My friend’s mother died this week. These deaths of friends, relatives of friends, and famous people we’ve known of our entire adult lives, become more frequent as I march toward the end of my 60s. When they strike near, they strike deeply. I’ve been reminded of my mother’s passing in 2019 and to a lesser extent of my father’s passing in 2013. Then, thinking of my father’s death reminds me of my friend’s father passing about four and half years ago. In turn, I recall I became close to this friend of mine when a very close friend of his died much too young. One thing leads to another, then another. Memory isn’t so much a card catalog as it’s a word-association game.
Each recurrence resonates with those which came before. Though my personal losses do not gut-punch me anymore the way they did when they occurred, memory-tropes have become stronger through the ensuing years. More and more, very specific moments become the definition of the entire event. Other details fall away. My friend’s mother had fluid building up in her lungs. My mother had the same though caused by a cancerous tumor. When I learned about my friend’s mother this week and her symptoms, I also heard the watery sound of my mother’s lungs as she tried to draw her final breaths, like smoke burbling through a hookah. It wasn’t pleasant, then or now.
Deaths link up in my memory, each resonating the others. This day the bells of death sound across my entire life. My first memory of death occurred when I had just turned 14. My family vacationed to San Francisco where we drove through The Haight staring at hippies–“make sure your doors are locked, boys!” We also visited my great-grandmother lying on what she assured us was her deathbed. “I’ve run the good race, I’ve fought the good fight,” she proclaimed to Mom, her granddaughter. “Oh, don’t say that, Grandma!” my mother exclaimed which I thought odd since the old lady obviously lay at death’s door. (We lack so much tact in our early teens.) I remembered this because my friend’s mother remained lucid into her final hours, just as had my great-grandmother. My mother and father both were not, each of them passing in a morphine-laced state of unconsciousness. I remain grateful I didn’t have to encounter the attitude my mother did in San Francisco in 1968. Do you protest as a matter of good taste, as my mother did? Do you agree with the fading relative, thereby assuring yourself honorable mention in the Total Jerk Hall of Fame? Do you hesitate, mumble something neutral, and earn their scorn for your equivocation? Maybe it all goes well if you’re lucky.
My mother slowly lost her engagement with reality, not that her grasp had been firm. (I too suffer from that state, having one foot firmly planted in a hallucinatory land where reality exists somewhere between a fond memory and a meaningless joke.) We crossed a threshold in 2017 when Mom could not grasp why failing an eye test meant she could no longer have a driver’s license. “But I had just recently had eye surgery!” She remained convinced a simple form filled out by her doctor and sent to the DMV would straighten everything out. I think she didn’t give up hope so much as the matter just faded into the background. By the time she entered the hospital 18 months later, diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at 89, she couldn’t quite comprehend how she had gone from her daily existence to this state of affairs–never mind that her life at that point had become rely-on-strangers-for-meals-and-all-tasks. In truth she only changed venues and caretakers, swapping neighbors for nurses.
This disturbed me less than it may sound. When she fought to understand why her driver’s license had been suspended, my superficial exasperation papered over how my mother’s stance resonated with all of those memories where she also couldn’t understand the logical progression of bureaucracy in all its forms; when she cried because in attempting a sewing class exercise called Idiot’s Delight she couldn’t get it “to work” and felt she was worse than an idiot; and those myriad times when she couldn’t understand electro-mechanical issues, made all the more rich because her father had been an electrical engineer. Does it sound as if I mock my mother? Absolutely not! Love of the maternal wraps itself around what the maternal is, regardless of its logic, perseverance, emotive sustenance, or intellectual prowess. I loved my mother. Everything followed from that. The mother I loved, and what I loved about her, relied wholeheartedly upon her husband and in her final days upon my brother and me, but truthfully mostly on her neighbors since my brother lived hundreds and I thousands of miles away.
Bells from my father’s death ring different tones; they peal a melancholy chorus. He never outgrew being a preacher’s kid, a PK. He learned the social skills that most nomadic children do, those whose parent(s) are in the military and travel from base to base, those who follow their academician parents from university to university, and those like my father who moved from place to place as his father pursued Calling after Calling. His father was an American Baptist minister. My father experienced a couple of moves early in his life, but by 3 or 4 began a decade in the suburbs of Minneapolis. His family then moved to Havre, Montana, where my father spent all of his high school years. His graduation from high school in 1942 permitted but one short year in college before the United States Army came calling because of World War II. He served in the Quartermaster Corps, achieved the rank of Sergeant, and told us absolutely nothing else about it other than he apparently sailed back and forth across the Pacific. I learned later how dangerous those convoys were and the dangers he faced. His background is relevant here because it informs his passing.
