosted a nest in this tree, and we watch delighted, as sticks, twigs, hair (surely our own dog’s) and other unidentifiable dried matter become a nest. Three tiny oval eggs appear. Mornings, my husband Brian and I rush to pull up the mini-blinds, vigilant as we once were over our own baby son, eager to witness progress.
Soon the eggs disappear, and it takes studying silently to discern the outlines of dark brown fluff against the equally brown nest, the brown belly of the mother. Mornings then become a race to the window at the sound of high-pitched chirping—the chicks crying for food. Cocked back, yellowish beaks stretched open as on a hinge, three heads bob up and down like ponies on a carousel as both the Momma and Poppa birds regurgitate morsels into the working throats. We watch, giggling: National Geographic has come to our bedroom window.
How quickly they grow. Within days of hatching, the chicks prepare to fly. We observe them stretching in the nest, peeking over its rim, rising up as they try for the edge, their downy feathers perhaps still useless, too weighty for flight.
At the South Side Art Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi, my mother wants to buy me a birthday gift. In less than three months, she will be dead.
In January, she and I spent a wonderful afternoon having lunch at the Bottletree Bakery, shopping, and visiting this gallery where on a tall table at the front, small ceramic figures sat on display. Whistles and rattles in the shape of bunnies and birds small enough to sit in the palm of my hand. Mom sees me eyeing these. But they are expensive, and I don’t want to spend the money.
It’s spring in the South, and I’ve come during my semester break. My sister and her family have joined us. We take the same route as many times before: Lunch at Ajax (for that famous broccoli cheese casserole), frozen yogurt at Ya Ya’s, window shopping (my niece needs a graduation dress), and a tour of the gallery. We all adopt my mother’s slow gait and huddle around her as we make our way down the few blocks. She walks with a cane. Has for some time now.
I find her at the table, picking up and putting down the small whistles.
“I want to buy you one for your birthday,” she says. “Which would you choose?”
I’m so pleased. Because she remembered, because of a long history between us of unusual and unbidden presents, or no presents at all.
I consider a bunny and a bird. I choose the bird. Maybe because it’s blue, my mother’s favorite color. Maybe because I think it will remind me of her. I like the shape of it: a round, plump body, the tail end scored and tapered into a small hole. This is where you blow. The neck an illusion, thick and formed up from the belly, but then slimming toward the end and laid back over the body, forming the head as if the bird has tucked it under its wing. The eye, another airhole.
At home, it sits on the windowsill in my kitchen. Outside, the lilac tree, where birds the size of my new whistle prepare to fly.
The day after they’ve hatched, Brian stands guard and reports their movements. Two chicks jump from branch to branch; the third remains in the nest. Momma, Poppa, so familiar to us now in the backyard we all share, fly from the lilac, to the tops of the fence posts, to the tall maples behind the house, all the way to the top of our 30-foot roof. Do they bring food? Instructions? Encouragement? Tough-love parents, I think, as I sit to watch. They want their babies to fly.
Around four in the afternoon, I cancel dinner in Boston with a friend, sit on the deck and listen to the chirping, relieved I will not have to make the hour drive south to recount the story of my mother’s death. I look up and see one chick at the top of the lilac tree, its feathers nearly sleek and the color of the now dried and brittle blossoms. I can’t believe it. How quickly it’s progressed. I take a step or two to get a better look when suddenly it’s in flight, flanked by the elders, flying directly over me to the Mock Orange at the other end of the yard.
“What!” I hear myself cry out.
Then he’s gone. I can hear him, but I can’t see him. I sit heavily in one of the black wrought iron chairs and look up at the lilac, hoping to find the others. I spot the second chick easily, watch it jump from branch to branch, rest, jump again. After a couple hours, I go inside to start dinner. I miss the second chick take flight.
The third remains in the nest. Momma and Poppa make lots of noise and offer multiple meals. It seems Poppa comes urgently, poking and prodding. The chick cannot say the words I think it feels: I will do it in my own way, in my own time.
