Thursday, November 27, 2008
I Should Never Grow So Old Again
My grandparents when they first were married.
My mom as a child.
It's Thanksgiving, but also my mother's birthday. She passed away last August and I wanted to post a piece of her writing as a tribute to her life. She was always a great writer and wrote amazing poems. One day I hope to be as good a writer as she was. She had her own blog and even designed her own web page. She was quite tech-savvy. This was one of her posts about her mother, my grandmother. I thought it was fitting.
Happy birthday Mom.
To Never Grow So Old Again by Rosa Willis
Today is the anniversary of my mother's death. Eleven years ago today, at 4 in the afternoon it was a brilliant October day much like today, filled with the light that never comes at any other time of year, that liquid amber, almost preternatural glow, that seems to shine through the windows from another world, a brighter, more perfect, more real place than this. A day when the turning leaves and even the trees themselves glow like jewels with that same light, when the sky is an impossible shade of lapis lazuli that one would think occurred only in some artist's vision, when the wind seems filled with a fragrance like a life-sustaining Breath, meant to remind us that the loveliness here is only a shadow of the beauty of our Home and Destination.. It was an eternally beautiful autumn day and my mother lay dying in a hospital bed of end stage COPD. My father, her soul mate, had preceded her in death just over a year before, and we knew that she was swiftly on her way out that Door to join him - and so did she.
My mother was probably one of the most wonderful, strange, frightening, beautiful and wise souls I will ever know. She loved to read, and taught me to love books - my earliest memories of her are of her reading and reciting poetry aloud to me - real poetry, Keats and Shelley and Wordsworth and Frost and Millay and Auden and cummings, not just nursery rhymes, though Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verse was one of the first books I ever owned. She was an "emancipated woman" - at least in her own mind, before there was a term for it, and even though society forced her into the mold of a "stay at home" fifties wife and mother, she never fit it well. My father was equally wise and unique, but he was less verbal, less outspoken and vehement than my mother, so he rarely spoke of the things that stirred his heart, the things he believed, the things that were important to him - he didn't need words as much as she did, he was content to know, and to know that we children knew that he knew. There are four of us, I'm the eldest, my only sister is four years younger than me and our two brothers are six and twelve years younger. And I know that we four and our parents (and our children and several others we have met and recognized on our sojourn here this time, including my sister's husband and my baby brother's wife - who are, themselves, brother and sister) comprise a Circle which has existed for aeons, bound by ties forged in the Heart of the One at the beginning of Time, taking countless turns at one role or another, together in one form or another over and over again. One thing that makes our Circle so strong is that we know this and one of the reasons we know it is because our parents knew it and taught it to us. They were both Pisces, born within two days of each other, three years apart. Try growing up as a child or a teenager and trying to lie to two Pisces parents, lol! It was usually Mom who caught us and spoke up, but if she didn't - Dad had a way of making us realize much later, after the fact, that he had known the truth of the matter all along.
My mother was a nominal Catholic - and she "believed" in all of the sin and guilt that seems so inevitably to attach to that faith for a woman, especially a woman of genius and independence who dared to rebel against authority in any way. But she also read Tarot and told dreams that came true, and saw and talked to spirits and believed in Atlantis - and was firmly convinced that we had all lived many lives before and were destined to live many lives in the future. Don't ask ME how she reconciled all of this with her belief in Christ the Lord, the Virgin Mary, the Saints and her idea of Purgatory - and her fear that it was her destination for her sins and failures in this life - I wasn't privy to her intimate religious philosophy - I just know that reconcile it she did and that she taught us that we were free to choose our OWN religious philosophy, just as she had. My sister's middle son was two years old one night when my sister and I were driving my mother home - probably from a Bingo game, lol....she loved to play and, of course, she nearly always won, and she DID always break even.. it was knowing how to pick the cards, she'd say. We were having an ordinary conversation about how long we'd lived in various places, saying things like "Well, I lived in such and such a town for seven years but I've been here for thirteen..." etc. when my two year old nephew broke into the conversation - looked at Mom and said "Oh, Grammy, you're REAL old - you've been here for many, many, many, many, many times...." We looked at each other over his head and my sister said "you mean many years?" and he said, in the frustrated voice of a child whose adults haven't understood him "NO, I said TIMES!"
