This morning my mother died.
Her death followed a long struggle with several illnesses, all related to smoking during the fifty-three years of her marriage. She began at a time when smoking was fashionable and chic. Posters of sexy Marlboro men and glamorous woman hung on subway walls. My parents followed the rage. On our trips to the Rockaways where we summered with family, we passed billboards in our smoke filled Chevy Impala with pictures of exotic camels advertising the cigarette, the windows rolled up even when my mother was pregnant with my sister.
Yesterday my mother’s breathing had become so shallow that it was nearly imperceptible. By then she had not eaten in nearly a week nor swallowed a sip of water in four days. That morning, I held her once delicate, now swollen hands in mine and whispered in her ear, “Today is Valentine’s Day. What a beautiful day to let us go. Every Valentine’s day after will hold a special significance. We love you and we know you love us.”
My mother, who had not spoken a syllable in a week, popped out of her stupor like a jack-in-box, gathered a weakened breath and said. “No!”
When she heard my laughter, she formed a tiny smile then just as suddenly returned to the world which she inhabited over this past week.
With her smile, we both understood she was protecting her children as she always had. It was a mother’s job. No! Valentine’s Day could not be overcast with the memory of her death. It was meant for us to celebrate with our lovers as she had with hers. For more than 5 decades, my mother penned elaborate poems to my father, “the love of life,” each Valentine’s Day.
Early this morning, she made her decision to end her life. She told me weeks before she wanted to be brave. Though her father was a European Orthodox Jew, she shared no such beliefs. I asked her a few weeks earlier what she felt would happened when she died. “Do you believe in an afterlife? Will her husband, my father, be waiting for her?” In her most sincere tone she answered, “I really don’t know.”
I felt proud that even her fear of death had not persuaded her to think so magically. In 1985 I took a sabbatical from my practice and moved to San Francisco for a year.
I taught family therapy at the University of California at Berkeley and worked on the AIDS unit at Pacific Presbyterian Medical and in homes with Visiting Nurses Association. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic when the diagnosis was a death sentence. My job was to counsel dying patients, their partners and families. During that grueling time, among the most compassionate of those I met, and there were many, were the nurses who cared daily for the afflicted with such tenderness and grace. Some had the courage and willingness to secretly mix the morphine based death cocktails that would dispatch those who fatally suffered to a quicker death. I wished one of those nurses could be appear now and end my mothers pain, but in this litigious age no one dare take such chances.
Instead, this morning, I gently rubbed my fingers through my mothers still thick hair hoping to soothe her as she had once comforted me. I wanted to sing to her but I have never been able to carry a tune and she wasn’t much of a music fan. She was, though, an avid reader. Blind for almost a decade, she turned to Books-on-Tape, which, while “entertaining,” could never match the feel and smell of her beloved paper books. I decided I would read to her from the book I was reading, The Paris Wife, about Hemingway in Paris, but I feared that in leaving the room to find the book even for a moment, I would be abandoning her. I wanted to be present for her until the end.
Nineteen years ago, when I sat with my father days before his life had disappeared, I knew his strong sense of pride would not allow him to die with his children present. Gradually, his children drifted out of the room, intuitively recognizing his wish. With my mother, my fear of leaving her bedside to fetch my book, similarly served me well. A few seconds later, while I was whispering words of affection in her ear, she took her last breath. It was over.
My sister wept deeply. She had spent every day with my mother over the past year and a half tending to her physical care. I had already spent my grief in periodic surges over many months. No tears came, only a sense of finality and relief.
A man’s relationship with his mother contains the seeds for every other relationship in his life. I learned to listen by hearing her talk. I learned how to soothe by the kindness in her voice. I learned to be strong-willed from her determination. I learned how to give and take generosity from her motherly example. And I learned how not to be afraid because of her fear of the world.
On The Day of My Parents’ Funeral
My mother’s funeral was delayed for six days.
As planned, just following my mother’s death my sister telephoned the cemetery to make arrangements for my mother’s body to be flown to Florida to be buried beside my father in the plot he had purchased for them when they first retired to Florida. A few hours later, the funeral directors called my sister and apologetically told her that another person had been mistakenly buried in my mother’s grave eighteen years ago. Because the extended family of my father’s new “gravemate” was interned beside her on the other side, the cemetery was faced with a serious dilemma — to exhume all of the members of the other family or to move my father’s remains to a place where my parents could be buried together.
Surprisingly, I had no deep emotional reaction to this news. I wondered, instead, how each parent might feel about the situation in the way I sometimes imagined what my parents might think about every important decision I made in my life.
Although, I knew my mother would be horrified at first, I also imagined that she would see the irony in the events and eventually feel an old wish had been satisfied — to be buried at the same time as her husband.
I imagined, my father, always the business man, would accept the situation at face value and seek financial compensation for the mistake along with the best plot on the grounds.
My parents were buried together today in the cemetery’s loveliest garden surrounded by Palm trees and Hibiscus. A rabbi they never met spoke of my mother’s warmth and generosity and of her devotion to her husband and children as if he had been her friend. He performed traditional Jewish burial rituals that would not have really mattered to my parents, though they would have wanted them said, perhaps for superstitious reasons or because they had been performed for generations of family before them. They never considered themselves rule breakers.
My mother was fashionably dressed in her coffin in the manner she had dressed all of her married life. She grew up the youngest of nine children in the years of poverty that had marked the depression. When in 1940, she met her future husband on a date arranged by her sister, she fell into a swoon that never ended.
My father’s business successes rescued my mother from the harsh reality of her difficult childhood, but never entirely from the pain and fear. He shielded her, swaddled her in bunting that protected her from the world. She was a delicate size 2 who wore the samples of every fashionable designer, including those from my father’s showroom. He was among the few dozen “garmentos” who built New York’s garment center and for that matter “ready-to-wear” fashion in America at the end of World War II. When they retired from New York she had the most extraordinary collection of original sequined gowns and dresses that she could still slide into having maintained — as my father proudly said — her “girlish shape.”
I am on the plane heading back to New York City now. My mother’s grandson and his wife who live nearby will occasionally visit my parents’ graves and place a tiny stone on their monuments as remembrance. As an atheist, these rituals hold no meaning for me. I have no desire to be comforted by the fantasy that my parents are now peacefully reunited. I would rather live with the mystery of death. I still can’t get my mind around it no matter how many times I have witnessed it.
At home, I reflect on myself as a son. I have loved my parents, hated, honored, rebelled, cherished and blamed them. I learned things from them and against them that have shaped what is important to my identity, to who I am today.
My mother and I had a deep, authentic relationship. As the years grew on there was little
that we didn’t talk about openly and freely, especially after my father’s death when her pain and fear returned with greater strength. My father had provided safety, a gilded shelter from her childhood unhappiness. But with him gone, the doors flung open.
I had already learned in the arms of my mother, the gift of compassion. In the years she lived alone after my father’s death, I could listen on the telephone with true empathy as she spun her fear into stories of catastrophe. I even found ways to soothe her or to walk her back from the edge of an emotional cliff . Yet, in the last few months I could not ease her panic. Her fantasy had actually lived up to it.
What I hadn’t truly understood or allowed myself to imagine until after her death was that over the decades — absorbed into the deepest cells of my body — was her suffering. Today, as strong as the feelings of loss, I feel a sense of appreciation that I would no longer have to listen to it.