This cajoling and feeding goes on throughout dinner. Momma and Poppa fly the circuit frenetically. We think we see chick number one fly from the maple to the roof. If that’s him, he’s hardly recognizable: sleek and steady, confident. I imagine, boastful. I consider the time it takes downy, wetted feathers to give way.
The third is traveling now from branch to branch, hopping, as its siblings had done. Brian and I blow out the candles, and in the last of the day’s light, we see this chick rooted to a branch just outside our window. I think it will make its way back to the nest for the night. But no, he’s hunkered down. He’s not going anywhere.
It seems that way when we wake the next morning and find him on that same branch, preening, chirping, as if readying. In the distance, I hear the familiar high chirps of his family. I wonder when this one will go.
Mid-morning, Brian calls me downstairs. At the screen door, he puts his forefinger to his lips and gestures for me to follow. We lean out the opened door, and there is chick number three below us, perched under one of the wrought iron chairs on the inside of an ornamental loop. I think of an owl sitting perfectly still in the center of its tree hole. I see the bird’s miniature claws wrapped around the metal, the tiny beak, feathers still downy, but less now. I don’t know what to do.
Propped up in bed, her head falls away from the pillow over her right shoulder; her chin tucks in tight to the collarbone, almost parallel to it. How easily her head collapses there tucked like a bird’s under its wing. The air conditioner blasts cold air into this tiny room.
All day long I look in on her from the living room. Motionless, she remains in this posture. I stare. And can, because we’ve succeeded in getting one sleeping pill into her. She hasn’t moved for hours, and won’t until 5:30 tomorrow morning. The tops of her shoulders are pointy, her skeleton peeking through. Her face is slimmer, like 18 again, like the day she married or the night of her senior prom, both events professionally photographed, framed, and set on the shelves to the left and above her. Her black hair is threaded with grey, matted against her head, unwashed for maybe two weeks now. Greasy, slick with natural oils.
To say she looks frail is inadequate. Her thin, knotted fingers wrap claw-like around the cold shoulder-height bar of the black metal hospice bed. Even in sleep, she grasps it (keeping her earthbound?) her fingers curling overtop it, veins protruding. A map under the skin.
It is death I am looking at, but oddly she reminds me of a newly hatched bird: impossibly angular bones and joints, cartilage stretching over fragile frame, feathers matted wet with protective albumen. Angles, bones, joints, claws, wet feathers folded up into herself as if she’d lived weeks in the shell.
At this point, her head bobs between her shoulders puppet-like, her arms and hands lift and swiftly fall onto her useless thighs as if someone has cut the strings. No strength to hold up her limbs, this head like a newborn baby’s, wobbly, dependent, earnest, trusting.
Yesterday as we walked our Labradoodle Daisy, Brian and I watched a small hawk fly over us, transporting a smaller black bird in its claws. Grotesque and beautiful.
Like the eaten turtle eggs we’d come across a week before as we walked on one of the many paths behind my parents’ cabin—cracked, crushed, the contents nowhere in sight. Dad had bushwhacked and cleared trails in that mini-forest and built in short log bridges and ramps. There, a hole dug out of the hard ground, a mound of yellowish dirt the color of the Pueblo adobes I’d seen as a kid in Colorado or the dried out arroyos of Tucson. Shell pieces scattered. A crime scene. Raw and recent and real.
Over fifteen years, Mom and Dad had planted Magnolias, Camellias, cherry, crabapple, peach, pear, fig and pine trees in plots of land cleared all around the cabin. Her gardens boasted roses, butterfly bushes, pansies, petunias, Day Lilies, marigolds she’d nursed through sweltering summers and protected, in vain, from deer undeterred by the short wire mesh barriers Dad constructed. Only the Wisteria, (its seeds I’d carry to New Hampshire and plant in my own garden), flourished in the hot Mississippi spring and multiplied at an alarming rate, eventually growing up one of the 30-foot pines out front.