And there was no need to ask him to explain, because we all knew it was true. My mother (and my father, too) were both very ancient Souls, just as we four children were (and my nephew too, how else had HE known, lol). My mother had started in reinforcing our bond very early. We could all repeat by rote, her standard speech whenever a couple of us would get into a sibling squabble (or try, she usually stopped those cold in their tracks well before they ever got to the "nyah, I hate you" stage). "Your family is all there is in the end , kids. That is the only sister (brother) you will ever have and you must stick together. When I die if ever any one of you turns their back on the other when they need you, I promise I will come back and haunt you forever!" She was raising us for an ideal world though, one that didn't exist as yet - a place of harmony and equality and tolerance, where, if you meant well, all would BE well, where violence of any kind was unacceptable, where if you just LOVED someone or something enough, it could be redeemed. Our teenage friends all adored her, because that was the way she treated them - especially the lost and struggling ones, the ones who were fighting with their own parents or marked by some terrible hidden tragedy in their own homes. She was the one I came to and in whose lap I wept when I saw the little black children (my age!) being spat upon and called "bitches" by women the age of my mother as they walked with a police escort to their first day of school....she was the one of whom I asked "Why...?". And when an old movie we were watching on tv once showed a little boy with a tattooed number on his arm, she was the one who dealt with my awakened horror when I turned to her and asked what it meant and she floundered trying to explain the Holocaust to an eight year old. In the end her explanation was this "They just didn't understand...." and, if you think about it, that is just about the most concise definition of bigotry ever heard - people fear what they do not understand and fear leads to hate and makes them do terrible things; which, if they truly understood and knew their victim, and saw them as a person like themselves, they could never do.
Understand, I am not painting a picture of a rosy idyllic childhood - far from it. Both my mother and father had problems with alcohol abuse and our early lives were filled with all of the terrible consequences that scenario engendered (my mother used to say wryly that they were both a couple of drowning Pisces, pulling each other down trying to stay afloat). But they both conquered many of their demons later in life, and through it all, the ample demonstration and evidence of their undying, and accepting love for each other and for us was something that we could never lose sight of - and we never did. And as we grew up and grew older and began to see them as fallible human beings, with lives and feelings and griefs of their own in which we had no part (my father suffered all his life from the same bipolar disorder I have been diagnosed with and my mother lost her own mother to pneumonia when she was 7 years old and her father became a drifter who abandoned his family [my mom, her two sisters and a brother] to be raised by different relatives all over the country and proceeded to drink himself to death), we were able to see them whole and to forgive whatever scars they had dealt us unaware in the depths of their own pain. But my mother suffered, felt that she had done us harm, and that perhaps she had some time to do in her Purgatory - or what we called the place between the worlds - because of it. At her request we even had a priest come to take her last confession and administer her last rites in that hospital bed on that day....
That day, that October day - my mother had been admitted early that morning to the hospital with extreme shortness of breath which nothing could relieve. Her admitting diagnosis was ARDS - adult respiratory distress syndrome - secondary to advanced COPD, and as a nurse, I knew that meant...this was IT. She knew it too. The doctors asked her did she want to be placed on a machine to help her breathe and she emphatically told them no, that she had a living will and that in the event she became unable to decide it would be up to us and we all knew her wishes. So, with just an oxygen mask (she had always used a cannula before and the mask so that they could give her a little more oxygen than was possible through her "nose hose", as she called it, was her only concession to any "life saving" procedure) and "reasonable" comfort measures as her doctors orders - she and the four of us, who had gathered during the year she lived after my father died to live within blocks of each other in the same town and who had been scattered over three different states before, prepared for her Crossing.
