Tuesday, September 20, 2005

On the Anniversary of the Death of My Mother

Walking into her room, I could see death was imminent, and I was surprised to see the physical changes from the night before. Her color had changed—especially around the mouth and nose. Her face was waxen. Her feet were cold. It was as though dying moves from your toes upward.

Mother’s breathing was regular, but strained as she exhaled. So much going out. So little coming in. I knelt at the foot of her bed with the soles of her feet pressed against my forehead. It was the only place I could feel her pulse.

— Terry Tempest Williams, from Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Last Thursday was the one-year anniversary of the death of my mother. It was also the day I finished reading Terry Tempest Williams’ beautiful, emotional, and haunting Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, which chronicles the rise of the Great Salt Lake in the mid- to late-1980s, with the death of her mother by cancer in 1987.

I wept more for my own mother after reading about the death of Terry’s mother, I think, than when I was in Atlanta one year ago. Her description of the letting go, of the changes. It is difficult even now typing this, but it’s something wanting to be done.

My mother was an amazing woman—like all women, yet unlike most. She was born in Sweden and lived in England, Italy, Rhodesia, and America all before she was married. She married a captain in the U.S. Air Force, my father, and then moved to New York and Atlanta and then Miami. Divorced when I was two years old, she raised four children, moving across the country—from Miami to Lexington, Kentucky, to Tucson to Ocala, Florida. By the time I went off to college, her gypsy nature had fully taken over and she was living in a 33-foot travel trailer, meandering across the country, visiting centers of spirituality. Sometimes we wouldn’t hear from her for months.

She was psychic. I remember the shadows of conversations we had when I was a child—knowing when I needed to be home, knowing her mood before I even saw her. This was an unspoken communication. As the youngest of her children, we were closest.

She was bipolar. Waxing and waning like the moon—though not as often—she would be as full of life as imaginable, then as depressed as one could bear, in bed for weeks on end. When she was high, she made connection upon connection. She had a thousand friends. She spoke a dozen different languages: not all verbal. She moved as if in another plane entirely, talking of synchronicity, serendipity, recording tape after tape of conversations and ideas and plans for books she never, in the end, wrote.

She raised me to be compassionate, independent, and understanding. She was compassionate, independent, and understanding. She was Windcharger—the name of the Kentucky farm we lived on. She was Roadrunner—the name of the real estate agency she created in Tucson. She was White Feather—the name she gave herself as she wandered into the realm of American Indian culture and spirituality toward the end of her life.

She taught me to have faith and yet not to be afraid to question. She taught me that God is a force that speaks to people in many different ways, be it structured religion or the geometric structure of a mountain range.

What I both regret and am relieved about is that I was not there when she passed away. I was—ironically perhaps, given the geography of Refuge—in Salt Lake City, in the airport, on my way to Atlanta. I remember talking to my older brother, who lives in Atlanta and was in the hospital with her when her spirit moved on. He described her system shutting down, how the doctor described her system shutting down, from the toes upward. It was terrifying. I could not bear to hear it without myself breaking down. I found an empty gathering of chairs at a vacant gate with a window looking west, past the Great Salt Lake though it was dark and I couldn’t see any reflections on the water’s surface. I couldn’t see anything for my own tears, their salt burning the edges of my weary eyes.

By the time I arrived in Atlanta early the next morning, she had passed. My other brother shuttled me to the hospital, where her body waited unceremoniously in the morgue. I did not want to see her. I wanted to see her. I couldn’t see her. I must see her.

When the sheet was pulled back from her face: her pale skin and lips and white hair, I couldn’t touch her. I couldn’t take her hand. But I took her spirit, as I always have, and she remains; and she’s also gone, and finally happy. And that is, like the limitless azure sky that arced forever beyond the Sonoran desert mountains today, beautiful, as happiness is beautiful, as death can be beautiful.

I could not write about my mother’s passing for seven months, and then finally a poem came:

Her Mission of Light

Seven months after the death of my mother,
the pregnant C-130s circling the air base

remind me how, when she was nine,
the Swedish girl they called matchstick legs

(who could sprint the sandy length
of seaside lane in record time) first heard

and then saw the Nazi bombers
in their razor-tight formations scraping

the low chin of the horizon, en route
to Norway and dark England beyond.

She too passed like a recondite
mission, whispering from 17,000 feet,

a near-anonymous entry into the endless log
of the world’s migrations. Sixty-one years

later, I take the vacant road past
the base’s back gate, along the brilliantly

destructive rows of F-4s and A-10s,
with their own secret missions to

Vietnam and Bosnia and Iraq, places
she could have lived in her 1950s

migration to America—places like the vast
and abundant plains of Rhodesia or

the rich golden avenues of Naples and Rome.
The street here is not glowing, nor

full of life. But it leads to the blue
hills beyond the river, and from there

the pink cliffs of the Santa Catalinas—
and sometimes, as now, the light off a curving

wing catches and holds the mountains and clouds
and, higher still, a vapor trail to the heavens.


C. Dale said...

What a beautiful post. Just beautiful.

Lyco said...

I agree. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you.