The morning we are to fly home, a day after Mom’s memorial service, I follow my father as he waters the potted petunias and daisies he’s hung on hooks protruding from tree trunks. I step over long, thin Wisteria vines encroaching upon the small garden, growing out from the original trunk across the yard, flat against the hard ground like snakes or veins or fingers.
“You should cut those back, Dad,” I say, glancing at wilted rose bushes, dying lilies, weeds. “And weed.”
I realize suddenly that it would have been a very long time since Mom actually worked in these gardens, unable to bend, fall to her knees, pull. I picture her leaning over the deck railing, instructing Dad on where to plant this year’s purchases. Just a month or so ago, they’d been to the greenhouse and bought multiple potted plants, herbs and a new Gardenia now sitting in plastic buckets against the wall on the deck.
“Brian and I found an unearthed turtle nest on the path back there,” I say, pointing.
“Nature at work,” Dad says, without looking up from his watering.
Mississippi is this for me: raw, naked, and unfiltered. Powers unchecked and unleashed. The heat, the bugs, the kudzu. Tree moss, snakes, weeds, ticks. Racism, sexism, poverty. All fully exposed, unapologetically, under a relentless sun.
Mississippi was not only this to my mother.
It was Walter Anderson and Robin Whitfield and good paintings of unlovely things, things no one really cares to look at—swamps, skinny trees hung in vines—because of what rises up in the looking.
It was Faulkner and Rowan Oak and Eudora Welty.
It was ‘Ole Miss and Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Oxford and the Bottletree Bakery, the South Side Gallery, Square Books and Ya Ya’s. It was a Presbyterian church on every corner.
It was The University of Mississippi art museum, Indian mounds, riverboats and casinos, and a short drive to Ocean Springs.
It was the best caramel cake in the universe.
It was garden club, art club, Sunday school, church. It was teaching and sharing. It was ‘Ole Fish, the title character of the myriad stories she wrote and told at hospitals and retirement homes. It was dulcimer and bell choirs.
It was refuge from her own poverty and pain and loss. It was faith and God and where she’d die, a million miles away from her birthplace, her beloved cities. A cabin in the woods among the snakes and coons and deer that decimated her gardens. Turtles that laid eggs that would never hatch. Where the ground underfoot in summer is red and dry, dusty blood hard, unforgiving. A heat so oppressive she too could not leave this nest they’d built over eleven years, staying inside in the manufactured cold air.
Raw and thick and unrelenting conditions that would not be made nice with grass and fertilizer and air conditioning. Where eventually everything withered and got eaten. It was this place, her Mississippi, where she enjoyed another thriving, where it’s already been proven that things over time persevere.
6. Bird’s Eye View, 1940
Walter Inglis Anderson, one of the South’s most celebrated artists, lived time and again on Horn Island to study and paint the wildlife. He rowed himself out to the sliver of island off the coast of Mississippi, supplies stacked in a metal trashcan. He slept beneath his overturned wooden boat and painted there when it rained. Mom fell in love with his cartoonish repetitious strokes, the light airy colors, the dense oils in motion the way Van Gogh caught it, too. Low dunes, marshy brackish lagoons, lichen and pine. Coons, wild hogs, small rodents. Marine creatures: sea turtles, shells, Portuguese Man-of-Wars. Fishing Pelicans, Terns, Boat-tailed Grackles, Red-winged Black Birds, Herons, Bitterns and Egrets. Grebes, Loons, great flocks of geese and ducks—all turned character and pattern and light under Anderson’s hand.
Perhaps he gave to my mother a Mississippi I’ve never known or appreciated.
She studied him. Traveled to Ocean Springs, tracing small steps of his journey. Practiced her own craft, imitating his short, round strokes in repetition: I find among her art journals and supplies, her attempts on small pieces of scrap paper.
