Aloha, Aloha

Aloha Gist maybe 1933

As I type this we’re in the sky over Minneapolis. A riveted tube the size of a supine office tower has just heaved itself into the air with the usual difficulties, my fellow passengers and I staring grimly forward as the fool machine, obeying the laws of physics but little else, shakes and rattles like a gigantic Chevy Vega. A rear-mounted engine buzzes like an enormous electric razor just outside the paper-thin fuselage. Is it supposed to sound like that? etc. It’s all but certain the enormous winged rocket will come roaringly apart 6 miles above the earth, hurling vertical stabilizers, mach trim actuators, and other expensive union-built junk across the night sky in a moonlit flume of flightless debris. The first seconds of the disaster will offer a sudden pleasing sense of extra legroom to the passengers and some will stretch and sigh with gratitude even as they begin their descent to ground, the quaint cosmetic seat belts lashing them to plummeting fabric.

Yes, you see that I am in truth a nervous flyer. This is an idiotic way to travel. Period. I do not want to Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth, in the words of that flight-celebrating pilot of yore. I like the bonds of Earth, the surlier the better. But I’m traveling with my mother and it is as it should be. We’re headed east, to Washington D.C., to move her back in with Bob, from whom she’s been separated for some 20 years, since his passing. She carried on with mixed success without him, 14 of them under my care. Following a brief denouement of spirit-breaking difficulty, she passed in late May this year. Now we’re flying to Washington D.C., where Bob has a little home at Arlington National Cemetery, to which an addition is shortly to be made. And so the two lovebirds will be, in the immortal phrasing of Peaches and Herb, reunited. It feels so good.

Regular readers of these pages may remember my mom, Aloha Wing, she with the fiery spirit, ribald sense of humor, and tendency, in her Autumn years, to answer her apartment door with one foot bare and the other shoed and socked. She’d lived a smartass life. Following a mischief-driven childhood spent on army bases, she’d met my similarly smartass dad at an Air Force USO dance during wartime, they’d hitched in 1943 and hit the ground running. On an Air Force base in North Africa in 1968, as described in the aforementioned encomium, the timing was right for her to come to the smartass rescue of a neighbor on whom the Gaddafi regime was exerting pressure, and she and her smartass bff at the time, a fellow Air Force Wife named Stephanie, had thumbed their noses at Gaddafi in a daringly stupid smuggling scheme that could’ve gone very badly for both of them. From girlhood, when Aloha wasn’t actually in trouble she was looking for a way in. When her partner in laughter, Bob, passed in 1993, Aloha lost a bit of her mojo. Friends more or less stopped visiting, the weekend bridge meetings ground to a halt, the phone stopped ringing. Still, she maintained her acerbic sense of humor and continued to view each dawning day as an opportunity to seek the humor in things, however dark they might appear at a glance. Despite her continuing determined application of this lifelong positivity, after some years alone she began to drift. In 2000 my wife and I drove to Phoenix and loaded her belongings, a lifetime of accrued stuff, into the back of a rented moving truck.

In early May this year a couple of telling incidents, harbingers of a coming loss of bearing, obliged Aloha’s independent living apartment complex to issue her an eviction notice, lest their exposure to liability and litigation, the twin Horror L’s of contemporary culture, land them in court. Her obligatory move was the day I’d dreaded for all the 14 years she’d lived in Santa Barbara, having moved here from her longtime home in Phoenix. Aloha Wing, from the time of her girlhood an inventive and energetic troublemaker, would not, I’d guessed, survive a move to a ‘facility’ of the sort the eviction now commended. And I was right. Following an incredibly stressed three weeks of trying to ‘adapt’ to her new, necessarily more restrictive surroundings, roaming the property like a caged animal and waking in the night confused and yelling for rescue, mom was knocked mercifully senseless by a stroke, and passed two days later at Serenity House. My former non-stop live wire of a mom is now traveling with my wife and I as a quantity of ash and ground bone in a 4” x 6” x 8” plastic box. Our rituals ask of us certain things that we’re not able to capably explain. This crazy transfiguration, from beautiful mother and pal to this box of legally actionable powder – it’s a miracle more wondrous than that of the consecrated wafer which, when placed on the tongue, becomes the flesh of a brutalized carpenter. If this is my mother, if this stuff in the little plastic box is my Burt Bacharach-loving, toast-annihilating, blue-eyed mom, then the universe is an ash tray. She’s gone. Wow, is she ever gone. The quietude of the mute little plastic box proves it. She has never been so utterly quiet. Ever.

