My mother died November first. She was 98 years old, though she looked younger. Yesterday her death became one of the stories Lee tells to people — at dinner, parties, breakfast, or whenever they seem appropriate. This telling was at Crafts People in Spillway, according to Lee, or Hurley, according to their business card.
When we walked into the first building — Jewelry, Lamps and Toys — the man sitting at the door, the owner, recognized Lee. We wandered a bit about until we were in different places. I was kneeling at a counter with barrettes and hair ribbons, sticks and such, hoping to find just the thing for my niece for Chanukah, when from the other side of the aisle came the words: “She had a big breakfast, and lay down for a nap, and . . . .”
He may have already told the story to Derrick or Eric or others of his men buddies separate from our life together, but this was the first I heard him tell it and it shook me a bit.
Only those few words. I quickly moved into the little room at the back which held the toys, in order to avoid hearing more. If it becomes part of his repertoire, it may acquire embellishments, and I’m looking forward to them.
But this telling was, like her death, quiet, peaceful, simple. I wasn’t at her death and will never know if she died as peacefully as the woman who sat with her told me. She said it was beautiful and the way she said it and looked at me and cried, there is no reason not to believe her.
I would have liked to have been with her.
She was in her own world these past few years or so. For the most part they seemed comfortable, content, healthy years, although I have no idea at all of what was going on in her mind. Did she know that she was and yet was not the woman she used to be? that she was unable to communicate? that she no longer could walk? that her sister had died? that her grandson got married? that people still loved her? Did she really just exist in the moment and did that moment ever seem much too long or meaningless? What did she do in-between those moments?
Did she recognize me as her daughter, did she recognize me as someone who came to visit every now and then, did she miss me when I wasn’t there? Did I disappoint her by not doing whatever she might have wanted me to do, or not saying whatever she wanted me to say? Did she want?
My presence during these later years may have had no impact on her happiness. My presence at her death may have been the same. Her last thoughts may have been of those who died before her — her mother, father, husband, or maybe no thoughts, only a longing to be finally free of the confines of her wheelchair and her own mind, or maybe no longing but just a blissful nothingness.
Is it a gift to be present at death? My husband Clark told me of how he held his father’s hand and felt his spirit pass on to him as he died. I wanted so much to give Clark the chance to be on the giving end when he died but I made a mistake and I’ve never forgiven myself. The night of his death was a nightmare that still continues to haunt me, all the layers of which I have yet to explore.
Perhaps being at the side of my mom when she died would have helped me.
It’s been written that
“when Mister Death come, the living couldn’t see him, and wept and wailed,
but the folks that was dyin’ rose up to greet him, and smiled at him on their way,
like they knew him for a friend.”
I like to think that is true, but its simplicity makes me cringe when I think of those who lose loved ones, especially young loved ones, to accidents, gun shots, cancer. Who gives a shit about this Mister Death coming and taking our innocents away?
“Well son,” said granny, “here’s another question she asks of you. Why did you take away her baby sister from the cradle?”
Then Death twisted and turned in his sleep again. “She was sick,” he said, “She was full of pain. I took her so she need never cry again.”
Life, death — it’s all a burden and a blessing.
Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman, by Helen Eustis, with illustrations by Reinhard Michl. A Star & Elephant Book published by Green Tiger Press, 1983, originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1950 under the title “The Rider on the Pale Horse.”