By Grace Jasmine
I woke up that morning with a delicious feeling of planning. Full of bright ideas, I walked to the coffee pot. It was Easter vacation for my daughter, so she was still fast asleep, her sweet face looking cherubic above the edge of her blanket, her small, graceful arms stretched out above her head in total relaxation. I stole quietly through the silent house and opened the front door to grab the paper. There was plenty of time for a couple of cups of coffee and some planning before Daisy began the sing-song of little girl secrets that always accompanied her personal good morning to the world.
I was planning for my mother. In fact, I had woken up with my mother on my mind. She had been in a lot of pain lately; a disc problem. Something so painful, she described it as like having a bullet hole in her back when I had talked to her the evening before. I wanted her to feel something happy, I wanted to distract her from her pain. I thought about her friends and getting them together. She had fallen away from many since her retirement several years before. A few of true-blue types had stuck around, like Mary. Mary was the kind of friend who called my Mom and said, “I felt you thinking about me.”
It’s probably good to have friends like that.
I thought I would call three of the ladies I knew my mother enjoyed and set up some lunch dates for her. You probably wonder why I would be doing this for my Mom; she’d had a massive stroke eighteen months earlier. Not pleasant.
The whole family had been carving pumpkins. I used to loved to carve pumpkins. Now I can’t stand to do it.
Suddenly, my mom looked at me with such fear and such frustration in her eyes—she couldn’t move. She couldn’t talk; she couldn’t hold the carving knife. She could only look at me with that expression in her eyes.
I will never forget it. Probably the only thing worse than seeing someone you love looking at you with that kind of desperation would be missing that look. I mean, not being there to receive and acknowledge that fear and pain. I am glad I was there because she needed me. Other than that, I wouldn’t recommend the moment.
Naturally, I called 911. My husband was in shock. I was on the phone, calling, before he had processed the event. I knew she was having a stroke. And believe me, you don’t need to see one to know what they look like. You know.
The paramedics came very quickly. She had gum in her mouth. That freaked me out; I was imagining her choking on top of everything else. I told them, and they got it out.
I rode in the front of the ambulance with the driver, with my mom in the back, to the hospital. I remember the streetlights glowing in the foggy, crisp evening as we made our way down the long street to the hospital. The paramedics were very gentle. It might have been the worst moment in my life. I guess lately, I wouldn’t like to have to pick the very worst moment—there seem to be a lot of them.
So we arrived. One good thing about near-death emergency hospital visits is they take you right in—no waiting. Mom’s blood pressure was sky high. A neurologist who looked like a Ken doll appeared and told me I had to decide immediately whether or not to authorize a drug that would either help my mother dramatically or kill her.
I had to decide right then. No waiting. I looked at my mom, who could understand everything being said, and I said, “Do you want to be kind of fucked, or totally fucked?”
I actually said that. My mom had heard me say it before, obviously, but maybe the emergency staff was a bit surprised. I didn’t care. She looked at me again, this time with her sardonic look. Total recognition. What an amazing relationship to be able to look at someone and understand everything—instantly. What a gift. Our Vulcan mind lock transmitted her “What the hell?” and I gave our consent. She attempted to sign the release form that stated that thirty out of one hundred people hemorrhaged and died from the medication, and that was that.
We started the process of waiting to see if she was going to die. Together.
But, I’m getting off the point, right? I was talking about my mom’s back pain and her friends, and the lunches I was going to set up. I also thought a card shower would be fun.
A card shower is something a newspaper writer in our area sets up for people through his column. People write in and say their brother needs a card shower because he is celebrating his 100th birthday, or having hip replacement surgery, or a 50th wedding anniversary, and people who read the column send cards to the address of the person. I was worried my mom would feel that giving out her address was an invasion of privacy.
I, on the other hand, would love a card shower. Hey, I can still write for one of my own. Lonely, depressed writer in need of Hallmarks. That would work.
I sipped my coffee. I stretched. The sun was filtering through the sliding glass door and the flowers on my deck practically sparkled in the warm southern Californian April morning. I have always loved the weather in southern California. And we pay dearly for it, too.
I finished my second cup of coffee. Daisy emerged from her room and slid on my lap. “What are we going to do today?” she asked. I said I didn’t know, but why not stop by Gigi’s house?
And soon we were on our way. We had installed her in her own apartment several months earlier, after she had grown well enough and frustrated enough to be on her own again. She was carefully and painstakingly putting each book, each piece of furniture, each personal item into place, and she had just finished after four months of slow progression. Each day she would tell me her plans. She would move a shelf of books down a shelf. That would take a day. Every movement was so difficult with the relentless pain in her back.
Was I listening enough? Did I hear that she needed more help? She was so clearly glad to be rid of my twenty-four hour care, so glad to be alone, so happy to call her own shots; I hesitated to push myself forward. There are areas in anyone’s life that they want to call their own. No matter how sick they are. Each book that she moved was her book, each decision her decision; her memories, her personal preferences. At times reveling in one’s own choices is all anyone has. It’s sacred. I was thinking about these things as I loaded my seven-year-old into the car, on the way to her “Gigi’s” house.
First we stopped at the local adult college campus to pick up a course catalogue. One of my big plans was to persuade my mother to take a class with me. Something fun we could do together. I picked up two catalogues and two class application forms. My daughter Daisy and I walked into the small campus office together and made idle pleasantries with the nice lady behind the counter.
Then we drove the three blocks back to mom’s apartment. I can’t remember if I had tried to call her first that morning. Maybe I had, but sometimes she didn’t answer the phone.