The gatekeepers of our great nation’s airline security apparatus are, at least on this day at LAX, a loopy throng of youngsters in ill-fitting uniforms; kids playing dress-up. The container bearing mom’s remains must be x-ray translucent because in today’s terror-war climate even the dead may be recruited to make more dead. Despite our fretting, our careful research and determination to have everything in order lest the authorities confiscate my mother, the louche TSA twenty-somethings in their ill-fitting uniforms at LAX do not seem overly concerned with the fragility of the occasion nor with the rigors of their own protocol. Their strange, over-elaborate badges look like they were bought with Frosted Flakes boxtops. It is strange, given what we are still told is the gravity of the threat, that the gatekeepers of our airline safety are these youngsters. The guy scanning our laboriously removed belts and shoes, our laptops and jackets and briefcases, is wearing large fake diamond ear studs and a close-cropped beard whose topiary exactitude draws interested stares from the passengers/terror suspects in their socks. Suddenly the stocky young lady in uniform to my right is yelling at me with real disdain. I’ve been distracted by her colleague’s beard. “LAPTOP IN ITS OWN BIN!! SIR? SIR? SIR! LAPTOP! IN! ITS! OWN! BIN!!”

When we’ve cleared the screening process and are putting on our shoes a tall overweight kid with slipping spectacles and a nervous grin picks up my mother and summons his supervisor. The young man who arrives assures us in murmuring tones that they want the keynote of the process to be respect. Aloha is hustled away and in the background I watch a group of the TSA curious gather in an interested clot and all look at the sealed plastic box, which is then run through another scanning machine of some kind. My understanding is that they may not open a container of crematory remains, and they do not. Following some chuckling, amused attempts to get the box back into the attractive canvas carrying bag the funeral home had provided for travel, my mom is returned to me. “We want to make sure that was respectful,” the well-meaning but haphazardly trained young guy says to me, somewhat nonsensically. “Thank you,” I reply. “We really appreciate it.”

My bohemian writer of a sister had come down from upstate New York some days before with her easy laugh and entertainingly elliptical viewpoint. She has spent her adult life experiencing and writing of the crazy moments that comprise the everyday, and here come a gang of such moments as one would capture in a treasure chest if that were possible. I know she is filing it all even as she lives it. My outwardly conservative and inwardly riotous brother and his similarly disguised wife Janet live about twenty minutes from Arlington National Cemetery in a forested neighborhood of brick houses and sloping lawns jeweled with morning dew this day. The area is rife with politicos and names from the headlines, those both above and below the fold. Dick Cheney lives nearby in a mansion with an actual turret. “I’ll bet it’s got a dungeon, too,” Judie astutely remarked one afternoon as we drove by it.

This morning we gather up mom’s red marbled urn and make for the car. She’d always loved red and we dismissed the various jars of stately gray slate and buffed metal, some of them looking like Track and Field trophies, or something you would store the Dead in. We wanted something less serious, something a little more festive; a polished stone party balloon. Something a future archaeologist would easily spot in the ruins and be happy to find. We’d inscribed the beautiful red jar with the single line of a tune mom had laughingly concocted over the kitchen sink in 1968, in Florida as we awaited our trip to dad’s final Air Force assignment at Wheelus AFB outside Tripoli. That single, deliberately corny line had long since been woven into family lore, and for 14 years my mom and I had often greeted each other by singing it together – our Masonic secret handshake.

In the omnipresent tense now, we leave my brother’s house and head for Arlington, piling into the car at 8am for a 10am interment, anticipating morning traffic. There is little to none and we arrive an hour or so early, make our way through Arlington’s gauntlet of uniformed guards and make for the admin building where our friends will gather to join us before we all convene graveside. Aloha passed on May 31 and it has taken the un-oiled and only fitfully tended machinery of government until October 10 to allow us to move her back in with my dad. As you approach Arlington via the George Washington Parkway, the Potomac and heavily wooded Roosevelt Island on your left, the Washington monument suddenly looms like a special effect, and there in the middle distance you glimpse the Lincoln Memorial, the distant Jefferson Memorial, the magisterial WWII Memorial and the still more distant Capitol Building, where overpaid do-nothings make daily mockery of the collective sacrifices of their forebears.

Arlington Cemetery’s 624 acre spread was established in 1864 as the Civil War was concluding, on land belonging to the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Arlington Estate was on a hill, so the threat of frequent rains to the dead in their boxes would not be a problem, and the notion that the establishment of what was initially a repository for Civil War dead would simultaneously deny General Lee a place to live also made the site an attractive choice for the federal government of war-torn 1864. There are about 400,000 people buried there, soon to be about 400,001.

