I immediately knew why my brother-duh-heart-doc was calling from his vacation trip in St. Petersburg, Russia… just as my cousin knew why I was calling her cell phone in the early morning. And why my cousin Bob surprisingly called me although we had simply stopped talking to one another 7 years ago.
Because today I am an orphan… because my mother died yesterday. Two years too late. She spent the last 23 months in horrendous debilitating pain.
And once, when I was out visiting her senior home a year-and-a-half-back, near my brother’s hilltop abode in the San Francisco area, she begged me to kill her. To put the pillow over her face. To end her torture. Her screaming agony. She was exhausted. She had had enough. She was reduced to being a wilted plant nourished only by her tears. The sun no longer vitalized her.
And I sat beside her shriveled spirit in her care center for 3 days, struggling whether to grant my once early-to-rise, loud-laughing mother her last wish.
But I already wrote you about that 18 months ago. It was where I admitted that nearly 30 years back in Africa I had found the courage to overcome my equivocations and trepidation to kill or be killed. But here with my suffering mother I was a coward.
There are too many laws. And bureaucracies. And pusillanimous doctors and nurses hiding behind forced smiles. Afraid to do the right thing. Even more anxious about allowing me to do it for them. To do what is right. Justified. And humane.
Then again, as has been proven throughout our history of inhumanity, man can only be human under human conditions.
So, for my mother, Betty Rubinstein Strunk, the time dripped by like water torture.
Indeed, most of us live too long. Way too long. Yet, in the same contradictory time, we grow old too soon and wise too late.
And now she finally suffers no more – 6 weeks, 2 days and 9 hours from her 96th birthday.
And to say the least, I can finally exhale… even though Mom is not exactly resting in peace. For the docs from the medical school to which she readily willed her cadaver years ago, came and snatched her body immediately away. And though I proudly appreciate her mortal combat of waste-not-want-not, I just don’t enjoy the thought of some geeks slicing and dicing her like some Thanksgiving turkey.
Indeed, the dead don’t suffer – only the living… in the whirlwind of our ordinary lives where we don’t see things as ‘they’ are – but as ‘we’ are.
Meanwhile, in one form or another, my mother won the eternal marathon. She far outlived them all: Her brothers. Her sister. All her cousins. In-laws. And friends. She was the last in the tribe of her generation. And of a family generation.
And now, sadly, without her we are lost in her victory. We no longer know how we are all connected. Nor how to remain so. She was not only the last of the glue, she was the last spreading-chestnut-tree standing that sprouted all our limbs.
We all lose a lot of people in our lives. And we go into a lot of pain management. But when a parent dies, the past dies. And when both parents depart the whole house of cards often tumbles.
When my father died 23 years before, my mother was surprised that the family gathered about her after she and Dad had relocated their hearth from the verdant farm in Pennsylvania to the sun-baked, desert dunes of Arizona.
I was confused that she was surprised. Even though we visited her there she had figured that we would abandon her. Like Dad did after a year in their new home, about an hour’s ride past the cactus and that notch in the mountain northwest of Phoenix. He had a stroke that wiped out much of his brain’s motherboard. Then he lingered on in exacerbated anger in a home for the next three years.
Yet, admittedly, when your second parent dies there is that sudden jolt. The abrupt shock. The final curtain has been pulled. Your foundation is unsteadied. You feel unmoored. Like I had no anchor, that I had no home in the world – a world filled with adventures that I wrote mostly for Mom.
It’s odd to think of yourself as an orphan when you’re in your 60s. Nevertheless, how do you make sense of your life – or any life, for that matter — that inexorably ends in death. Especially the death of the woman who birthed you and nursed you through this world.
Why is there always one more question than answers?
Like the time my older brother was dropping me off to catch a plane back to Philadelphia, he wondered aloud, in his usual lugubrious queries: How did it feel knowing that this may be the last time I see Mom?
I told Brian that in communicating with Mom four or five times a week over the last many, many years that we had made our peace and pacts long ago. However, I admonished him: “That isn’t the question you should be asking. What you should be wondering,” I leveled to my brother, “is how does it feel knowing that this may be the last time we see each other?”
Look, it’s no secret that although we grew up in the same attic room, we are as different in booze, broads, humor and endeavors as we are in pain and pleasure. We kept in regular touch because Mom made sure of it. But now there is no more Mom. Or Dad. Or somebody to warn us against ourselves.
So who knows how the house of cards will fall as our generation reshuffles the deck for the next family to play the game of life. And the next.
Really, who ever knows?
But of course, I don’t.
But, admittedly, last night, during a troubled sleep, I fell into a dream that seemed to help shine some light on my ethereal journey through this universe of philosophical being… and nothingness.
In this dream my brother and I were two grown boys, having become robust men of 30-something. We were full of laughter and disbelief that a couple of guys from our erstwhile, now-mostly-abandoned steel mill town had come this far — all the way to California, skiing the wondrous slopes of Tahoe Mountain. Which we often did.
It was joyous. The snow was deep. And fresh. With just the right seasoning of moisture to gleefully cruise our way down Black Diamond trails. We were like triumphant Olympic heroes. The midday sun glistened through the aspens. The cloudless sky was a brilliant Carolina blue.
Then, all at once, as I carved about a mogul, I found myself cheerfully bellowing to my brother:
“Blue… blue… blue…”
They were Mom’s magic words. They always made everything seem better, like the first time when her father had painted her bedroom pink instead of the blue she demanded – just like her older brothers’ rooms. So he instructed his little girl to go into her newly painted space, close her eyes, and spin around three times while chanting: “Blue. Blue. Blue…”
And when my youthful, petulant mother opened her dark eyes she discovered, to her glorious surprise, the most royal blue room of her desires. For, after all, it is our desires that create all our dreams. And, as Mom often instructed: ‘Instead of desiring what we don’t have, we should smile at what we do have’.
And in conjuring up those three not-so-blue words whenever she desired, she smiled happily ever after.
And now, so do I. And in my dream, so did my brother.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…