I have become untethered, and it is the strangest feeling. When mom died, I became like one of those spacemen you always see floating on the outside of the spaceship in a white spacesuit with a big freaking helmet and two long white lines or hoses attached to the ship. It's only those lines that keep the spaceman in place. If not for those hoses, the spaceman would be hopelessly afloat in the immensity of the universe. That's how it feels to lose your mother, the lines break and you float. I don't know if this is completely true of the young, but it is a fact when you're aging rapidly and start noticing that there's an expiration date on your own milk carton.
In the last few years, a lot of the time I would just sit and take her in, letting her ramble about things that she had already said ten thousand times. I would look at her as she talked and smile inwardly when she graced a certain intonation with a little more emphasis and expression than needed. She'd look away like she was looking backwards in time trying to gain approval of someone who was no longer there, most likely, her beloved dad. She spoke about him all the time, and often told me what a wonderful person he was. She always referred to him as Daddy. She would talk about her mom with a lot of reverence too, and usually with a lot of sympathy and empathy as she recounted all the struggles her mom faced down in order to keep the wolves from their door. I don't know that I've ever seen a picture of either of my grandma's smiling. It was hard times back then. I've seen pictures of both my granddad's grinning, but never my grandmothers. I think that that's a testament to the burdens that women have to bear.
A few years ago, I had some issues with Tinnitus and not being able to sleep. I couldn't stand to be at home alone listening to the buzzing in my ear; a lot of times, I'd go grab up Mom and we went driving. We went all over the country. She loved it because it got her out of the house. We would drive all over the valley, and if we saw something worth talking about, we would talk, otherwise we would just look outside and silently think about the things that were on our minds, even if it was something that had happened thirty, forty years ago. I finally found a doctor who prescribed some pills that helped me get some sleep until I got acclimated to sleeping with the incessant noise in my ear.
Sometimes she would suddenly blurt out something like, "I miss Ronnie," or "I miss Billy," referring to her brother and her nephew, both good men who reminded her of her dad. She told me stories about all my aunts and sometimes I'd do some probing, using questions I'd garnered from my personal mythology. I ask her about Dad and their relationship when they were a lot younger. She told me that Dad had hit her once after she had impulsively knocked a glass of whisky out of his hand. She told him that she would leave him if he ever did it again. He never did and gave up drinking altogether and started to going to church. She stuck by him through thick and thin, even when he lost all his marbles and made her life pretty hard, and she cried a lot when he died, and I guess that says something about their marriage. I know that he would have been inconsolable if the situation had been reversed.
It was Covid that finally did her in. It made the last two years of her life a lot harder than it should been. She was stuck at home and a lot of her friends started dying off. Near the end, her incontinence took over her life as she never felt safe if she got too far from home. Once, we were getting ready to go for a drive, and she had an accident. She broke down and cried, and I had to talk her into still going with me after she cleaned herself up. She didn't say much during the trip, just looked out the the window and occasionally her shoulders would shake a little; I could tell that she was pretty sad and thinking about how hard it was to be almost ninety years old.
My brother and I played Rummy with her almost every day. We'd talk about the news a lot, and it would make her so mad that she had to quit watching news altogether and started binge watching the Gameshow Network instead. A few years ago, she broke her hip, and spent a summer in rehab, afterwards, she never wanted to get out of her wheel chair, and I would often get on her about the need to walk, and if I ever got her out of the chair to do something like walking to the living room door, she would count her steps out loud, all three or four of them, trying to make me happy. We always knew the end was outside somewhere lurking in the shadows; it was coming, but we just kept pretending, hoping, that would be a ways off. Then one day she collapsed in the bathroom, and we gave her a Covid test, and it came up positive. She couldn't get out of bed the next day. We moved her into the TV room. My daughter would sit in there, hold her hand, and sing hymns with her.
I would go into the room where she was lying in a hospital bed laboriously breathing and check on her and then go back into the living room, sit in the furthest chair, get on the internet and watch Facebook videos in the hope that I could find enough flash and novelty to form a way to block out the vision of my mom lying there with her mouth open laboring for air. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I would just sit there with a stupid, glazed over look, staring into space. On the nights I had the opportunity to go home and sleep in my own bed, I would often stop by The Lake Bottom to eat dinner and get some Scotch in me to start the process of building that wall in my sleep.