I find the history and samples of Anderson’s creative output in the large coffee table book I’ve taken from the cabin. I slowly drift through its pages in the quiet of my office. In 1940, Anderson sketches on one 11 X 8 ½ page a large bird flying over a house. From the bird’s eye view, the shingled roof looms large, the small chimney nestled between the main house and an adjunct room, smaller, a window at its end. An upright man digs with a shovel in the backyard, his shoulders spread wide, his hands curled over the handle. Behind him, the unfinished outline of a tree, branches begun, a suggestion really. Open small circles indicate pebbles. Small squiggles like the flowers I drew as a girl line the small end of the house and adorn the front yard.
A round, busty woman sits on the front steps, her hands at her sides, palms flat against the second step. She wears shoes. She is flanked by what at first glance seems to be a small alligator and a cat licking its feet. No doubt the alligator is another cat; the tail gives it away. It’s hard to tell because from the bird’s eye view, only the tops or backs of the objects below are discernable.
The bird itself is the largest object in the sketch, filling the top third of the page. Its wings are spread wide; its feathers span the width of the page. The face looks like a duck’s, but I am no bird expert. More bill than beak. Round head with downy fluff at the eyes. It looks angry to me. Its point of view is limited. Only roofs, hair, fur, and stone. Who is the beneficiary of this specific exercise?
The bird flies over and on, I think, off Walter Anderson’s 11 X 8 ½ page.
There is only one crazy night.
Around midnight, on her fourth night home, Mom wakes from a deep sleep and calls out to me. It’s cold. I sleep in long exercise pants and keep a black, hooded sweatshirt on the floor next to me. The cabin is less than 600 square feet. From the futon in the living room I can see her propped up in the thin hospital bed. I’m there in seconds.
I whisper, “What do you need, Mom?”
She is restless, perturbed. Agitated. I see it all in her wrinkled forehead, her steely eyes. Determined.
She is trying to get out of bed. It’s not that she can’t get out of bed, as in she’s forbidden, but she hasn’t been out of bed except to sit on the portable potty once or twice, and once, on Saturday morning, to sit in the living room. That morning, I awoke to find her sitting strangely still in Dad’s lounge chair, upright, as if the chair back were not soft, but severe, wooden, unyielding. She was looking in the direction of the T.V. where her beloved CNN was on. But she was not really watching it. I watched her for a few seconds and then fell back to sleep, remembering she had said the night before when we arrived (and she’d walked into this cabin) that she was going to rise and sit up and watch the news in the morning. I woke not 15 minutes later to her calling; she needed to get back into bed, her body weakening at a rate she could no longer ignore.
But now she is pulling herself forward, away from the pillows, inching her way out of bed. She wants up and out.
I feel frightened. I don’t know what this is. I haven’t seen it yet, and it scares me. I wake my sleeping father and ask for help. I tell him I don’t understand what I’m seeing. He’s up instantly, and we go to Mom who is now reaching her hands further down the top bars of the bed to pull herself up.
“Help me!” she says again and again.
We stay with her for about an hour, holding her at the bed’s edge. When she demands to walk, we pull the walker to her and help her take a few steps. Then back down again. Then up. And down. All the while, she is agitated, chattering. Dad calls our hospice worker. Jason tells us he can’t do anything for us because Mom is clearly in duress and she’s specified in her living will that she wants “extreme measures” to be taken.
“Call 911,” he tells my father.
When the paramedics arrive, we meet a hefty, balding man with a round face, wearing glasses, who quickly assesses the situation and examines Mom.
“Her vital signs are good,” he says, when we step out into the living room. “There’s nothing we can do. She doesn’t need to go to the hospital.”
We stand there, watching Dad bending over Mom, taking her hand. This kind, hulking man, his eyes on Dad says to me, “Listen, I’m the town coroner. You got to know, there’s no resuscitating her. She’s very close, and I can tell you, maybe a week, if she codes and you call us and we take her in to Batesville, the docs there will take one look at her and call it. Are you sure you want to go through that?”
He’s talking about what they do. About chests cracked open and small paddles inside the walls. About multiple drugs and intubation and who knows, if there is a heartbeat, how much time in the ICU. Dad and I have been through all this. I look again at him holding Mom’s hand and know we need to decide tonight, right now.
