February Fourth—Plus Forty

What My Mother Keeps Teaching Me About Death

Mom (2)


February Fourth

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

lying there

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


Minutes later

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.

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