Life isn't fair. Death is even less so.
The NY1 headline on February 12, 2010, read: “Snow Plow Hits, Injures Woman.” By the next day, the New York Post amended the headline to “Plow Tragedy.” Both articles reported the seventy-year-old pedestrian who was struck in the head by a snowplow that had been clearing express bus stops along 23rd Street after a major snowstorm. No one knew the woman’s name. Her name was Valentina and she was my mother.
Recent coverage of Hurricane Irene reminded me of the power of these weighty strings of words called headlines. Though I left New York in 1995, I have many friends who live in the city, and friends and family sprinkled all along the eastern coastline. If mom still lived, she would have been among those I prayed for as I obsessively monitored Irene’s advance up the seaboard. I wouldn’t relive those long, awful days that preceded mom’s death for anything. But, just sometimes, I am thankful that mom isn’t alive to see what’s happening in the world. Mom watched the news incessantly; her television blared news programming even when she wasn’t actively watching it. She took news matters seriously, sometimes sickened herself with sadness and concern for those suffering, sniffling through tears or screaming at the images on the screen: You idiots! How could you do this? Is everyone crazy?
Here are some of the headlines that I am so thankful mom didn’t live to see: Madman in Norway! Earthquake, Tsunami Strike Japan! Famine in East Africa! Hurricane Irene on Path to Pummel NYC!
Once upon a time, there was a retired Ukrainian repairman named Stefan who loved a retired Ukrainian administrative assistant named Valentina. Stefan and Valentina shared a ‘friendship’ that Valentina refused to define. They went for walks together along the streets of New York in the spring and the fall; when it was too hot or too cold outside, they met each other for meals, either in their separate apartments or in restaurants and diners in between. They shared a fondness for McDonald’s coffee. They loved to dance together at the senior center and they were both skillful dancers. Sometimes Stefan grew overly possessive of Valentina and she declared, “He’s a pain in a neck!” But, after a couple of days, Valentina’s temper waned and she began to miss dapper little Stefan with his tailored suits and full white mustache. She’d see him again. He held her hand like she was the princess of his magical Ukrainian kingdom. In life, Stefan had already lost his wife of many years. He’d also lost an adult son. Stefan wailed loudly at Valentina’s funeral, spilled thick tears onto his dark grey suit. He needed help standing at her gravesite, weeping. He didn’t want to toss his handful of dirt onto her casket or relinquish the funeral’s last flower. Stefan died shortly after Valentina.
Amberly and I worked together at the local gourmet coffee shop while we attended college at Utah State University. Am was tall and lean, with long yellow-blond hair, full lips, perfect straight teeth, and twinkling blue eyes. I liked her instantly.
Am and I kept in touch throughout the years, living our lives on parallel tracks in neighboring towns. Am’s last pregnancy coincided with my last pregnancy; she desperately wanted a daughter to balance out her three sons, and I desperately wanted another son because I was terrified of having a daughter. Neither of us got what we wanted, but got instead the children we didn’t realize we desperately needed.
When doctors diagnosed Am with stage four pancreatic cancer, she refused to accept its grim ramifications. She adopted a diet of raw foods and took up a stricter exercise routine. She contacted a homeopathic nurse (her “witch doctor”) and began a course of vitamins and supplements that, coupled with her optimism and positivity, extended her life far longer than the $20,000/month treatments that her doctors originally proposed. Am and I both silently elected to ignore the inevitable finality of her illness – that one day much too soon her children would face their lives without her, that her death was not an if, but a when.
When came in early spring.
Dylan won my heart when, in reference to my husband, he pulled me aside and said, “But you’re so nice. How’d you end up with him?” Sixteen years old, with an intense gaze and a handsome face half-concealed by a dark fanning of spiked hair, Dylan attended the school where my husband teaches. He was one of my husband’s advisees, so he spent a significant amount of time at our house after school and on weekends: hanging out, playing video games, talking, laughing, and quickly becoming more like a son than a contractual obligation. Once, as my children and I left the school’s dining hall, my then-three year old daughter clutched my hand, looked up at me with her bewitching golden eyes, and exclaimed, “I wish I had a hundwed dowwars so I could go shopping!” Dylan, in passing, flashed a crooked smile and quipped: “They grow up so quickly.” I couldn’t wait to see what Dylan would do as he grew into adulthood – his intellect and potential so white hot.
People leave Dylan endearing messages on his Facebook page all the time. At least, they had been leaving him messages, as I had been before recently unfriending him. I just couldn’t bear to see his funny face anymore – to feel the continual smack of realization that he was really gone. I couldn’t bear reading those raw, heartfelt messages written to the dead. Sometimes I have to remind myself that even the smartest kids make stupid mistakes; that life isn’t fair, and death is even less so.
I am seven years old, sitting on a cold oak pew in a small, cold church in the Idaho mountains. Marlene, who is my friend Cindy’s mom, stands at the front of the church facing our Sunday school group. Marlene is old – mom old – and she is dressed in a maroon sweatshirt, dark blue jeans, and plain white tennis shoes, faintly scuffed on the sides. She holds an emptied bottle of laundry bleach in her right hand. “This is how you cut off and discard the bottle’s label,” she says, her cheeks dimpling as she smiles and illustrates. “Then, you draw an outline for a hand-sized hole on the top part but not too close to its mouth,” she says, pointing to a good spot, “and you cut around the outline, like so.” We raise our blunted scissors and Marlene approaches us individually to help us stab into the emptied, cleaned, and dried bleach bottles scattered on the table in front of us. Marlene smells of soap and hair spray. Her hands are warm when she takes my bottle, jabs an entry hole for my scissors, then hands the bottle and scissors back to me, still smiling. Sunlight rises in the church’s windows, casting small beams of color and light through the decals of stained glass. I am thinking about how much I like the colors blue and purple when Marlene resumes. “You cut out a small part of the handle, where it meets the bottle on the bottom side,” she says, pointing to the correct spot for our clarification. “And there you go! You can hang these anywhere to hold stuff, like clothespins, empty bags, rubber bands, golf balls…” The air fills with the sound of markers squishing against plastic. I decorate my bottle with flowers; some of the other children draw aliens, dinosaurs, wild scribbles and swirls. We stand and sing “Jesus Loves Me” before Marlene dismisses our class and church begins.