At this writing the airplane is beginning to buck and there is a change in the pitch of the engines. The laissez-faire cabbies in the cockpit have not seen fit to switch on the Fasten Seat-Belt sign, and the airplane is a squall of clicking as jittery passengers nevertheless follow their instincts and buckle up of their own slightly panicked accord. Just making note in case this laptop is found, perfectly preserved, in the wreckage.

A bespoke gentle giant named Rafael had been assigned to our family and the quietly genuine hulk of a man offered his condolences to each of us with a steady eye, grasping our forearms, and walked off to read the riot act to a colleague. As dear friends of my brother’s family had begun to arrive in the lobby of the building, the life-celebrating laughter had dialed up to about a nine. How mom would have loved this! People leaning into each other and laughing through tears, sometimes simple tears of hilarity. She’d done plenty of that in her 90 years. But the laughter had compelled an Arlington representative to stop by and admonish our group. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask your party to tone it down a little,” she’d said, to which my brother had evenly replied, “That is not going to happen.” Rafael had then disappeared and returned some minutes later. “Sir,” he says to my brother on returning, smiling mildly, “the matter has been put to rest.” Rafael then instructs all of us on the manner in which we are to proceed, as a group, to the burial site. I hand him my mom’s party urn and he ceremonially proffers it before us as we all exit the building, make for our cars and convoy behind his black, American-flagged lead vehicle.

At Arlington Memorial Cemetery spouses are buried alongside each other and share tombstones, each taking a flip side of the white marble marker. When we have all parked by Bob’s section, a young, impeccably uniformed and much-beribboned Air Force serviceman appears, walks in reverent cadence to Rafael’s car, turns 90 degrees on his heel, and retrieves mom’s urn from the back seat. I feel my heart hammering and in a sudden, unexpected, and nearly uncontainable gush of emotion I love this country and my mom with the burning fever of a Gray Flannel Establishment Square. Would that my other brother Patrick were here! How he would have been moved by this clipped and respectful and ceremonial series of gestures, he whose wild heart conceals in its innermost chambers a love of country and tradition and a nostalgia for another, more honor-bound epoch.  Love you, Pat.

We convene at the grave site under cloudy but politely withholding skies. Occasional commemorative gunfire can be heard at irregular intervals in the middle distance as other newly arrived guests take their places on the grounds and are seen off with honors.

My brother’s pastor speaks of the resurrection of the dead in casual and uplifting tones, and my nephew reads from a trembling sheet of paper of his love of his grandmother, his Tutu, with whom he shared the birthplace of Hawaii. Ryan paints in exacting, loving detail what his Tutu has meant to him, how his youthful swimming career and his regionally unbroken swimming records had been inspired by his Tutu’s late-in-life Senior Olympics epoch, during which time she blithely won 17 swimming gold medals against graying unfortunates in her age bracket. As Ryan speaks, struggling to avert a teary breakdown, my big brother, his dad, rises from his seat and joins him, placing a supporting arm across his shoulder and weeping too. What a sight. I’ll never ever forget it. Ryan soldiers on with difficulty, explaining how in her swim events Tutu never wanted to use the diving blocks in a swim event, opting to simply push off instead, and still managed to churn past the competition in the surrounding lanes despite having sauntered into a race into which her fellows had leapt with over-eager strength. Ryan’s keen observation is the perfect metaphor for mom! She conquered, like dad, quite casually and always in great humor, and always, always on her own terms. “In Hawaiian, Aloha means hello,” Ryan concludes with difficulty. “But it also means goodbye..”

It’s my turn and I stand before the assembled, give it a few seconds. I see in the corner of my eye the red party urn, my unmistakable mom; nevermore to swim or laugh or sneak into the Officers’ Club pool in the wee hours of a preteen morning, or later burn dinner to a foul-smelling crisp, or play a hand of bridge or strike a glamor pose for the camera. Where on Earth can all that largesse have gone? I count 5 and sing.

“One minute to Midnight, one minute to go – this moment must last us forever! Or will it be over? It’s all up to you!” I sing it with all my gladdened heart, my surprised brother and sister and dear Judie spontaneously joining in with broken voices from their seats, and in that screwy eternal moment I have it all. The delicious puzzled expressions in the back rows and in those standing behind them say What the hell is this? In the front row, though, my big brother and my big sister and my best pal Judie are grinning like wet-faced idiots.

