©2011 By Bob Litton
The best gift Mother ever gave to me and to herself was her dying. I don’t mean “becoming unalive” — although that in its own way was a gift, too — but rather the manner of her dying: the way she bore up under it. And the curious thing about her death, or rather one of the curious things, was that it was only a few days before Christmas.
She had had a slight stroke almost a year before. I can’t recall what spur impelled me to go to her little house that winter’s day. It was cold — just below freezing. The distant, bare trees were almost black against a puffy gray sky. Looked like snow might fall, but it didn’t. I considered it another broken promise, for I love fresh fallen snow.
I opened the front door slowly and felt a gush of warm air wrap around my face. Mother, like many old, small people, liked a house to be what I consider overly warm. Something else was wrong: I couldn’t open the door all the way; something hard was blocking it. I looked in and saw Mother’s spindly bookcase on the floor. I pushed harder, and the bookcase moved enough for me to squeeze inside the room.
Mother was on the couch with her head lying against one arm of the divan and her left forearm dangling over her eyes. I stepped over the books and bric-a-brac that had fallen off the bookcase.
“Oh, Elbert!” Mother exclaimed, as in pleasant surprise. She was always calling me by my brother’s name — one of my brothers that is, for I have two older siblings. This one is the middle one. It always annoyed me when Mother called me Elbert, for he was her favorite, and I wasn’t sure what the reason was for her using his name when she could clearly see who I was. Was it wishful thinking on her part? Did I remind her so much of him that she used that term as a manner of odd compliment? Was she trying to conjure me into another being — like she and Pappy did when I was little and they dressed me in my deceased sister’s clothes? I couldn’t tell, and I didn’t ask. I didn’t think she would know; and, if she did know, she wouldn’t admit as much. I would just bite my lip and keep on doing whatever I was doing.
“I must have had a stroke,” she said now. “I don’t know how long ago it was, but I was about to open the door to check the mail when I felt faint. I grabbed hold of the bookcase to steady myself and brought it down. I don’t think anything broke. Did it?”
I glanced down at the stuff on the carpet, at the tiny china collie, the tiny leprechaun with a pipe in his mouth, the tiny Dutch boy with a pail. Scattered about, also, were a few books, mostly biographies of dead entertainers like Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen. And there was Elbert’s 8×10 portrait, which mother kept close to the front door and at eye level so it would be the last thing she saw each time she left the house. I gazed at them and said, “No, they seem to be okay.”
Then my other brother, Vernon, arrived with his wife. At any rate, I thought Loretta was his wife. They had been together many years, but I had never heard the words “married” or “wedding” or “wife” or “husband” come out of their mouths. It was an odd situation, but such ambiguity was common in our family, and I never felt sufficient interest to inquire. I just pondered that relationship, like so many other things in my life, in my later years. Pondering was safer — and more fun — than simply asking. I pulled the bookcase back upright so they could get in easier than I had.
Almost immediately, Vernon started picking up the fallen figurines and the books and the portrait of Elbert. I wondered, Why didn’t I think of doing that? Frankly, I quit thinking about Mother’s belongings long ago, when I realized none of them appealed to me enough to pay attention to. It’s not that I would have preferred they be adorned with gold and precious jewels; it’s just that Mother’s and my tastes seldom dovetailed. In fact, come to think of it, the last thing I can remember us enjoying together was Tuesday night wrestling on television when I was a preteen. We especially got a kick out of the commentator’s interviews with the wrestlers, because sometimes he would make one of them mad, and the wrestler would knock him out of his chair. Yeah, we both liked that…and “I Love Lucy”.
Vernon started flipping through some old family photographs in one of two ream-size boxes on Mother’s coffee table. She apparently had been looking at them immediately before going to the door to check her mail. “I want these,” he said, as though she were already dead and we were divvying up her stuff.
All the while Vernon was busying himself with the bric-a-brac and the photos, I sat in Mother’s tight rocking chair and stared at him. And Loretta talked with Mother about their trip the previous weekend to a local flea market. They were both pack rats.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t get that couch pillow with the Persian cat stitched in it,” said Loretta. “It was reasonably priced and was bound to have some antique value and it was so cute.”
“I don’t like cats,” said Mother, rather grumpily. I couldn’t read Mother’s mind, but I imagined she was thinking, Here I’ve had a stroke and nearly broke my neck and all they can do is rummage through my pictures and chide me for not buying a damn pillow. And that Bobby, he just sits there staring like a vulture waiting for me to die.
I probably was. I don’t usually know what to do in such situations. I’m too sincere to simply go through the conventional comments and actions and solicitations that are appropriate at a time like that. Sometimes, being conventional can be the healthiest thing to do. Certainly can’t be any worse than just sitting there staring.