Dad and I sit on the futon, whispering. It is after 2 am. We decide it is not rational to put her through “extreme measures” when there is no hope for recovery of any kind. We know a peaceful leaving, here, in this cabin, with us, is a good way to die.
I send Dad to bed and over the next four or five hours, I sit with Mom. Talk to her, listen to her, as she rambles on, her eyes still wild, her agitation palpable. She’s afraid of monsters, the ones chasing her, she tells me, her arms pointing all around the room. (We will wonder tomorrow if her sleeping pill, a new prescription, caused this episode.) At one point, I have Mom perched on the edge of the bed, looking down at her legs dangling, crying out—“It’s too far! It’s too far!” She rocks a little back and forth.
“Mom, what are you thinking?” I suddenly ask.
“Am going to die,” she says mournfully, her head lowering and shaking slowly. “Am going to die.”
I almost feel grateful, this craziness focusing into purpose: Ah, she is coming to terms. I’m witnessing her wrangling with death.
“Yes, Mom,” I say, gently but matter-of-factly. “You are.”
Then, much agitation and scuffling as she tries to stand, me holding her up under the arms, the loose flesh gathering against my hands.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“Home,” she says, and I don’t know if she means this home, as in she’s forgotten we’re already here or the other home as in gates and God and angels. I hope it’s the latter because once your mother is dying, no matter what you believe, you want to believe this for her, this.
In the morning, she remembers none of it. I tell her a little, and she says, slyly, “So, we were up all night talking trash about monsters, huh?” And when Jason arrives, Mom tells him she’s feeling better, stronger, which saddens me. Because I don’t know if this means she really doesn’t understand what is happening here, what happened last night. We spend the days we have left, she and I, perched between worlds, two ways of being: knowing and not knowing, living and dying, lying and truth, veiled and unveiled.
During the Depression, my young mother was delivered to an orphanage in her native city, Washington D.C., where she lived for two years.
The first version of this story I’ve retained has her at age nine. My grandparents, Doris and Ray, unable to feed two children, kept my mother’s baby brother, my Uncle Tom, at home, and let her go. A defining act in my mother’s life. I would later decide, it explains many things about her. How does one recover from such an abandoning?
Another version has her at a different age, older, or before my uncle was born, willingly entering the Catholic refuge where she loved the church, the nuns, the stained-glass windows, the choir and organ music resonating throughout the chamber. Where she loved God. A child who understood there were things wrong between a mother and a father, and money was scarce. A child who went with love in her heart. I may never hear the story straight with all three gone now and my memory unreliable. Why when I call up this bit of family history do I revert to version one, where I am mostly angry with my dead grandparents and sorry for my mother? I’m sure she recently cleared this up for me, this messy version memorized by my younger self, but I can’t remember now when I’d most like to.
But in any version, I see her, a tall, leggy thing with long blonde curls, a button-down coat, hat, buckle-up shoes, white ankle socks, a composite I must put together from the multiple photos from her childhood. I see her approaching the church with hope in her eyes. I see her kneel and cross her chest. I see her slip into a darkened and oiled pew, close her eyes, and pray, lips moving. I see her looking up at a domed ceiling, at statuesque figures of Christ, Mary, a baby. I see her taking it all in, history, ordered silence, a place where what you do and how you do it is completely clear. I see her loving God in the music, the light filling the windows. She is fine. Even peaceful. She is not confused.
I think now of that one crazy night, when she hovered on the edge of her bed again and again, and I’d asked her, “Mom, where are you going?” and she’d said, “Home.” I imagine her there, then, in that long ago church somewhere in the city at the beginning of things, waiting. And I am not confused.
At one point, I ask Mom, “What will Heaven be like?” She says three things. I only remember two: God was the first. Then, what? Angels? Light? Music? Peace? The third, I know: “Flying.”