Twenty-six years later, Marlene invites my family to a barbeque at her house. My children, age five and three, play games in the grass with her grandchildren. They eat otter pops together in the shade. When I learn of Marlene’s death in January, I think of grass stains and clothespins, bleach bottles, popsicle sticks, markers, scissors, and craft glue.
Marlene’s sister, Donna, spoke with me about angels and visions at Marlene’s barbeque last summer. Donna saw her dead mother in a vision. Her mother’s ghost smiled at her and quieted her soul, she said. “She gave me that last gift of a smile so that I could reach peace with her passing,” said Donna, wiping tears from the deep creases of her grey eyes. I told her about my grandmother’s bedside visitation when I was five, how I thought she was most certainly an angel in a blue polyester gown and matching turban.
Doctors diagnosed Donna with brain cancer in April. They removed a good portion of the tumor in her head, but they couldn’t remove it all. Cindy, who lost her mother only months before, confided that her Aunt Donna’s mind was deteriorating rapidly. When, in June, my father sent me an email cryptically titled Featherville, an all-too-familiar leaden feeling descended on me. Donna and Mae had both died, within a day of each other. I received my father’s email on the same day the USU Alumni magazine informed me of Amberly’s death.
Mae preached at the Little Church in the Wildwood. In my memory, she was always trim and put together – button-down shirts in floral patterns, straight leg slacks, handsome leather sandals – though most of the congregants to whom she ministered at the small, one-room church wore threadbare denim and plaid flannel. She placed importance on decorum: powdering her face before services, spraying her short auburn bouffant tidily into place. She refused to be seen without a swipe of bright pink lipstick on her thin lips, and she emanated a traveling cloud of Chanel No. 5 wherever she went. These outward details helped to amplify her sermons, highlighting her natural eloquence and affirming her love for her work and her celestial employer.
I sat on her lap as a child. When I grew up and fell in love, Mae eagerly offered to officiate my wedding. She was the first to hug me as I left the church.
Perhaps I am being cynical to think it cruelly ironic that Mae, ever the one to put herself together, spent her last years tormented by acute dementia. Long-term dementia just doesn’t seem an even-handed fate for a person who dedicated her life to the ministry of a compassionate, forgiving God. Did Mae’s faith buoy her as her thoughts untethered themselves from reality? Did she understand that she was dying when the moment came? What frazzled threads unraveled the final seams of the tapestry of her life?
Valentina and Paulette, Susan and Julia
About halfway through my mom’s weeklong descent into death, my best friend, Susan, took me to a restaurant to make sure I was eating. She sat across from me as I cried into my plate. Her small children played in the kid’s corner. Nothing made sense. Mothers, daughters, life, death, ventilators, blood, and gauze bandages coalesced into one terrible seething mass that somehow affixed itself deep inside, waiting to grow fat on a diet of grief.
Last week, Susan and I traded places.
The message light beeps on my phone. I know something is wrong when I hear Susan’s voice. I don’t want to know what I worry she might say, but I call her back immediately, tasting metal. Susan cries hoarsely into the phone. “My mom died,” she says, her voice in a tremor. “Daddy can’t stop sobbing… He keeps saying, ‘I want to die too!’ Jules, I don’t know what I’m gonna do if Daddy dies of a broken heart!”
My mind backpedals to the Bellevue SICU, where mom died. She was the first death. Susan’s mother, Paulette, is the eleventh to die in the last 18 months. I have learned the vocabulary of incomprehensible grief from the previous ten.
“Don’t worry about Andrew and the kids,” I say to Susan, almost placidly, though my pulse is racing and Paulette is in my head, sitting sideways and cross-legged in her narrow kitchen, intently monitoring an everything bagel that is toasting in the oven.
I say: “Kids are resilient, and Andrew will be fine.” My ears are ringing. I sense the inception of Susan’s pain, so new and uninvited, coating the landscape of her life with its thick, sulfurous resin.
This year I have taken an exhausting deep immersion crash course in the language of loss. Will it ever feel “normal” to be so conversant in it?
“You need to focus on you,” I say to her, while thinking of the numerous trips my sister and I made to the Goodwill on 23rd Street to dispose of mom’s belongings, each time treading over the exact location where her life began its conclusion. I couldn’t focus on anything but the yellow police tape.
“Do what you need to do to survive this, and don’t be afraid to let your grief show.” I’m like a death coach now: all bravado and empowerment. But I can’t forget lying down on my mother’s bed, weeping, staring out the window grates to see the clouds eclipsing the February sun.
“Go to your dad, be with your family. Now is not the time you want to be alone…” I know the language but it doesn’t sever the associated images: My husband coming to my office at work, standing in the doorway, saying, “Honey, you need to come home now. Your mother’s been in an accident.” I never felt so alone as I did in the nine days that followed.
My best friend sobs into the telephone two thousand miles away.