I was probably thinking, Here’s a new stage in my relationship with my mother. We had gotten along pretty well until I was in high school. She had been a so-so mother and I a so-so son, but we had mostly gotten along okay. Then I was in high school, developing the adolescent attitude, dating, listening to rock-‘n’-roll music, and not holding onto any job. And Mother was middle-aged and beginning to date again herself. She wondered why I stuck around. She didn’t care whether I finished high school or not. Why should I be any different than my two brothers, who hadn’t finished school but had moved out and learned to hustle on the streets? I was in her way, a hobble. So, when the man came along that made her feel better, she kicked me out of the nest.
I managed to finish high school anyway. After graduating, I joined the Air Force and then went to college with the help of several loans. During all those years, I seldom contacted Mother, and we grew really far apart.
When her second husband was dying, of stomach cancer, I went to visit them at the hospital. I can’t remember why, since I didn’t have any regard for him one way or the other. Mother had apparently grown away from him. Once, I recall, when I was working in a dining hall at the university, Mother came to visit. While I was wiping off the tables, she sat and talked to the dietitian, a woman to whom I had introduced her so Mother could alter some of her clothes. After Mother had left, the dietitian looked at me with an amused, quizzical smile and said, “Your mother just told me about your stepfather and said, ‘I just wish that old man would hurry up and die.’” Mother made similar comments to other people I introduced her to. One of my university friends told me he had had a conversation with her over the phone. “Now I think I understand your problem,” he said to me. I could multiply examples of Mother’s lack of tact a dozen times, but that’s not the main point of this story. I’m just noting that diplomacy was not one of her virtues. Why I kept on introducing her to people, I don’t know. I’m just a slow learner, I guess.
Somehow, I don’t remember Mother being tactless when I was a child. Maybe I just didn’t understand what she was saying all the time. I wish I could have known her when she was a teenager. I knew enough about her from the family stories she told me to think she must have been a “live wire”.
Mother, in fact, was a good raconteur. I would have liked to have some of the experiences she did and have the ability to relate them as succinctly and excitingly, especially of her and grandfather driving a small herd of cattle through the main street of Harlingen, which was just a small town then.
Once she told me a couple of stories from her high school days in the Rio Grande Valley. She had a close friend named Eula Lee, and they were pranksters. One girl they picked on had beautiful long brown hair of which her father was really proud, as proud as though it were his own hair. Well, Mother went to high school during the flapper era. One day, she and Eula Lee cornered this lovely girl and told her she was not being up-to-date style-wise. They talked her into letting them bob her hair. When her father saw it, he was furious and came to complain to my grandfather. There was also a popular athlete in the school whose mother made him large tasty lunches. Mother’s and Eula Lee’s lunches were just average, nothing in comparison to this boy’s. One day, the two girls got into this boy’s locker and switched lunch sacks.
I wanted Mother to write these stories and others down in a blank book that I gave her, but she never did.
But I’m wandering off my track. I was telling you about my going to see my dying stepfather. I’m not sure why I went. He wasn’t really any relation of mine, and he had never done anything for me. I guess I just thought he was another of God’s children, and somehow I had the feeling that his hospital room wouldn’t be overflowing with consolers. Mother, in fact, was sitting in the hallway just outside his door. I didn’t bother to look for a clock she might be watching. She said they had been there a few hours.
I went inside the room, a two-bedder. A nurse was attending to his roommate. Mother’s heavy-set husband lay on his back, an unconscious lump on the bed — I supposed asleep – with a tube in his nose; he was breathing in a loud wheezing way. I came back out and asked Mother why he was gasping like that.
“That’s what people do when they’re dying,” she replied with a smile, as though amused by my college-educated ignorance. I supposed she had seen at least several people die in her lifetime. This was a first for me, although during my journalistic career I had seen several people who were already dead, and I had hoped I would react more specifically, that the dying process would affect me in a particular way so that I would know whether I was afraid of death or not. But I felt nothing except a brief period of curiosity.
I left after a short time of fruitless mental sorting out. While I was driving away, I thought, Well, one thing you know about death now is that sometimes it’s a very tedious experience.
For the year after her stroke, Mother seemed to go through a late-life blossoming. Her skin tone seemed rosier and she smiled more. Yet, shortly after her stroke one of her sisters, Aunt Mary, took her in for tests at a hospital. A week later, Vernon and Loretta took her in for follow-up testing. When I finally managed to reach her on the phone I asked her, “Did the doctor tell you anything?”
“Yes,” she said, “We got the x-rays back. My esophagus is dead, and I have a hiatal hernia. I’m dying piece by piece, I guess.” Then she chuckled.
Now she was a lump on her hospital bed.