One night about six o'clock I went in; sliding around the floor in my socks so as not to make a noise, and as I eased around the corner I saw that her chest was no longer heaving; the words, "Oh, Mama,' slipped out in a whisper. I closed her eyes, wiped the drool from the side of her mouth, and tried to take her pulse in about five different ways. I placed my hand on her chest trying to find a heart beat that wasn't there.
There was this strange, unprompted sense of relief mixed in with a pained and stunned disbelief. Mom was gone. My portal onto this earthly plane had closed forever. My daughter, my brother and I, had been taking turns sleeping overnight for well over and a month half. It was a brutal experience I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. No one should ever have to change their mother's diaper. Yet, at the same time, it was an intimate obligation we were glad to perform. I would go home only to dream about her, and often, I could still smell the odors of that room while I was driving down the streets in another town. I felt exhausted from the moment I awoke which was kind of strange because most of the experience consisted of just watching and waiting.
Mom loved to read and sometimes seem to put on some airs while talking to others about what she had read. She had always known from the time that she was a little girl in Oklahoma that reading helped separate her from the rest of the pack and gave her some edge, however slight, over people who never read. She often asked me, "Can you imagine never reading?" She would then go to tell about something she'd picked up in the latest book she had started.
She understood that reading helped her to escape from the more brutal elements of her existence and softened the edges of her reality. Her beloved father died when she was only ten, and she was saddled with three rambunctious boys by the time she was in her early twenties. And though she loved us more anything else in her life, it was a hard existence living paycheck to paycheck that left little time for her to ever consider what she really wanted out of life all things being equal. I know that she would have loved to have gone to college because she used to sit amazed as I shared my own experiences with higher learning. She would have made a great elementary school teacher because she loved kids and her life experiences taught her how to patiently deal with the bitter disappointments that life so generously bestows.
She used to take us to the library every Saturday morning and ever since those days, the simple act of walking into a book store or a library remains one of my favorite things in life. Opening a new book was for her like entering into a world of possibility and hope, and I often get that same feeling every time I go through the doors into a room full of books. Mom's favorite author was Catherine Cookson, having read everything Cookson had written several times over. Her prized possession was a letter the author had written in response to a fan letter from mom. She loved to tell that story, "She wrote me back and thanked me. How many people would take the time to do that?"
Mom especially loved stories about children who were born into bad situations, kids who suffered and overcame obstacles, people who had lived lives like her own. She was also fascinated with books about the Holocaust and and kept asking me over and over how could people be that evil. She asked me that question so many times that I would often try to stretch my imagination and come up with different ways to answer.
Then she would always finish by asking, "Don't they know they are going to have to answer to their maker?"
That one I would always answer the same way, "No, Mom, they don't even know that there was a question involved."
It was her endless fascination with books about young kids overcoming bad beginnings that led me to understand that neither of my parents were never really that much older than me. Being married and having my own children, I reached an age where I suddenly needed answers to questions about my own demons and delusions and started learning about psychology and about how the traumas and issues that we face in our formative years usually decide how we behave from the moment that our scars were first inflicted.
My dad once sent me an auto parts store to charge the 37 cents worth of packing he needed to fix a pump on our well. It was embarrassing because the men behind the counter laughed. Later, I could see behind the scene and understood the logic of a little boy who quit school during the Depression to help out on the family farm, a boy who learned early that 37 cents could be the difference between failure and making it another day.
I began to take notice of the little girl who lost her beloved father when she was only ten, a little girl who left home and came out west to live with an older sister in order make things easier on her mom. I realized that the strong facade that the little girl presented to the public was built out of the sands of fear and uncertainty mortared together with the longing and hope that it would someday turn into something much stronger, strong enough to withstand torrential rains and the quaking of the earth.
My mom was a housewife for a very long time. She took care of Dad right up the day he died on the day of their anniversary. She was always a loving mother and grandmother who taught Sunday school and played the piano in church. I know that to a lot of people that wouldn't seem like much to show for eighty-nine years of earthly existence, but to her it was more than enough, and to my father, my brothers, my daughters and me it was everything.
I get pleasure in the knowing that when Mom finally met up with her maker, she not only knew both the answer and the reason for the question. I bet she made him explain all those Holocaust questions she had until she was more than satisfied with the answer.