What My Mother Keeps Teaching Me About Death
It was the right choice to leave
the cramped theatre and its droning actors behind
and make our way back to your apartment.
Fueled with wine and cigarettes your stories became a time machine transporting us to
your mis-adventures as a 22 year old secretary in the Purina headquarters
during World War II; how you and your girlfriends
trolled for the cute boys who thought they were picking us up
at the ASO dances on Fridays; then where and
exactly how you met my father when he returned to St. Louis after the war.
Long past midnight you gave me your very last kiss
and watched through the back window while I made my way
to my rusty orange Pinto where I shivered on the cold, crackling plastic seat
cranking, cranking, cranking the frozen engine until it finally caught
and I crept away over the rutted snow, waving to your silhouette
in my rear view mirror.
Two mornings and no phone calls later
I was back, peeking through an opening in the
blinds covering your living room window
I saw your three cats, frantic
jumping from windowsill to furniture to floor again and again
all constant motion, having knocked over and jumbled
your entire jungle of houseplants
and rowling their displeasure with you
on the couch unmoved, unmoving,
your glasses on, a book folded open across your chest
coffee cup, cigarettes, lighter, ashtray within reach on the table
bursting through your apartment door
with the burly, black cop in his creaking leather jacket
rushing to you through the sweet smell of death
certain that if I could only seize the monstrous steel pistol
from his holster and empty it furiously into the ceiling
you would sit up, startled
in the swirl of smoke and plaster dust
shake your head in disbelief at all the fuss and mess
and pad off down the hall
to feed the cats.
Forty years ago today my Mom died. She was young, just a few months past her 56th birthday. And we—her 5 children—were, of course, even younger: in our twenties and early thirties. Her death was sudden and not expected. This despite the fact that she had had another heart attack a few years before, in late 1974, and heart disease management was nothing like it is today.
Each year as February 4th rolls around, I pause and let the immense loss and sadness I feel move in and occupy me for a while. The sadness feels so familiar, a companion I have had for nearly two-thirds of my life. And like an old companion I know well, this sadness and loss has changed over the years. It used to have a huge component of anger, now faded. And for years the loss was so raw I could barely stand to examine it, let alone touch it. Now it is more bittersweet, made up mainly of favorite memories in combination with a variety of regrets: that she never held or knew her grandchildren, or got to see this or experience that, or shared her insights with us when we likely needed them.
I am now a decade older than she was when she died. This seems so strange to me. One element of the strangeness is that, since she is perennially 56, I have been thinking of her like one of my peers in their 50’s or 60’s. As an honest peer she would know that death is out there and, while we cannot know or predict, it is not too distant. Not as distant, for example, as our youth.
When I think this way about her and about me, if I am not careful, my old companion of sadness and loss can turn wistful. I can begin to pity myself. Instead, I try to reach back and draw upon what I have taken from how my mother lived her relatively short life. She would, I know, have me remember that there is work to be done to make the world a better place, children to be loved and raised, books to be read and stories to be told, friends and family to be nurtured, and, yes, animals to be fed.