I never knew her as an adult.
I watched her slowly waste away and die over the summer of ’73.
She was 49.
I was 13.
She died on September 6.
I missed her death by a day.
In the end she was in a rest home. I remember the last time I saw her. Our last conversation. But it wasn’t really a conversation. She was sitting in a wheelchair eating in the rest home dining room. Still hard for me to go to such places – probably a good thing in my vocation I have to. I don’t remember her even looking up as I awkwardly tried to make conversation. Numbness. She scarcely looked like the woman who had borne us, nurtured us, raised us, loved us. Skin and bones. Sunken eyes. Holocaust look about her. She would nod her head occasionally as I tried to talk. I kissed her forehead as I left – or did I just squeeze her hand? It was the last time. How would such moments be if you knew they were the last? What would you say or do differently? Would I as a thirteen year old kid have hugged her as I would now? Would I have held her face in my hands and told her how much she meant to me, to us; that she was still beautiful; would I have told her how thankful I was for all she had done in raising us, in putting up with two boys on her own, in all the sacrifices she had made, for how she had always, always been there, been present.
Cub scout den mother.
Little league mom.
Always there at school open houses.
Always walking with us up the street to church on Sundays.
Venturing out with us on vacations. Camping at Gaviota by the beach, the railroad trestle overhead. I still hear the train whistle in the middle of the night. Was one of my favorite spots. Driving through the Sequoias. Up to San Francisco along highway 101. Trips to Catalina. The long drive to the Grand Canyon. Multiple trips to Disneyland, Sea World, Marineland, Knotts Berry Farm. And all summer long regular trips to those southern California beaches. Santa Monica. Playa Del Ray. I can still see her running down into the surf after me when I was being sucked out in an undertow when I was just a little tyke.
I still feel the palm of her hand when I smarted off to her at the dinner table when I was twelve. I don’t believe she said a word. Just a bona fide slap in the face. Didn’t do that again. And she didn’t have to, either. Taught me something words never would. I still remember.
I still see her dancing in a darkened den to Frank Sinatra on the hi-fi late Sunday nights when we would come home from time with Dad. I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Ring a Ding, Ding. It Was a Very Good Year. I know them all by heart. I remember her telling with a sparkle in her eye of the time Sinatra passed her in the hall when she worked at a studio in Hollywood. He winked at her.
A tucked away memory she would pull out with girlish glee.
I remember the sound of the bell by her bed.
Colon cancer had taken hold, spread to her liver. Too far gone for surgery or chemo. The strong woman full of life withered away before us over that summer of ’73. My brother and I took care of her for about two months. He’d be on call for her one night and I the next. She’d ring the bell when she needed help getting up, help getting in and out of the bathroom. I became adept at eye aversion. But mostly what I remember from those days were her groans of pain in the night. Nothing to do but lie in bed listening. To this day I have a tendency of sleeping with a pillow over my head.
The last few weeks of her life she was committed to a rest home around the corner after she had deteriorated so badly we couldn’t care for her anymore. At the end of August I had the opportunity to go backpacking with my friend Paul and his Dad up into Mineral King. It was heaven. I remember getting back in town on September 7th and calling home to see how Mom was. My half-brother Courtney answered. She had died the evening of the sixth. He’d been the last one with her. He didn’t think she knew who he was.
“Mom died last night.”
No matter how accustomed you think are to the idea of someone dying, it still lands on you like the proverbial ton of bricks.
What would I have said if I had held her face in my hands that last time?
Or would words even be necessary.
She loved us. We knew it.
Her name was Clare.