Mom propped up in bed, staring straight ahead, her arms out in front of her on new sheets Dad purchased at Walmart days ago. Her fingers roam the stiff cotton fabric as if reading Braille, or like a baby touching, exploring, for the first time. I notice these fingers a lot. Lightly touching the sheet draped over her drooping body. Her eyes half open, opaque, filmy, white and thick, but still blue. Staring straight ahead, so still and silent. What does she see? What is she thinking? What is she doing? Eyes straight ahead. Anger? Reconciliation? “She has a lot of internal work to do,” the hospice workers tell us.
She’s thirsty and reaches for the clear plastic Starbucks cup I’ve come home with from the hospital. We wash it daily and fill it with crushed ice and water. It’s the top and straw that work. I hand her the cup, wet with condensation, and she curls her long thin fingers around it, brings it slowly towards her mouth. The hand fails, and still clutching the cup, falls down. I catch it and bring the cup closer to her parting lips, her small red tongue, compact and thick like a turtle’s, darting out and over the dry mouth, searching for the straw. In and out, and there it is, straw, suck, cool liquid down her throat.
Her muscles twitch involuntarily now, her protruding shoulders jump, her fingers move, ride the tiny waves of the stiff cotton, roaming, petting; her forehead lifts and wrinkles her brow as if in surprise, as if to say, “What’s this? What do we have here?”
Coming upon Mom towards the end, her lips tight, her jaw set, her eyes closed, whispering: “Keep my children safe. Keep my children safe. Keep my children safe,” quickly, rhythmically, as she clutches the green ceramic cross my sister and I have given her. And then, “Please, God, more time.”
I return to the cabin with my fifteen-year-old son to help Dad and see for myself how he’s doing. It’s summer in Mississippi and hot as hell. Well, not so much hot as the temperature hovers in the high 80’s, but humid. Nearly 100%. Sam gets up and runs a few miles every day. I drag myself out behind him to walk the same road. Humidity hits our faces like a hot skillet, our throats like mud, and we think it is hard to breathe. No matter the conditions, I walk this road when I come to visit. I think of Mom’s absence, as I did in church on Sunday, and I remembered the last service I’d attended here with her sitting next to me.
We arrive in the early evening. We will go for fried catfish in an hour. We carry our light luggage up the porch steps, greet Bart, Mom’s rescue dog Dad has recently taken to the kennel for a full-out makeover: shaved to the bone, he looks smaller to me, gentler. Bart still hasn’t entered the room Mom died in. Just hours before she went, Bart escaped and Dad and my sister had to track him down in Dad’s car.
It takes a few minutes, but soon Sam is petting him, speaking softly as he moves towards the cowering dog under the long bench outside the front door.
I enter and scan the small room. Dad has made changes, and I notice I don’t mind. It looks good. Ordered. Cared for. This is a good sign. I turn to the left and glance into Mom’s room, where she studied, prayed, painted and read, lived a deep creative life. I see immediately a print I haven’t seen for a long time in the center of the back wall set on the edge of a beam Mom used as a shelf for all her large canvasses. These have all been re-arranged as well. Mostly, it is Mom’s work along this makeshift shelf, but there in the center is this 23’’X 34’’ framed print of a portion of the larger murals he painted on all four walls of “The Little Room” at his Ocean Springs property. Two Sandhill Cranes, one atop the other, fill the center of the print. Clearly in motion, the cranes’ bodies are stretched out, reaching, their heads tilted up. Around them in thick strokes, the tell-tale Anderson motifs, like Van Gogh, repeated thick lines and curves swirling in blue, yellow, rust, green, lavender, giving way to the suggestion of thick leaves and grasses, sky, clouds, and horizon.
Why is this print here, now? What provoked Dad to place it there so prominently? I follow the length of it and see at the bottom, printed in black letters, this quote from Anderson’s Horn Island logs:
Birds are holes in heaven through which man may pass.