Thank you for everything, Mom. Aloha.

Aloha Wing off to Wayne State circa 1940

they got the littlest Gist. It took them nearly 91 years

Aloha Jeanette Bill Gist and friends circa 1930

Is there a Thermodynamics-like, mathematically inflexible truth that applies to this? Following all the days, all the afternoons, the various carpeted rooms we gather in over time; beads on a plain tattered string.  So blase in our carefully chosen shirts and pants and socks and so on, we can only faintly apprehend the turning of that gear. In the room with my mother as she ‘passed’ it was clearly impossible that all those years and ‘qualia’, her girlhood spent amiably graying her parents’ hair, her Marching Majorette period, her leaving for Panama with her mother from the thronged docks of Manhattan and being interviewed by a new-fangled t.v. reporter there, her date at a Glenn Miller dance with a sweet guy named Wayne, whose Miller fandom planted him firmly before the Great Man’s bandstand where he gawped for hours while teen Aloha glowered on the periphery (are we gonna dance or what, Wayne?), her 1942 job plane-spotting for the Defense Department, her chance meeting with grinning, irrepressible Bob at a USO dance that year, their Officer’s Clubs, scotches-and-waters, sun-drenched days drinking beer and wine with friends in Puerto Rico, the hurricane parties, the love and loss and open sobbing and breathless laughter, the loss of dear Jeanette, the loss of Chipper during Jeanette’s interment, parent-teacher conferences and homework help, her run-in with Muammar Gaddafi, her late-period competitive swimming, my little brother’s harrowing, defining accident; all winnowed down to this quiet little curtained cul-de-sac, a door off a polished, carefully appointed hallway in this celebrated hospice facility. I know all that experiential platinum isn’t actual matter, but one still intuitively gawps and wonders where it goes on these occasions, this immense quantity of brutally real stuff. This particular wild occasion is the death of my mother. Or my mom, rather. What are the secret movements and quantum dissipations of a human lifetime of stored ‘feeling’? No, it’s not a chimera that is sealed into nothingness when our dumb, quivering little machines switch off.

At the beginning she was a rosy-cheeked little chipmunk who, as soon as she could connive, wink, and shimmy through an open window, began to wear the glimmer in the eye she so shamelessly displays in the photo above. That’s her in the front center, next to the kid who looks like an Our Gang extra. This is like wildlife photography, to be able to capture that elusive moment when Aloha can be seen actually concocting plans to disrupt, surprise, and frustrate. These are qualities she evidenced to the last, and her mischief remained as purist and transparent as that nascent plan clearly being hatched in the rare image that fronts this essay.  Aloha Gist 1930sA massive stoke, like a hammer, tore away her speech and her senses 9 days ago, the bleeding in her previously plan-crammed head ruining everything, shoving aside her power, her laughter, her outstretched arms, clouding and then closing those baby blue hi-beams that greeted every sparkling day for nine decades. The injury did not staunch her singing, though. As if to mock the complaining Exec Director of her last independent living apartment, she sang. The director’s slack-jawed concurrence with the whining nabobs around Aloha’s dinner table, they who complained of her singing at dinner, obliged her second-to-last move; from her favorite spot by the front window to a table in the dead center of the dining commons.

Now I awaken for the first time in my life without my mom on the planet. How long, on waking, does it take me to remember that? Sometimes a couple minutes. She is ‘gone’. Impossible. But that’s been said by my vagrant predecessors and there is no novelty in it. We lament our vanishing mothers. If you believe the poet Philip Larkin, she isn’t here and she isn’t anywhere else, either. I can almost believe it. She was as cold as a bowling ball by the end of the day today, very very very gone. A twenty-something young lady with cute eyeglasses and a charming lisp and a slightly stammering presentation of the Eternal said we could come in and watch her heft my mom’s stiffening shell, and we declined. She entered the room and, we’re told, gently wrapped mom in a sheet, lifting her with a practiced movement of arms and legs that is unique to the business of moving our dead from one gurney to another and thence to a ceremonial hole or fire. Aloha was no slender reed by the end of her journey, and I imagined the candy-striper losing her balance with her outstretched arms filled with Aloha, staggering out the open terrace door, over the decorative flagstone wall and seven-hundred feet down the ivy-covered, nearly vertical hill. That would’ve been just the ticket.


Aloha and Jean Gist 1936
Youngest and oldest sisters chatting cinematically about the arc, each one individual, they will follow. Jean will find Mike, and Aloha her Bob. There was no greater luck.