It took a little time to assemble everyone in that hospital room. My sister and I were the first and each of us went and got our brothers (and my sister's husband and brother's wives) as soon as each was able to get off work, get to the hospital....but Mom hung on, still conscious, still able to squeeze hands and nod when she was no longer able to talk, until we were all there, around her bed. We told her goodbye, told her to kiss Dad for us, told her it was alright, that we would stay together, that we would manage...that the Circle would be unbroken (that was, by the way, the only song played at her funeral services, by her own request, years and years before). I held one hand, my brother (he was her 'favorite', it was unthinkable for it to be any other way) on the other side held theother, and each of the four of us kissed her. I asked "Can you hear us, Mom? Do you know we're all here now? Do you understand?"..and she squeezed my hand firmly once, in reply..yes. Then she smiled, smiled in the midst of those agonal respirations - we all saw it - and breathed one last time and that was all. My brother leaned over, pulled the oxygen mask from her face (so that we all saw the smile even more clearly), and said "Won't need THIS damned thing any more now!" and threw it in the trash.
Later that night at her wake - again, one of her requests, "When I'm gone I want a real Irish wake, everyone in the Circle, and everyone who loved me and knew me, get together and party down! Play the music we love, talk about me, raise your glasses and your beers and say 'she was a hell of a gal!'" We had the picture of her and my father that I have reproduced here sitting on a table wreathed about with white candles. My daughter was in charge of the music and she was putting in CDs of the music my mother loved, early blues and rockabilly like Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash, mixed with classic 60's music like Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan.
There is an album by Van Morrison called Astral Weeks. Its title song has some lyrics which I have used as my personal quote on just about every profile I've ever filled out and which have been emblazoned on the inside cover of every bound journal I've kept since I first heard the song....and in the years I was nursing they became like a mantra, because, well, it's what I do.... "If I ventured in the slipstream, twixt the viaducts of your dreams..could you find me, would you kiss my eyes, and lay me down in silence easy...to be born again...in another place, with another face...ain't nothing but a stranger in this world, got a home on high...." My Mom loved this song, knew its significance for me, loved the whole album and a lot of other music by Van Morrison too, but that album was her favorite. So it wasn't a surprise when my daughter put that CD in. What was a surprise was that she didn't start it at the title track. She started it at another track called Sweet Thing. Some of the words in the chorus to that song go "and you shall take me strongly in your arms again, and we shall walk in talk in gardens all wet with rain..and I shall never never grow so old again..."
As I listened to that song looking at the picture of my mother and father on their wedding day, young and beautiful, never so old as they became later (we all did, my daughter had gone immediately to the picture as soon as she put the song on and gazed at it) my eyes closed and I saw them (and I found later that all of us had seen the same thing, and had smelled the lilacs) , not in the photograph but real, standing together, looking as they did in the picture, and beginning to walk up a wooded hillside - rather like the mountainside in Arkansas where my father's childhood home had been and near the old pine tree haunted cemetary where his grave and my mother's lie - except that the trees looked like the trees in Lothlorien might have looked (we all agreed on that, though the movies to give us the picture of what we had imagined when we'd read the books were years in the future) - when my parents reached the crest of the hill, they turned to us and waved and then walked over it and I smelled lilacs, the way they smell after a rain, that intense green, powerful yet fragile fragrance, that you just catch a breath of as you walk past them. and I knew that, at least for a while, they had begun to walk in those gardens all wet with rain and that they had vowed to each other - at least for a time - to "never grow so old again".
And today, eleven years later to the very day - I am playing that mp3 on my computer and writing this down and remembering that glorious October day and that glimpse we had of them, that glimpse that all of us in the Circle were granted, that there was an eternity ahead and behind us all and that we would be together for all of it....again and again and again. So mote it Be.