We walked in. The blinds were closed against the spring light and the house was dark. I switched on the lights. I could smell the food my mom had prepared the day before. The house was heavy with the rich succulent smells of ham and the energy of my mother. Nothing was amiss.
But as I went into her room, she was sleeping too quietly. I had checked for this moment countless times. Every morning waiting to see; rushing to her bed to make sure I heard her movement, her breathing. My mother was dead. But was she dead? For a moment it is impossible to understand. I said something incredibly superficial to Daisy like, “Gigi isn’t feeling well, go play Nintendo.”
Mom. MOM. MOM, are you dead?
Her head was a still warm at the base of the crown but her face was blue and her jaw was closed tightly, more tightly than a living jaw would close. She had pulled the covers off the lower part of her body; perhaps she was too hot in the night. Perhaps she had gone to the bathroom and gotten back into bed.
What should I do? What should I do?
I went to the phone. I couldn’t remember any numbers. What was the number of my husband’s office? What was his cell number? Where was my Mom’s phone book? Who should I call?
I told Daisy we had to leave and go across the apartment complex for something. Gigi wasn’t feeling well. I didn’t want Daisy to know. If I could avoid telling my daughter that her grandmother was dead then my mother wouldn’t be dead either.
We walked in our apartment. I pulled a kitchen drawer out and threw the contents on the floor. The world spun. I called the wrong number for my husband. I don’t remember how I ever contacted him. I said my mother is dead. He said, “I am on my way.”
But it took him almost two hours to get there. What was going on? Was there traffic? Did he have to answer a few more pieces of email? I’m terrible. I shouldn’t say things like that. I don’t mean it.
I returned to the apartment. My mother’s doctor’s office called; Laurie the nurse who loved my mother was reminding her of her appointment the next day.
“Laurie, I think my mom is dead.”
“What do you mean, you think? Call 911 now.”
Sirens. They couldn’t find the house. Not that I cared much. She was dead. I knew there would be no chance to revive her, and yet I wondered. What miracle could they perform? Could they shock her system back into life? They told me that I wasn’t to worry; there was nothing to do.
But still, when you die at home it becomes a crime scene. That is until they prove no foul play has occurred. People. Coming and going. Some nutty volunteer from some help-the-families-of-dead-people organization getting in my space, sitting at my mom’s table, defiling my mother’s house with her insipid, fawning presence. And Daisy, playing Nintendo.
Hours of waiting for the coroner’s office. And, finally, a coroner who came after hours of craziness, while I, waiting, cold-called mortuaries like I was shopping for a new car, demanding lowest prices, driving hard for a deal. A coroner with gentle hands and a loving, humorous disposition. They called her Papermate at the office because one deranged family member from some long ago coroner’s visit stabbed her with a pen.
She touched my mother’s body like it had belonged to a person. With dignity. With compassion. All the while, the relentless volunteer made suggestions, signed me up to receive free grief videos, invaded my space.
I selected a mortuary. In my mother’s careful planning, she had placed the mortuary information in her middle desk drawer, under the plastic tray, along with a letter to my brother Chad and myself. Just by coincidence. Just on purpose.
I selected the mortuary she had suggested. And they came. But she was so large a woman they had to wait for backup. How could one person move the body of an adult anyway? The rickety gurney swayed in the hall. The mortuary driver was a small man. He was polite. He looked like a bank teller. Not someone who moved dead bodies for a living.
Before this all happened I went and spent some time with my mother’s body. I cut a lock of her hair. I touched her face, her arms, her back, her head. I kissed her body. The body that held me, and comforted me, and gave birth to me.
My husband got me a burrito, my daughter played Nintendo. I made the mistake of looking one more time after my mother’s body had been bound in a white sheet in preparation for placing it in the plastic body bag. Surreal tangles of arms and legs. A shape of something, unrelated to reality. But a vision that doesn’t leave you.
Who are these people that you have to hire to come and take the bodies of your loved ones away? Burials in other times made more sense. Sitting Shiva. Leave her body alone. We need to dress her body and bury her body, and march with a procession of friends through the village, but not until a candle light vigil is held and her body is never alone, always a family member near, praying, calling in the universal energy, surrounding the room with the presence of God, with angels, with the dearly departed.
But no, a plastic bag and a rickety gurney. A pathetic ending to a majestic inhabitance of a life. Without honor. Without dignity. Without anything but our laws.
But, you know, when I woke up that morning, before I knew what the day would bring, my first thought was of my mother, and it was a happy thought. It was full of promise that I must have misinterpreted as a need for me to do something. Possibility. I awoke full of love and possibility.
But isn’t that the best, the very best, that death could be? The whisper of my mother’s farewell was that happy thought. And the bright morning, and the relaxing time spent with my coffee and the paper, looking through the sliding glass door out to the sunlight shining. The sky was alive with her spirit.
When I finally returned to my apartment later in the day, my mother’s body gone, and the rush of people departed, the sky was more beautiful that I had ever seen it. It was the blaze of glory.
My mother’s firework show. The celebration of nature and spirit calling home another victor. The clouds were a pink and purple explosion of color against the deep blue of the twilight. And my mother was here and there and everywhere. She was the sky and the trees and the birds and the crisp air and the first star.
She was a part of the everything.
Grace Jasmine is a writer in a variety of different genres. With 47 nonfiction books in print she decided to return to her first love, writing for theatre. Jasmine has two original musicals premiering this summer at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, Sybil’s Closet and F**ked Up Fairy Tales. In addition to this, Jasmine finds time to write fiction, poetry, and essays. Jasmine is pursuing her MFA in Screenwriting and Playwriting at the University of California at Riverside, and is a native Californian living in Arizona. She is pleased to honor the memory of her mother with this essay.