Eighty Two Dollars and Fifty Cents.

It has been almost six years since my Mother departed this earth. All of us knew she was not going to live, yet her death was a complete surprise. So quick. So final. One morning I was leaving the house to walk around the block, and fifteen minutes later I was in my Mother’s kitchen with Martha the caregiver and my sister, gazing at my Mother, still in her pink satin pajamas, slumped sideways in her kitchen chair. She had entered  a new space for all eternity, and so had I.

One part of my brain functioned as a fact keeper, recording  the feel of the breeze on the front porch where I sat in a wrought iron chair to call my husband and say, “Please come.” I watched myself call the hospice, or the paramedics or whoever I called. Though every fact was catalogued so that I would never, never forget this surreal world, I have no idea which agencies  I called that day.  I think I may have tried to move some of her breakfast things  out of the way in the kitchen, so we would not have to see them, so that our Mother would not be dead.

The fact keeper came with me a few days later when I volunteered to go alone to her house to  clean out her closet. I don’t know what I was trying to prove, unless I thought that by facing this heartrending  task I would be getting past some dreadful obstacle I would never have to face again. It was helpful in terms of being able to freely wail and sob as I yanked down her little sports shirts and robes, sniffed their heady cigarette/perfume aroma and crammed them into hefty bags. There was little in her closet, for in her last few weeks, after her Doctor told her over the phone that she only had weeks to live, she had culled her personal items to a minimum.

Her rust colored summer  straw purse, though, I could not relinquish. After a lifetime of detesting her cigarette smell, I found myself wanting to  keep her essence   close to me for as long as possible. I sniffed her leather key ring, full of jangling keys she would never need again and actually deeply inhaled a partially full pack of Merits the purse still contained.  I opened her  brocade lipstick holder.  I felt the handle and the nubbed straw exterior of the bag.  I had my Mother’s purse, so she could not be dead.

I am sure my story is no different from anyone else’s. We expect to lose our parents, but we cannot believe we have lost our parents. We prepare to lose our parents, but  find that the losing is an entire package of feelings and events  for which we cannot prepare. We try to remember everything, because we know we are living in an altered reality where we do unthinkable things like go to the funeral home. Humans must be in a trance to perform the duties of death.

About two weeks ago my siblings and I received word that we were the beneficiaries of a burial policy we were unaware my Mother had had. Documents had to be gathered: death certificates, funeral home statements.  As I rummaged through all her  old papers I have still not been able to make myself organize, I willed the fact keeper to watch and remember while the trance part of me looked for the required information. Finally all the documentation was complete and duly submitted.

And guess what? I went through two weeks of reliving my Mother’s life and death only to find that my portion of the insurance policy comes  to  eighty two dollars and fifty cents.  None of my siblings   need money, nor did we have any grand expectations. But there was hysterical laughter among us at this outcome, followed, I am sure, by moments of private sadness.

But seriously? For eighty two dollars and fifty cents I had to see my Mother’s checkbook with all our names on it?  Because she was blind and couldn’t write checks anymore?  And remember in my gut  the sight of her lonely  red Keds beside the bed the morning she died? To have the fact keeper play back for me the scenes of my self  wandering through the rooms of my Mother’s house, expecting to find her around the next corner?

But  that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that it turns out that  after all these years my Mother is   still dead After a comprehensive review of my Mother’s last months , from biopsy to diagnosis, from chemo to hospice, from her believing she was fighting her  illness to her urging dishes and crystal on us every time we left her house, from the caregiver’s call to the funeral home, from the funeral to the dividing of her estate,  the fact keeper concludes  without a doubt that my Mother  remains  dead.DSC_0709

I found my Mother’s  little straw purse today and went back through it. I  think I can still detect some of her smell. There is  only one broken cigarette inside , not a pack as I had recalled.  Here are   her wallet and  her  small black rosary beads.  A handful of  loose change covers  the bottom of the bag. Somehow my Mother is still dead, and I am still surprised. I would have given a lot more than eighty two dollars and fifty cents not to find that out.IMG_5011                                                       Rest In Peace.

An Afternoon With R.

One of the perks of living to be 56 is that I’ve had time to collect a few people with whom I can completely be myself. Actually I’d like to think I’m completely myself whether I’m with someone or not, but with my comfortable people I truly appreciate the lack of pretense between us. I am “seasoned” enough now to be authentic, and to value that characteristic in others.