Just as he hid from his war years, my father hid from the aspects of his personality which didn’t fit into the mold of being a PK, a devout Christian, of being the “perfect kid” (a different kind of PK). The monsters in his closet slipped out a few times during his life, most notably at the end of it: he retreated from the corporate track he was on and moved his family from Los Angeles back to Spokane, Washington, returning to the same job he had left less than 24 months previously; he quit that job because he couldn’t conform to the ethical stances of his peers (or was it just a midlife crisis?); and at the end, he fell into a crevasse of personal turmoil when as chair of the church finance committee he learned the church secretary had embezzled a substantial sum from a struggling church. This final trip to the dark side took place when he had marked 82+ years and the pall of it never lifted. Retirement makes us face the delightful dilemma of the retired: how much meaning must one instill into one’s life? How ‘permissible’ is it to just “take it easy,” “take it as it comes” or in essence to live in the moment when the moment requires nothing significant of you? My father seemed to have no issues with the relaxation of retirement until The Failure. After that, he could see no path out of his darkness, and it continued to haunt him until he died in the middle of his 88th year.
If I wander the aisles of memory’s storeroom where I’ve tucked so many things, I come across other deaths, less impactful but salient nonetheless. The Sunday School classmate who died of a brain tumor the year following my great-grandmother. The teaching friend of my first wife who lived longer than expected with her congenital heart defect. When young I found it more difficult to feel these deaths, to be sorrowful. I don’t know why. Youth? Failure to connect with these people? Perhaps the latter. Before the teaching friend, my father’s father died of a stroke in 1980. (I was going to write “massive stroke” but any stroke which strikes down a man in his mid-80s packs a wallop.) Despite the sorrow I felt at his death, my strongest memory from that time is of our very small family–his two sons, my father and my uncle; my four cousins with a spouse or two; and my mother and me–hanging out in a motel room reminiscing in what passed for a wake.
But as the 1980s closed out my remaining three grandparents died in successive years: my mother’s mother in 1988; my father’s mother in 1989; my mother’s father in 1990. My second strongest memory at my grandfather’s passing haunts me. Because it is of my grandmother, I don’t think of it right away when I think of his death. I think of it as a bridge memory to hers. I arrived early to my grandparent’s house but everyone had gone somewhere except my grandmother. I still can see her clearly, staring, staring into her backyard as the gentle rains of the Willamette River Valley fell. Lost in thought? In shock? Numb? A mixture perhaps. I’ve noticed no pattern to the reaction of the surviving spouse when they’ve lost their lifetime companion. My father’s mother had her emotional heart ripped out of her when her husband died. She never recovered. Soon she lived in assisted living because of a gentle dementia, and afterward suffered a stroke in 1983 or 1984. She then lived in a vegetative state for five years. My mother’s father also slowly lost the mental faculties which made him my grandfather. The final time I saw him he lay sleeping in the infirmary where he had lived for several years, even before his wife died.
I look at the memories of those last two deaths reluctantly. I do not handle hospitals and deathbeds well. I visited each of them only once. My grandmother ate and breathed with machines. My grandfather just hung on for no reason anyone could articulate. When I said “the final time I saw him” it also was my first time seeing him in the infirmary.
My mother’s mother died between these troubling deaths and the early one for my father’s father. Today I’m reminded more of her passing because like my friend’s mother, my grandmother passed in a lucid state albeit with a bit of morphine-induced hallucinations. (“Why do they allow cats in here, Louise?” she asked my mother toward the end.) Despite certain traits which lessened her as a Good Person, she and I connected throughout our lives. I mourned her more than the others, especially as I had matured by then and learned to cry. (I’m guessing that I cried when my final two grandparents passed, but I do not remember one way or another.)
All these peals from the bells of memory ring back when someone dies, more loudly when it is someone close such as my friend’s mother this week. I met her at least a half dozen times in her final five years. I see her legacy in my friend. I offer my support, I share his grief, I attempt to help where I can. What strikes to my core, however, isn’t this. It’s those resonant bells which call me back to the deaths in my family, to my loved ones. And, frankly, to my own and my wife’s which have yet to occur. What lies ahead for us? Will I meet it with dignity? Perhaps. Will I cry and moan and complain about my state in the world? Much more likely. Will I be aware I’m dying? Do I want to be aware? What if my wife goes first? How will I cope? I’m not a mentally strong person; I fear I will act as my father’s mother did and just withdraw from the world.
These bells ring across time’s arc from the past and into the future. They sound more frequently these days. They’re louder. They’re more insistent. I sometimes would like to ignore them, but that would be like ignoring the sun or perhaps more aptly, like closing one’s eyes while driving a car. Best to listen and maybe learn.