“We shall not come again.
We never shall come back again.
But over us all, over us all,
Over us all is — something.”
I’m not particularly fond of anniversaries unless they mark pleasant or milestone events in our lives. I’ve a tough one coming up this weekend. A harder one still today.
Saturday will mark the 40th anniversary of my mother’s death. Had she lived another week and not been ravaged by metastatic cancer, she would have seen her 60th birthday. I have outlived her, hitting that milestone back in February. In my mind, there’s a sense of irony and guilt (Sicilian guilt?) in that.
Let me just explain. My mother was old world: She believed that the only reason one went to a hospital was to give birth or to die. In the long run, she had her way.
When she first discovered a lump in her breast, she put it out of her mind. When it grew and caused concern, she informed my father, who urged her to see a doctor. But there were other priorities that took precedence: keeping house, raising a son, putting forth a brave front.
As a senior in high school, by the time I convinced her to see a specialist, it was already too late. There was no coming back from Stage Four cancer. I remember her doctor telling me privately, “If only she had come to see me sooner.”
In the 1970s, cancer treatment was primitive at best. Between radiation and long bouts of chemotherapy, a cancer patient lasted mere months. My mother had witnessed what such ‘treatments’ had done to others and she wanted no part of it. That left it up to myself and my elderly father (he was 16 years older than her and had lost his first wife to breast cancer) to care for her at home. We did so around the clock as best we could.
For college, I stayed close to home to help them both. I recall my life at the time as a precipitous balancing act: Concentrating on my studies, writing for and then running my college newspaper, trying to embrace a social life and being a primary caregiver. Those days leading up to her death today are all a blur. Except for painful memories.
As she grew weaker and weaker, lost weigh and the tumors spread, we made a bed for her out of the living room couch. Dad cared for her during the day, I at night after the last of my classes. There was no money for visiting nurses.
I had hopes that she would regain some strength, some degree of hope. I’d read in some medical journals where many such patients would find a boost of vitality, as in a light bulb burning ever so bright in that last hour before it was forever dark. Countless times during the course of her illness, I had asked God to take me instead and spare her from the brutal and savage disease that had stolen away all that was good.
I was convinced God wouldn’t hear me. It took years before I came to understand that God was there to guide me. When the time came that my dad and I couldn’t provide her with the end-of-life care she needed, we turned to the hospital for help. An ambulance arrived and I remember my mother’s sorrow as she left her beloved home borne on an ambulance gurney, a whispered prayer and plea from her lips as she left a house she knew she would never again see.
The hospital staff made her comfortable, but I wanted more for her. My mom was a devout Catholic. A patient services counselor suggested that a hospice operated by a Catholic order across the state border could offer her peace. I made an inquiry and an appointment to visit and, need be, make arraignments for her transfer.
Four decades ago today, my best friend Don and I drove up the New York Thruway for a visit. All these years later, I forget what the hospice was called or exactly where it was. It was run by an order of nuns and was on spacious, park-like grounds just under an hour away, more than convenient for my father and I to visit each day. We were greeted by a Mother Superior who welcomed us to tour the site unescorted and at our leisure. For my mother’s stay, I was informed, a donation would be appreciated but not required.
I recall that the hospice was warm and cheery, as cheery as could be considering the circumstances. We walked from room to room and my anxiety soon waned and replaced with a inner peace. Down a long and bright corridor, a playroom opened to the left. There, two nuns and a handful of volunteers were entertaining a little girl, no more than eight, her hair long gone to chemotherapy. I will always remember her cheerful laugh, bright blue eyes and silver leaf earrings that caught and reflected the sunlight coming in through the windows. Her white pajamas were patterned with bright yellow sunflowers. Our eyes met and her smile was so very disarming. I remember saying a silent prayer as I returned her smile, nodded and left the room.
Further down the hall to the right was a sun room overlooking the tree-studded grounds. I entered the room yet stopped short. Centered there near the far windows, an elderly man sat in a wheelchair, his back to me. A small oxygen tank was attached to the wheelchair and in his right hand, draped over the wheel, he held an oxygen mask. A blanket around his shoulders and the July heat aside, I realized that he was savoring the view and a cigarette as well. He took in a long, deep drag, tipped his head back in satisfaction and blew a well-practiced smoke ring that dissipated above his head like an errant halo. I backed out of the room quietly.
Before I left, the Mother Superior gently took my hand. “I promise you that we’ll take good care of her here,” she assured me. “We are all in God’s hands.” I made arraignments for her stay.
When I went to the hospital the next day to tell her that I found a place where she would find comfort, her eyes glared at me in anger. At that point she could barely speak and while I knew she wanted to spend her final days at home, I knew all the more that we couldn’t take care of her alone.
She cursed the idea of a hospice and then she cursed me. I tried to ease her anxiety and she cursed me all the more. There were no other words to be said. Our last words, as it turned out. I left her side and her room, my own pain pushed aside and intent on easing hers.
For the most part, I’m a sound sleeper. But I awoke the next morning to a cold chill. I felt as though a gentle hand had passed over my cheek and loving fingers caressed my chin. I remember opening my eyes and looking about. My alarm clock read 7:11 a.m. I began to doze off. Twenty minutes later, the telephone rang. It was my mother’s doctor.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that your mother passed away this morning….” he said, in not quite a monotone voice.
I took in a deep breath, staring at the floor and then my eyes went to the window and our vista of summer trees.
“She passed away at 7:11 this morning, didn’t she?” I asked. There was a long pause over the phone line.
“As a matter of fact, she did, but how …” said the doctor. I cut him off.
“Thank you doctor, thank you for the call. I’ll be right down.”
The hardest part was telling my father that my mother had passed and knowing that he had not had a chance to say goodbye. But she had said farewell to me and, I know in my heart, forgiven me as well.
The week that followed is still a painful blur, even four decades later. Notifying relatives and friends, making funeral arraignments, my father, always solid as a rock and now at times inconsolable. In my mind I still see an image of a half-eaten sandwich next to a phone and a paper checklist of things to do.
The wake was no better. My alcoholic, older half-brother from my father’s first marriage raged that I had not consulted him over the funeral. There was no need: As a teen, he had left our home shortly after I was born to pursue his own life and had always been resentful of my mother. In his mind, she could never replace his own.
Weeks before my mother’s passing, I was emotionally distraught and unsure that I could carry on. My girlfriend at the time, who I so dearly loved, promised me, assured me in a lover’s embrace that when the time came, she would be there at my side. She was lovely, artistic and narcissistic and had never come face to face with death. The first day of the wake, she was distant and accompanied me begrudgingly. On the second day and then the funeral itself, she told me in so many words that she had made other plans. I had never felt so very much alone, even in a room full of relatives and dear friends there to ease my burden, to ease my grief.
Years later, after we’d raised families of our own, she asked me to forgive her for her thoughtlessness and broken promise. With age, we all become wiser, even forgiving.
I’m thankful for those who were at my side and have always remained at my side through the years. On Saturday, 40 years to the day of her passing, on what would have been her 100th birthday, I plan to be at my mother’s grave early with a silent prayer, remembering her smile, her hazel eyes, her undying love and most dearly, a long ago and gentle caress.