One of my authentic people is a friend I’ll call R. I’ve been thinking lately of some afternoons we’ve spent together in easy companionship. Our friendship has lasted through at least twenty years of graduate school, raising children, careers and career changes. We are vastly different yet love many of the same things. He is endlessly practical, yet hilarious at the same time. I’m sure I’ll say more about this in future posts, but he knows how to do EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING!

Anyway, I’m going to describe one of our recent  afternoons. R. doesn’t care for flowery or pretentious writing, so I’ll try to be straightforward, in  case he reads this. What am I saying? He’s my friend, so I’m sure he will read this!

One Sunday last November R. and I planned  to go to an estate sale in West Memphis, Arkansas.  We naturally got lost, and kept circling around the back of the Southland Greyhound Park while disagreeing about which way to go next. R. was driving and as is his wont, took us into a fairly sketchy neighborhood to ask for directions, whereupon, as we escaped without harm, found the estate sale. By then most things were picked over, so after we crossed back over the bridge we stopped at Tom Lee Park.

The afternoon was perfect; blue skies, bright sun, mild temperatures. DSC_0369We explored up and down the river bluffs, pausing to watch  the boats on the river. DSC_0346 DSC_0367 A tug was laying some sort of pipe in the river.DSC_0343 DSC_0363In a leisurely fashion we walked from Tom Lee Park to the end of the Beale Street Landing project, imagining what it would all be like when completed.DSC_0351

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I suppose the crane isn’t really going to pick up the Pyramid?

DSC_0356A party had been held the night before in the partially finished building above. When the  building is complete, people will be able to see straight through the glass windows out to the River.

DSC_0340It was fun to be in no hurry, just to have fun watching the progress of this enormous undertaking  on the river. I pondered the passing of time. We were not far from where Tom Lee risked his life to save the passengers of a wrecked ship. Somewhere along this water my father as a young man  had a job as a fireman on a boat, and a little further down my grandfather worked at the Army Corps of Engineers.  A little further the other way, on the cobblestones, my Aunt Bessie sustained fatal injuries from the propeller of an airplane that was giving pleasure rides over the River in the 1930s.

I can’t go to the River without reflecting on the many lives that have been lived here before me. I would give anything to know all their stories, but my relatives are gone now, just as Tom Lee, the accident victims and so many others are gone. We live with our memories just as build for the future.

R. is not from here, but he has extensive knowledge of those who came before him. He also became pensive that day, mentioning that his mother was not doing well. This determined widow in her early 90s could no longer live alone in her rural home. R. and his ten siblings had made plans to care for her. R. did not say so but I knew he was doing his best to prepare for her eventual death.

Underneath the surface of the idyllic afternoon, I was uneasy for my friend. I worried that he may not be ready for all that could change in a family when a parent dies.  Reactions to loss differ among family members. Alliances can shift, and long held grudges can roil to the surface.  Of course, intellectually he did know things could change, having helped so many families with this as a social worker. But since both of my parents were already deceased, I had actually lived it. He had not.

I knew from experience how becoming an orphan, even at our age, is an unsettling experience. Suddenly there is no place to go back to.  Though we may not have been in the habit of going back, we suddenly realize we had always counted on having a place to return.  The house may still stand, but there’s no “there’ there. And of course, the un grasp-able ideas of our own old age and mortality mingle in with the sharpness of the loss.

Certainly he could no more be ready for any of this than any of the rest of us. No one can adequately prepare for the death of a parent. Though I wished I could protect him., I knew I couldn’t. Inevitably he  would go through what he would go through. I would stand by to listen, to be a reality check if necessary, and to assist in any other way I could.

I’m so glad I had that afternoon with him. Soon after he was called to see his Mother who had taken a turn for the worse. R. did not leave there for two months, until after she passed away. He, with some of his other siblings, took care of her around the clock, shirking no duties, for the rest of the days that she lived. Many adults would not be so brave as to be the front line caregiver for their dying parent.

The next time I saw R. he was in a new stage of life. We both had known that change was in the air that day at the River. Change is always in the air; we just don’t know when it will be. I think it has been said before me that part of the beauty of life is knowing it is all temporary. The impermanence of life is just why we all need friends like R., to enjoy silly times as well as sad ones, and to weather the days that come.