When Vernon came to the bookstore where I was working my cash register shift, he said, “Mother is in the hospital dying…if you care.”
I summoned relief and followed him to the hospital. When we arrived, Elbert was already there in the room. It was a private room in the ICU ward. I looked about and thought, Well, I bet this cost a pretty penny! Then I felt guilty about thinking that.
Shortly thereafter some of Mother’s neighbors arrived. One of them — a dumpy little old lady — didn’t like me, I suppose because Mother had repeatedly told her what a neglectful son I was. I don’t dispute that. I just thought it was none of the neighbor’s business, and I resented Mother’s talking to her about me.
My sister-in-law Loretta said to Mother, “Maurine, your sons are all here.”
My brothers and I squeezed ourselves a little closer to the foot of the bed. She had an oxygen mask over her nose, and she didn’t like it. She took it off and just smiled at us. Mother was a raconteur, all right, but she usually was speechless during sentimental episodes. I inherited that from her.
Soon I looked up at the clock on the wall above the nurses’ station in the hallway. It said five minutes past nine. I had seen a sign at the door to the ICU ward that said “Visiting Hours: 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m..” I had seen enough for now and didn’t have anything to say, especially with all those people in the room, so I turned toward the door. But the dumpy neighbor blocked my way and looked menacingly at me as though to say, “No you don’t! You have to stay here and pay proper respects to your mother!”
I didn’t have strong feelings about leaving, so I turned around. It wasn’t but a few minutes later, though, that the others also decided it was time to leave and give Mother some rest, as though she had been doing anything else but lie in that hospital bed all day. “She doesn’t want all that stuff attached to her!” said Dumpy, in disgust, as she passed by me.
I took off work the next day and went to see Mother in the morning. She looked a little pale and her hair was a mess, but she also looked like she might be reviving. She had taken the oxygen mask off her nose again, but there was a tube in her left arm. I was alone with her, and I felt more comfortable.
“Bobby, why are they doing this to me?” she said, indicating the oxygen machine and the cardiograph machine. “They’re going against nature.” She’d told me a couple of years earlier — right out of the blue, apropos of nothing — she wanted to die. “I had no idea I’d live this long,” she had said. I never mentioned her comments to my brothers. Now, I stood there in the ICU room at the foot of her bed wondering how I was going to respond without sounding cold-blooded, just how aware she was of what was going on.
“Well, Mother, if they take that tube out, you’re a goner, and they don’t want to
be responsible for that.”
She looked at me with a slight hint of shock. I thought, A minute ago she asked a question that indicated she knew she was dying and the machines were impeding the natural process, and now she looks at me with a shocked expression?
Mother said, “I want to go home.” I certainly could understand that sentiment and wondered why she had to spend her last days in ICU of all places, but I had no authority, either with the hospital or with my family.
“I want to see a preacher,” she said, in a querulous tone as if she felt nobody would bother to fetch one unless she insisted.
“I’ll get you one,” I told her. I sat in the only chair in the room — one of those plastic stacking chairs — and looked at the cardiograph machine and then out the window at the city five stories below.
Then Elbert came in. He said good morning and sat on the edge of the bed furthest from me. He didn’t say anything else, just held her hand. She didn’t speak either, but lay there staring at him as though she were trying to memorize his face for all eternity. Maybe they’ll talk if I leave, I thought, and got up and went out.
I knew three ministers I could call, so I thought my errand would be simple, but it wasn’t. One of the ministers, a long-time friend from my university days, was in another hospital himself for a gall stone removal. The second was my present pastor. He agreed to come see Mother and did so, but very briefly and he felt obliged to mention that I was in his congregation. That irked me, bringing me into it. He didn’t ask Mother how she felt or what she wanted to say to him but simply said a brief dutiful prayer and then left. The third minister had been my spiritual adviser during my mystical period. When he walked into the room, he looked at me with a look that seemed to say, “Why can’t you do this yourself?” — as though I were a cleric. However, he stayed with Mother a reasonable period of time, gave her a chance to say something, and then said a fairly decent prayer. Still, I wasn’t satisfied myself, and the next day I stood at Mother’s bedside while we were alone, up close to her head, held her hand and tried to think of a soothing yet substantive prayer. I didn’t feel it coming, so I dove in with “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….” And Mother almost frantically grasped my hand, raised her head an inch or so off her pillow, and said, “Oh yes! Oh yes!”
Then she grew calm and released my hand. I felt better, too. After a short while she spoke to me, “Oh, Bobby, I saw the most awful thing yesterday. I was in this little square room and I saw Ruth R…. and Sue B.… torturing Frank R…. It was terrible.” All three were Mother’s friends, and Ruth was Frank’s wife; Fank had been dead I don’t know how long and Ruth, one of the best-natured people I’ve ever known, was an invalid. Sue was Mother’s next door neighbor, the dumpy one who had blocked me from exiting the night before; I doubt that Sue had ever met either of the R’s…. I told the doctor about Mother’s “vision,” and he explained it as a temporary hallucination caused by being cooped up in an unfamiliar room a long while.
