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. A 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.
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 here. 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’?
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.
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.