Not truly believable.  That explains some things just now. Until 5:16 that morning she was everywhere. When I came-to in 1959, she was here already. She’s always been here. Before Jeff was, Aloha Am. She has been the overarching inhabitant of my reality, of my bread and butter life, as common as the motes of dust. Yeah yeah yeah, mom mom mom. These fugue states are among the most familiar in our written record. I mean, the first shelter we apprehend is mom. You wake up inside her, for chrissakes. When it gets more primal than that summon the waiter. Does an Aloha pass away and not leave a trace? Can anyone do that? A fire without smoke? The thought is literal nonsense but is the cornerstone of our rational discourse. But when she left the room earlier tonight she was as cold as a telephone, as they say. So where’d she go? It’s been my wild privilege to spend the past fourteen years with her as her primary companion and caregiver and overseer. In truth I’ve been a first rate companion and a second rate caregiver. When my father died she carried on for 7 more years and then we thought it best she move out heAloha Wing with Jill 3712 Horatio Tampa 1949re. She rented an apartment, swam every day at the YMCA next door, pedaled for an hour a day on a recumbent bike, took daily walks around the car dealerships that ruled her mid-town street, walked over to the mall next door. And eventually began leaving the stove burners on through the day, so that I’d show up at night for a visit and could feel the heat radiating all the way from the font door. Or the stove clock timer would be going off, that droning little buzzer that is activated by the little black plastic dial on stove timers of a 70s and 80s vintage. I’d come in and it would just be buzzing, and sometimes I wouldn’t even notice the buzzing till a minute or so had passed. One night this struck me as very curious, as if the constancy of the drone in my absence had infected the apartment, had somehow worked its way into the sonic environment. I had the sense that the buzzing had so ensconced itself in the very theme of my mom’s apartment that it was not as immediately detectable as it might have been the first day it went off. Is that thinking ‘crazy’?

Bob & Jeff & Aloha 1972
the river quietly overruns its banks, to devastating effect

That morning I was sleeping next to her bed on a cot-like thing that folded out of an easy chair in the beautifully appointed hospice room. It must be said they lavish much more attention on the dying than on the visiting living in those places. It seems churlish to complain. But the hide-a-thing had that omnipresent cross-bar that bites into the area just below the scapula, plural. I’d been sleeping fitfully next to my dying mom. I’d grown accustomed to the mission. My mother was in this room to pass away and I was, when everyone had gone home, alone with her to travel through that process with her.  I would awaken periodically throughout the night since she was snoring like a lumberjack (“she’s snoring like a lumberjack!” I’d exclaimed to the grief counselor when she introduced herself, to which remark she blinked rapidly) and remember without alarm that I was lying next to my dying mom, dying after all this time, all those houses and kitchens and back yards and so on. I was sanguine, in a strange way. The previous two days had been such that this denouement was almost relaxing. Then I woke up in early morning twilight, raised myself on my left elbow. The night nurse cut an indistinct silhouette on the other side of my mom’s bed in the half-light. She was checking mom’s breathing. They’d been giving her something called atropine through the day, to reduce the secretions in her lungs, to ease the labor of her rattling intakes of air.

everything is shapes
everything is shapes

I’ve learned since that Atropine is a derivative of the Deadly Nightshade plant, and is named after Atropos, one of the Three Fates in Greek mythology. She’s the one who decides the exact manner of every individual death. The nurse found nothing amiss, she told me later, and left the room to get some more atropine. When she left the room I saw, still propped on my left elbow on the adjacent cot, that my mom’s breathing was slow, so slow. While I peered through the slowly increasing light she exhaled and was still for maybe 30 seconds. The breathing had stopped. I jumped up and leaned over the bed like a nervous orderly, I touched her hair. She took in a relieving, rattling breath, shallow, and I released my own breath. Then she exhaled slowly slowly slowly and was still. That was it. A vanishing act. Then, changing perspectives, you cry in lurching heaves and then it passes somewhat, and you climb in and lay next to your mother and even through your shock you feel the heat leaving her, and it seems in no particular hurry to leave her, no drama. But it is 90 years of 98.6 taking its final leave, and that’s a privilege to feel.  Then later, two days later, at the bus stop, you stare up at the blue morning sky, and see yourself staring up at the sky and there is a vain, pleasing sense of piety. But why do we think our loved ones are up there? I don’t think that. Up there in the sky? And anyway it isn’t really ‘up’.  It’s out.

Mom. Enough. Goodbye! Goodbye.