It was interesting being home. Despite the well needed break from Hospice and the unremitting aura of death that permeated its walls, the specter of losing Mom hovered around me like a dense fog, shrouding everything I did with a layer of sorrow.
In fact, looking back, the whole weekend is pretty much a foggy blur, except for a handful of moments that stand out in my mind. I suppose all memories are just moments that stand out in the blur of life, but these particular moments that weekend are especially sharp, like the dark trunks of trees standing out against a misty, grey fog.
There was the moment our daughter, Elizabeth, then 29 and in her last semester of law school in DC, burst from behind the basement door my first morning home.
“Surprise!” she cried, throwing her arms around me in a giant hug.
‘Oh my god!” I hugged her back tightly, tears of happy surprise welling up behind my eyes. ‘How did you get here? What about school?”
“I just wanted to see you, so I took the early train up. I have to go back tomorrow, but it’s fine! I can study on the train! How are you?” she asked, “How’s Grandmom?”
“I’m okay,” I smiled bravely, “Grandmom’s hanging in. She’s comfortable and that’s really all we can ask.”
I was so happy to see my beautiful daughter, but at the same time, seeing her made me so incredibly sad. How could it be she would never see her grandmom again? That her grandmom would never see her? Our children all had so much life ahead of them and it broke my heart that Mom wouldn’t be there to watch their adult lives unfold with me.
Thinking back to when my own grandparents’ died I tried to remember if I’d been really sad. I mean, of course I know I was sad, but how sad? Did I cry? Did I miss them? Did Mom and Dad feel the same regret as I did that their parents would miss out on seeing my life, and my sisters’ lives, unfold?
I wish I’d thought to ask them because now I’ll never know.
The most vivid memory I have of a grandparent dying is, oddly enough, when I was only 6 years old and my Granddad Ball, my dad’s father, died of a sudden heart attack at age 66.
I can still see Dad and me standing at the top of the hall stairway of my childhood home - Dad on his way up and me about to go down - our long ago selves caught in a moment of time that has somehow stuck with me all these years.
“I have some sad news, Peg,” Dad said, his voice strained and weary even to my own young ears. “Granddad Ball died this morning.”
His words hung between us for a second as I tried to make sense of what he was saying. I’m not sure at age six I even knew people died, let alone people I loved.
But rather than starting to cry, which you would expect a child to do when she heard such news, I did something horrible, something I’ve never been able to forget.
Confused, I remember trying to stop it, because even my six-year-old self knew that smiling at such a time was very, very wrong. I loved my granddad! But I couldn’t pull it back - it was as though some outside force had control of my mouth. Was Dad shocked? Did he reprimand me?
Frustratingly, the picture in my mind only takes me as far as that moment at the top of the stairs before it fades to dark. Then nothing. Not a flicker of memory of a word spoken, a tear shed, a hug given.
I wonder now, though, if maybe my young soul had understood on some unconscious level something my older soul has only recently started to believe...that death isn’t a bad thing.
Maybe my 6-year-old self hadn’t yet forgotten that death wasn’t an ending, and I smiled at the news my grandfather had died because my soul knew he was okay. That I didn’t need to be sad.
And maybe the reason I’ve remembered that awkward smile all these years is my younger self’s way of reminding my older self not to forget.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Anyway, along with Elizabeth surprising me, another moment I remember clearly from my weekend home, was sitting at the kitchen counter working on my computer late that Sunday morning. The house was quiet after the whirlwind of the past 24 hours with Elizabeth there, and I was trying to get the bills and taxes sorted.
I glanced at the clock and seeing that it was close to 11, reflexively reached for the phone to call Mom, something I had done every Sunday my entire adult life.
Oh my god, my hand dropped slowly to the counter, my heart plummeting as reality caught up with me. I couldn’t call Mom! She wasn’t home in her little apartment at Swan Creek, reading the Sunday NY Times, the long March day stretching out in front of her, interrupted perhaps by a walk down the hall to do a load of laundry, or a phone call from a friend. Or from me.
Mom was in Hospice. She was dying. I would never call her on a Sunday morning again. I would never call her again, period.
Standing up, I walked slowly into the family room where John was watching the Sunday news shows, and climbed into his lap.
“What’s wrong?” he asked worriedly, “Did your mom…?”
“No, no, she’s okay. Well, you know, as okay as she can be.” I laughed awkwardly, rubbing my eyes to try and keep the tears in.
“But it’s Sunday, and I always call her on Sundays, and now I can’t.” Sighing heavily, I let my head fall on his shoulder. “I’m just so sad.”
‘Aww, Peg,” he gave me a tight squeeze, “But hey, you know what?”
“You can still talk to her today, right? Call Lib...couldn’t she put the phone up to her ear?”
I sat up and looked at him, a small smile finding its way up through my tears.
“You’re right! Of course I can! She’s not gone yet!” Giving him a quick hug I left to find the phone, so grateful to my very pragmatic husband for reminding me that Mom was still in the world. Still there for me to call and say hi. To tell her I loved her. That I’d be back soon.
Then, finally, there was the moment the next day when I was packing to head back to Ohio. Perusing my closet to make sure I had what I wanted, my eyes fell on one of my favorite dresses hanging separately from the others. Purple and black, thinly striped, easily packable, it was, I thought with a jolt, perfect for a memorial service.
Shit. I stared at it for a few seconds, my mind spinning as I tried to decide if I should pack it.
It’s so morbid! I fretted. She’s not even dead yet. Packing it feels so wrong!
But you might not be back again, my practical side argued. If you take it now you’ll have it and won’t have to think about it.
If I take it, though, I feel like I’m trying to rush things, I couldn't help worrying.That I want her to die faster.
But if you don’t take it, then you might have to ask John to bring it, practical me reasoned. Or have to buy something out there. You won’t have time for that. Just pack it, Peggy.
Taking a deep breath I grabbed the dress off its hanger, folding it carefully before laying it on top of my other clothes in the suitcase. It looked a bit out of place lying there on top of the more casual sweaters and jeans I’d packed earlier, as if even it wasn’t sure it really belonged there. I was tempted to snatch it back out and put it back where it should belong - in my closet.
This is happening, Peg, a voice inside me said softly. Best to accept it and keep moving forward.
I sighed inwardly, wishing I hadn’t noticed the stupid dress in the first place, but then leaned over and, firmly and resolutely, zipped up the suitcase.
There. I looked around the bedroom to make sure I’d remembered everything and, grabbing the suitcase by its handle, headed down the stairs to where John was waiting to take me back to the airport. Back to Ohio.
And back to my mom.