I suddenly think of the last lines in one of Mom’s poems I’d found in her computer files, the one called, “Light, But No Sun Appears”, the one my sister read at the service. In it, Mom describes looking out into her backyard here at the cabin, at the paths, the green moss, how it takes her back to “the carpet on which my babies and I played,” in another time and place. The moss on which she now, arthritic, walks. How “near the end, where moss gives way to stepping stones down the hill and out,” she spies “a shocking sight.” Her pink Camellia, in full bloom, leans toward the sun; it flourishes in spite of a recent flash frost where it turned brown, “caught in a Mississippi cold snap.”
There is scripture in this
There is metaphor in this
I leave it to you.
I am not a God-fearing, church-attending woman, but I sang the church hymn “Just As I Am” as she quietly slipped away on Sunday June 5th around four pm. She didn’t do what Jason and the others at Hospice told us she’d do—the “fish breathing” and pulled skin, tight at the clavicle, the death rattle. And why would she? Her leaving as quiet and unassuming as her living self had been. I’d been talking to her, singing to her, and suddenly out of song ideas, I grabbed the hymnal, the one I’d sung from in the hospital, turned to the first page, and started through it again. After the first couple of lines, I looked at her, took her hand, glanced back to the page. A simple tune, I didn’t know it by heart. I looked at her again and knew something had changed but couldn’t put my finger on it. I knew something was happening, and I stood quickly, calling, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy? three times and then turned in my sister’s direction, gesturing for her to come, now. It seemed her shade had grayed. How I know skin ceases to glow in the absence of enough oxygen, I don’t know, but it does, and hers did, instantly dulling before my eyes. And her bottom lip curled, so very slightly, curled down and away from her bottom teeth. It’s hard now not to think of the Wicked Witch of the West’s black shoes under a fallen house. There was a long inhale and exhale, and then, nothing. Dad and my sister’s presence flooded the room, and they joined me in singing. She took one more long, long breath in and out and that was it. A simple leaving. A sigh. Her milky eyes still wide open. No effort. Seemingly no pain. For me, it happened so fast, but she’d been working herself to this edge for days and days, taking steps I wouldn’t recognize, register, or understand, and lucky us, we got to witness this first flight anyway.
I still think about what she said a day after we brought her home from the hospital. It was early evening, and she apologized to me for being “cranky” all day. I’d noticed, yeah, but I said, “I don’t think you’re cranky. I think you’re sad.”
“I am sad,” she said. “And angry and disorganized (she meant disoriented) and impatient.”
“Impatient? How?” I thought she was talking about getting better. Or was she talking about dying?
“I have to stop trying to be the person I want to be and be the person God wants me to be.”
I was indignant. “But doesn’t God allow for all human feelings like anger, frustration, sadness?” Wasn’t it all right to just be who she was, angry and sad and a devout Christian?
“Of course,” she said. And then, nothing further.
At the cabin, I spend hours reading my mother’s journals. If I told you, at first, the most recent ones are religious in theme, this would be a sterile, general observation. These journals are a journey. Personal, universal, the experience and process of someone living with, and striving for, the word of God. On the back of each white page, sketches in pencil of Biblical figures, wildlife, light and darkness.
As I read I’m dismayed by her self-chastising over ego, for feeling anger. She prayed and prayed on paper for God to make her heart light. Good. Right. I don’t understand her willful contrition. I wanted her to accept her life as having been good, herself as good enough. Knowing she’d been self-critical her whole life, I saw this as more of the same. A new way to beat herself up.
“No,” my sister, who shared our mother’s deep love of God, tells me. “This is the way to the Lord. To Heaven. To always pray to be better than you are.”
I think about the word impatient. Perhaps she wasn’t talking about feeling impatient in that precise moment. She was talking about her quest of decades; the process of being the person God wants her to be is long. In the hospital a day after the surgery, she’d cried, saying, “With all my faith, you’d think I wouldn’t be such a crybaby,” and I’d asked her, “What are you afraid of?”
“Pain,” she’d said, “and missing God.”
I wonder about her journey. About when and how and if she got there. About first steps and wrong turns and resting stops along the way.