Mother got to a point where she couldn’t talk. I can’t recall why: either because she had to have the oxygen mask on continuously or because her vocal cords were out of commission. Elbert and I were in the room with her. I gave her a writing tablet I had noticed lying at the foot of her bed, and she wrote on it, but her usual peerless style was gone. She wrote in large sloping and jagged swoops. After a few tries, I was finally able to decipher it: “Get that Mexican out of here!” She was referring to the hospital aide, a small woman busy tidying up the room. Mother had always been pretty much a bigot, but this was extreme, even for her. I was embarrassed; but I didn’t do anything, and shortly I didn’t have to, because the aide left the room on her own accord, hopefully because her business there was done.
Later, as I was sitting by the window with the tablet on my lap, looking at it, Elbert glanced over at me and said, “Are you going to write about this, too?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “probably. Anyway, I intend to keep this…as it is the last thing Mother ever wrote.”
He looked like he wanted to say, “Don’t write about it!”, but couldn’t because I had written a story about disposing of Pappy’s ashes which he had liked. I still have Mother’s last scribbles.
One evening, one of the doctors summoned my brothers and my sister-in-law and me into a circle in the hall just outside Mother’s room. He said it was time to decide whether to pull the plug on Mother. When asked about other options, he said we could try a pacemaker but that was not a very hopeful choice. We said we’d think about it.
As soon as I got home, I called Elbert and told him, “You’re Mother’s favorite. I’m certainly not. I want to leave the decision up to you and let you know that, whatever you decide, I’ll back you all the way.”
“Vernon told me the same thing,” Elbert replied.
The next day, I was in Mother’s room, near the door, and I saw Elbert standing at the nurse’s station talking to one of the doctors — a surgeon — on the phone. “Just give me the game plan! What’s the game plan?” he said, obviously uptight. (My brother is a habitual gambler, especially on sports games.) I thought to myself, If I had known it was going to be this hard for him, I would have demanded we pull the plug.
That night I came back up to Mother’s room, but she was asleep — a restless sleep, her legs spread out as though she had been thrashing with them. More bad visions, I thought. I didn’t like it. Mother’s hospital gown was bunched up above her knees and the door was open, but I didn’t want to touch her gown. I felt a kind of shame.
I asked a nurse about Mother’s condition, if she would wake up again.
“It’s not likely she will come out of this,” the nurse said commiseratingly. She was a young nurse and pretty and looked at me as though I badly needed her encouraging attention.
Elbert had spent the entire previous night sitting up with Mother. I felt the heavy hand of duty to spend the night there this day. I went into the room and sat in the plastic chair and watched, alternately, Mother — sleeping but with a heavy breathing and yet not the wheezing kind her dead second husband had exhibited — and the cardiograph machine, with the pulse line now making high jagged spikes and then settling into a calmer, slopey line. It did that for two hours. Each time I would think, This is it. This is the end. And then the rhythm would start all over again.
I’m too rational. I freely admit it. Duty be hanged, I thought, I’m going home to get some sleep and come back in the morning. There’s no sense in my sitting up all night. That won’t make it all better, won’t ease her passing.
When I arrived at the ICU ward the next morning I saw a big sign, red letters over white, in front of Mother’s door: “STOP.” I felt a semi-awareness of its meaning but was confused by its purpose and the wording. Is a death incident supposed to leave a residue of dangerous germs or toxic gases?
Apparently, the pacemaker hadn’t made “a hill’s beans worth of difference,” as Pappy might have said. When Loretta showed me the Medicare statement later indicating that the pacemaker had cost about a hundred thousand dollars, I became angry with myself for leaving the decision up to Elbert.
The young nurse I had spoken to before was there. She left her station and came over to me and said, “You can go in.” She looked at me with a judgment in her eyes that I interpreted as meant to sting, but it didn’t. She apparently thought that normal sons sat in hospital rooms all night with their dying mothers, and I wasn’t a normal son.
Mother died seven days before Christmas. As she had requested, we cremated her body. A memorial service was held the following month, the soonest time all her remaining family could be brought together. As I said, it was the best Christmas present Mother ever gave me. She died about as well as could be expected under the circumstances: her enforced absence from her own bed at home, the annoying tubes and mask, the hallucinatory visions caused by the lack of customary visual stimuli, the alien hospital aides. She was, simply, more distressed by her environment than by her oncoming death. I just hoped that when my time came I wouldn’t do any worse.